As a proud Israeli who loves speaking of and for my country, it’s utterly refreshing to arrive in a place where, at the mention of my nationality, I am met with smiles, and welcomed warmly. This is no dream — it’s my experience in Africa.
Over the past two and a half years, I have been engaging in business development as the chief of staff of a private holdings and investment group currently in its fourth decade of operations there (and whose managing partner also serves as Rwanda’s honorary consul in Israel). In over 30 months, I have travelled around the continent more times than I can recall, having visited about a dozen countries and having met with public officials and business leaders from about a dozen more. This is the reality I am met with, each and every single time. Indeed it is a stark contrast from my preceding eight-year military service, most of which I served as a spokesman (including that of IDF operations in the West Bank, no less), constantly facing criticism and derision.
Africa. A continent that is second only to Asia in geographic size and population. A continent that is diverse, comprised of fifty-four independent, sovereign nations, each with its own history, culture, government, strategy, policy, opportunities and aspirations, challenges and threats. A continent that is hailed as being the most relevant place for business and investment today (with returns hovering around 20%), while also becoming a main battleground in the global war on Islamic terror (the rise of Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and the like). Africa has long been on the map for most of the countries of the world, and yet for Israel, despite the warm receptions, friendly attitude, and endless possibilities, it has, for decades, been all but completely forgotten in terms of strategic policy, whether diplomacy, security, foreign relations, trade, or investment.
Israel’s neglect of Africa for so many decades boggles the mind. As a still-relatively-young state born in the same period as many of its African counterparts, Israel shares a great deal with many of them. “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves.” These words were written by Golda Meir in her book My Life in 1975. A long time has passed since then and fortunately it appears that the Israeli government finally got Golda’s message.
I am currently taking part in the business delegation accompanying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa, where we are met with the warmest of welcomes at each of our destinations: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. It is worth noting that this tour comes after two similar, important tours led by then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, the recent of which I also participated in, and then, too, we were met with the same welcome.
Indeed we are witnessing a rebirth of Israel’s fundamental understanding that there is much basis for bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships with many of the nations in Africa. Israel is a country that is surrounded by enemies seeking its destruction since birth, so it is no wonder that in its early years, Israel had a clear and resolute policy of surrounding these enemies with friends, forging relationships with fellow young countries, many in the sub-Saharan part of the continent. As Netanyahu proclaimed in Entebbe: “Israel is returning to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel!” Indeed an uplifting proclamation, that is highlighting an important renewed direction for Israel. But let’s not start patting ourselves on the backs, just yet.
David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and many of Israel’s founders all recognized the genuine value and importance of fostering strong and meaningful relationships with the countries of Africa (including Israel’s visionary, Theodor Herzl, who wrote in Altneuland, “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans”). Since then, however, there has been a glaring neglect of this vision, and this many decades of neglect comes at a price. Sometimes it’s simply embarrassing. During Liberman’s five-country tour in 2014, a senior government member of one country showed a picture of Golda Meir during her visit there, reminding the group of the last time an Israeli Foreign Minister visited the country. Just the other day, during President Museveni’s speech at the memorial ceremony for Operation Yonatan in Entebbe, Uganda, the Israelis in the audience were reminded of this neglect, as the President kept referring to Israel as Palestine. On a personal note, in my many one-on-one conversations with senior-most officials from various countries, I constantly hear that the ‘overwhelming feeling among African states is that Israel doesn’t care [about its relations with Africa].’
To be sure, the deterioration of its relations with African states is not all Israel’s doing. Key events during the Cold War (especially the Yom Kippur War) — the alignment of Israel with the United States and the west and the alignment of much of Africa with the Arabs and the Soviet Union — greatly contributed to the cooling of earlier ties. On the other hand, mistakes by Israel also contributed to the process, such as its then-support for the South African Apartheid government. These events and others all together continue to leave their mark long after the events themselves have shifted to the world’s rear-view mirror. For example, while the Palestinian Authority enjoys observer status in the African Union, Israel is completely absent.
Israel shouldn’t fool itself; this “return to Africa” will not be easy, but it is possible. Success requires a highly dedicated and proactive approach, and not in the form of an aid package that is only double the size of the reported cost of the tour (to concede, security and logistics for such a tour do come at a hefty cost). In any case, financial foreign aid, which has never been Israel’s forte, can have detrimental effects as it often serves to perpetuate an existing situation. There are more productive and effective methods to achieve even greater developmental goals than cutting a check.
Israel must find other ways to share its resources in the form of knowledge transfer, capacity building, trade, and direct investment. This is especially the case today, when African states are experiencing trends for which Israel has much to offer: increased need for infrastructure development resulting from a rapidly growing population alongside detrimental processes like desertification; an emerging middle class creating exponential economic growth and a very welcome setting for direct foreign investment; and the rapid spread of international Islamic terrorism bringing an immediate need for counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation. Telecommunications, agriculture, infrastructure, water, homeland security, energy, defense — the opportunities for Israel to cooperate with the countries of Africa are endless.
Of course this relationship is not a one-way street. For Israel, which is facing increased international pressures and isolation alongside the weakening of traditional relationships, the need for new directions and friendships is becoming very necessary. Furthermore, two of Israel’s greatest threats are spreading in the continent: Islamic terrorism and Iranian influence. In this respect, specifically, Israel not only has much knowledge to share, but also much knowledge to gain.
All of this vast cooperation can be delivered quite simply under the umbrella of more frequent visits by the many Israeli ministers, all of whom would certainly be welcomed warmly. There are currently 20 ministers in Israel (not including the Prime Minister), which means that there is the potential to have far more visits to strengthen the ties across a variety of fields. If each minister was mandated to include Africa in his/her overseas travels even just once a year, cooperation would skyrocket and it would be felt almost instantaneously.
As stated earlier, there are fifty-four independent, sovereign countries in Africa, which also means that there are fifty-four different foreign policies Israel needs to consider. It is safe to say that two-thirds, if not three-quarters, of the countries are worth exploring with regard to establishing stronger, closer ties. Prime Minister Netanyahu and then-Foreign Minister Liberman were correct in recognizing the potential in East Africa, where there is a strong multi-national coalition — the East African Community. If Israel were to even focus solely on East Africa, the outcome would certainly be mutually beneficial for all players. Personally, I would urge the government to go yet another step further and utilize the full strength and capabilities of the entirety of the Israeli government and reach out even farther into the continent so that “Israel’s return to Africa” will be meaningful and impactful for all involved.