Prospects for future relations between Israel and the countries of Africa constituted a palpable subtext of a lecture presented last Wednesday by Dr. Aryeh Oded, former Israeli ambassador to Kenya. In the discussion that followed the lecture, the importance of solving the Palestinian issue was alternately viewed by discussants as either pivotal or inconsequential to warming the tepid atmosphere between Israel and Africa.

Whether there should be any connection between Israeli-Palestinian relations and the future of African-Israeli ties is academic, according to Dr. Oded, whose talk, “Israel’s Return to Africa: Change and Continuity,” was presented at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when most African states broke diplomatic ties with Israel, the Palestinian issue has loomed in the background. It was introduced by the Arab states in an effort to politically isolate Israel and remains part of the realpolitik concerning not only Israel’s relations with Africa, but with Latin American, Asia and Europe as well.

Three stages

Dr. Oded’s career as an Africanist in Israel’s foreign service parallels many of the pivotal events that characterized the three periods of our relations with the countries of the sub-Saharan continent. The first of these was a period of close relations in the 1960s, the second comprised the break in relations that took place over a matter of months following the 1973 Arab-Israel war and the oil crisis, and a third period encompassed the gradual resumption of relations in the 1980s and ’90s. Subsequently, there have been periodic visits by Israeli and African officials to each other’s countries and limited trade and other exchanges, but nothing approaching what once existed.

Israel currently has resident ambassadors in about a quarter of the sub-Saharan states, while the number of Israeli development assistance experts has dropped precipitously from its former heights.

Moral commitment and mutual interests

When David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir decided to share the lessons of Israel’s  state-building experience with other post-colonial societies, the commitment was primarily a moral one, an expression of solidarity. While undertaking my graduate studies, and in the course of my work in Israel’s international cooperation program during the 1980s, one could still feel  a sense of common purpose between Israeli aid workers and their African colleagues – even after formal diplomatic ties were broken. Since then, in meetings with counterparts from these countries I have consistently detected that Israeli expertise and cooperation is still appreciated and longed for, if not among political cadres then among development and other professionals. Of course, politics continue to muddy the waters between us.

Israeli decision-makers who have taken a hardened stand on our ties with the emerging countries insist that relations between states are based on interests — not friendship or morality. As a result of their policy changes, Israel’s once distinguished and multifaceted development cooperation program coordinated by MASHAV, a division of the foreign ministry, has dwindled to a shrunken shadow of what it once was. At that time thousands of African educators, agricultural specialists, trade unionists, clinicians, teachers and youth workers were trained, in Israel or in their own countries, by Israeli colleagues from numerous institutes and centers throughout the country. Subjected to a heavy budget axe and a policy of indifference, this once highly successful foreign policy tool has been reduced to inefficacy.

Why care?

Why is a rapprochement with Africa of interest? Even if we discount the fact that a significant part of our citizenry has its origins in the countries of North Africa, Ethiopia and adjacent areas, the reasons for improving ties are myriad. Geographically, the US, Europe, China and India could fit into the massive continent – with room left over. More than a billion people live on the lands of Africa, which are endowed with abundant minerals, biodiversity and other natural resources – a circumstance that has spurred China and Russia  to accelerate their ties and expand their influence with African states. Also, economists cite the potential implications for international commerce deriving from a fledging middle-class in many of African states. Further, increasing democratization has stabilized some of the continent’s societies, though destabilizing radical movements remain a threat. These challenges would no doubt be lessened by a reduction of poverty, and other development efforts facilitated by foreign assistance, including that which Israel might well increase.

Israel and many of the African states became independent during the same post-World War II period. The desire to foster a new international order, based on freedom from domination, in which their peoples might develop was part and parcel of the early Israel-Africa romance. While that age is gone, and after three decades of checkered relations, Israel’s most abundant resource – knowledge – can still be offered in return for a fuller set of ties.

Greater receptivity

But achieving full rapprochement and building long-term relations requires increased receptivity on the part of African leaders as well as greater independence from the dictates of Arab regimes who sought to impose their anti-Israel politics on African governments. For our part, it was apparent to many of those in attendance at the Truman Institute seminar that until we free ourselves from the burdens of the unresolved imbroglio with the Palestinians and remove it as an excuse for states to keep us at arms’ length, there is little prospect for more intimate relations between Israel and  Africa.

Improving relations with Africa is not, of course, the only reason we should endeavor to come to terms with the Palestinians. Our foreign relations everywhere, and the wholesomeness of our own society, depend on it.

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Dr. Yosef Gotlieb, a geographer, has written widely on environmental, regional and international issues. He is the author, most recently, of Rise, A Novel of Contemporary Israel. His blog, Issues of the Day, appears at www.ysgotlieb.net.

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