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Will Israel’s African odyssey pay off?




It suggests that Israel’s efforts to strengthen ties with Africa have some way to go, in spite of three visits to the continent in 18 months by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016-2017.

Relations are burgeoning with East African states, but are in more difficult territory with continental powerhouses in the West and South. This is according to Israel’s ties with Africa: focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, a new report produced by the South African Institute of International Affairs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 1 800 Israeli development experts were deployed across Africa to help newly-independent states. African students flocked to Israeli universities, and more than 30 sub-Saharan states housed an Israeli Embassy.

After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, these ties lay in tatters. Africa turned towards the Arab/Islamic worlds. Africa fell off Israel’s diplomatic map, as it focused on friendlier regimes in North America and Europe.

But today, Israel is trying to make African friends in diplomatic forums. When Netanyahu met regional leaders in Liberia in 2017, he remarked, “The purpose of this trip is to dissolve this majority, this giant bloc of African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel at the United Nations and international bodies.”

Israel has stepped up its engagement with African states on the United Nations Security Council – currently Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia. Israel is also seeking observer status at the African Union, which it lost when the continental body metamorphosed from the Organisation of African Unity in 2002.

The results are not immediately apparent. Only one African country, Togo, opposed the December 2017 UN General Assembly vote against the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and just eight African states abstained (Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda).

Israel’s sea lanes to Africa and Asia depend on stability in the Horn of Africa, so it has boosted security co-operation (especially to combat Islamic terrorism), arms sales, and intelligence ties with Kenya and Ethiopia. It also seeks to counter the influence of its arch enemy, Iran, in Africa.

Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said last year, “[W]e will do everything at our disposal to make [the] Israel-Africa relationship… mature and grow, and Ethiopia will take leadership in this regard.”

Israel has increased co-operation with Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram, although ties with Abuja are generally warmer under Christian presidents than Muslim ones. (Nigeria reportedly sends the second most Christian pilgrims, after the US, to Israel annually).

There are, of course, also commercial opportunities. In spite of the two-way trade between Israel and African countries being relatively negligible (Israel imports more from Hungary than the entire African continent), Israeli products and services are a natural fit for Africa’s needs.

In an interview with the SA Jewish Report, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, said, “Israel offers partnerships in areas in which Israel has a comparative advantage, such as high-tech agriculture, [combating] desertification, water management, education, entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups, and [renewable] energy.” He remarked that Israel sought to promote win-win growth through trade, value-addition, investment, technology, and tourism.

South of the Limpopo, Israel has battled to make headway. On the recent heightened tensions between South Africa and Israel, Keinan said, “Israel has very good relations with four out of five Brics members [the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] This is due to the ability to separate political issues [like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] from other aspects of the relationships, such as the promotion of human capacity building, institutional training, and economic development. Israel continues to see growth in trade and job creation with the Brics countries, and strives to do the same with South Africa.”

The diplomatic dancefloor is crowded, as many world powers jostle for the attention of Africa. Israel shows what a sliver of a country, fresh from the tragedy of the Shoah and centuries of colonial rule, has been able to accomplish in just seven short decades. While it is ambitious, its means to help Africa are limited. It suffered a blow when the mooted Africa-Israel Summit in Togo in October 2017 was postponed indefinitely. However, to seize these opportunities, African states have to articulate more clearly what they seek from Israel.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He co-authored “Israel’s ties with Africa: focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa” with Carmel Rawhani and Larry Benjamin.

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