Call it a comeback: Israel’s grand “return” to Africa
By Yotam Gidron
August 3, 2017
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In exchange for development support, Israel wants African votes at
international forums. This may prove trickier than it thinks.
Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu with West African heads of state at the
ECOWAS summit in June 2017. Credit: Israel Government Press Office.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu with West African heads of state at the
ECOWAS summit in June 2017. Credit: Israel Government Press Office.

This June, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke new ground
as he became the first non-African leader to speak at the Economic
Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit. During his speech in
Monrovia, he declared once again that “Israel is coming back to
Africa”.

This mantra is not just hot air. Israel is making considerable efforts
to strengthen its relations with the continent. A year ago, Netanyahu
became the first Israeli PM to visit Africa in decades as he travelled
to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Since 2016, at least nine
African heads of state have visited Israel.

[Netanyahu’s East Africa tour and Israel’s secret aid-for-asylum-seekers scheme]

Now, preparations are underway for the Africa-Israel Summit that will
take place in Togo this October. It is unclear how many African heads
of state will attend, but the organisers say they hope 25-30 will show
up.
Israel’s first “African adventure”

Netanyahu’s vow that Israel is “coming back” to Africa is a reference
to the thriving relations of the 1960s. In that period of African
independence, Israel established relationships with over 30 countries
and offered them technical assistance in fields from security and
military training to agriculture, urban planning, education and
health. Independent since 1948, Israel positioned itself as a model
for successful post-colonial modernisation and as a provider of the
solutions, skills and technologies that younger African nations
lacked.

Israel’s engagement was largely driven by the need to gain support at
the UN and curb Arab influence. For example, Israel made sure to
maintain strong ties with Kenya and Uganda, while providing
significant military support to Ethiopia and, more briefly, to
southern Sudanese rebels. By establishing a presence in countries in
the Horn and East Africa, it strategically surrounded its Arab
enemies.

But these close relations weren’t to last. Following the 1967 Six Day
War – in which Israel captured neighbouring territories, including
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula – relations began to slow down. In 1972, under
Arab pressure and fearing African disunity, African states began
severing ties with Israel.

By late-1973, Israel’s first “African adventure” – as it was described
by Israel’s Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Golda Meir – had
come to an end.
Development in return for UN votes

Netanyahu’s references to a bygone era of Israeli-African relations
may contain a hint of nostalgia. But there are also clear parallels
between then and now.

Like 50 years ago, Israel is positioning itself once again as the
provider of solutions to African problems. No Israeli-African press
conference is complete without several references to security,
technology and agriculture – all fields in which Israel can supposedly
assist the continent. Military technologies often attract much
attention in this context, being some of the most famous and sought
after “solutions” Israel advertises when it goes to Africa.

Similarly, the main objective of Israel’s return to Africa is – as it
was in the 1960s – diplomatic support in its disputes with its Arab
neighbours. Israel promises economic opportunities, technologies and
development. In return, it expects African leaders to support it at
international forums.

As Netanyahu explained in a meeting with Israel’s ambassadors to
African countries earlier this year: “The first interest is to
dramatically change the situation regarding African votes at the UN
and other international bodies from opposition to support.”

Netanyahu has also made this appeal directly to African leaders in
both Israel and Africa, including at the ECOWAS summit. “I ask for
your support in rejecting anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and
in bodies such as the General Assembly, UNESCO and the Human Rights
Council,” he said.
Small victories, greater expectations

Israel is seeking diplomatic support from African states as its old
allies, the US and Europe, are slowly becoming impatient with its
right-wing leadership and its manifested lack of interest in ending
the occupation of Palestine. In this context, the need for Israel to
improve its diplomatic relations with African countries has become
clear.

Last December, Senegal was one of the sponsors of a historic UN
Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West
Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem illegal. Angola, which was also a
non-permanent member of the Council at the time, voted in favour.

To Israel’s embarrassment, Senegal co-sponsored the resolution even
though President Macky Sall met Netanyahu only three months earlier in
New York. Netanyahu had proudly remarked that the two countries have
“great relations”.

Following the UN resolution, Israel cancelled its aid programmes in
the two African countries and recalled its ambassador to Senegal. Ties
with the latter were mended in June, however, when Sall and Netanyahu
met again on the side-lines of the ECOWAS summit.

It remains to be seen whether Senegal will now adopt a more pro-Israel
position, but Jerusalem undoubtedly expects it to do so. Along with
Senegal, which is still a non-permanent member of the Security
Council, Ethiopia now also has a seat in the chamber. Ethiopia is one
of Israel’s closest allies in Africa.

Israel has also faced diplomatic battles at other international
forums. Earlier this year, for example, UNESCO’s executive board put
forward a resolution criticising Israel’s actions in Jerusalem.
Although the resolution passed, Israel saw it as a victory that
several countries, including Togo, changed their positions to vote
against it.
The limits of African support

Israel’s re-engagement on the continent has yielded some successes,
but not everyone has succumbed to its charm offensive. Last year,
Nigeria’s President Buhari reportedly blocked Israel from
participating in the ECOWAS summit. When Netanyahu was invited to 2017
edition, the leaders of Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Morocco chose not to
attend. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI explicitly cancelled his
participation because of Israeli PM’s presence, but the others did not
give a reason.

Israel is also clearly focusing on East and West Africa in its
efforts. In southern Africa, where memories of apartheid and Israel’s
support for it are fresher, the country is still less welcome. The
same is true in North Africa. It was somewhat symbolic that
Netanyahu’s flight from Tel-Aviv to Monrovia in June took about 12
hours because several North African countries do not allow Israeli
planes to travel through their airspace.

Looking ahead, Israel may well present its “return” to Africa as a
grand success. However, it may find that even seemingly amenable
countries are more reluctant than it hopes. While African governments
may not explicitly dismiss Israel’s requests for diplomatic support,
they will have to balance these demands with local and regional
commitments to populations and states that are more critical of
Israel.

The support Israel gets from Africa may prove invaluable at points,
but it will take different forms in different countries and, in many
cases, is likely to remain ambivalent or unstable. It will also not be
able to substitute – at least in the foreseeable future – the massive
material and diplomatic backing Israel still gets from the US.

Whatever extra diplomatic support Israel manages to get from Africa,
however, the worse it is for Palestinians. Netanyahu’s speech at the
ECOWAS summit took place on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the
Six-Day War, and thus, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of
the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The more international support the
Israeli government finds, the less likely it is to bring this
occupation to an end.

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