Back to Africa to counter Iran but what about the Persian Gulf?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is also Israel’s Foreign Minister. Wearing two hats is not an exception and has become the rule in the Cabinet. Ben Gurion was also Defence Minister. The decision is not just functional and practical but is also cost effective.

The practical and functional side comes when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister (the same person) wish to achieve the same goals (two birds with one stone). One “bird” is tackling Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah and the other “bird” is gaining recognition of Israel as the Jewish national homeland.

So this week Netanyahu travelled to western Africa and became the first non-African leader to address 15 African nations at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) conference.

Africa is also of personal significance for Netanyahu, his brother having commanded the freeing of hostages from a hijacked Air France aircraft on 4 July 1976 in Entebbe Uganda, and having been killed in the operation.

In doing so the visit marks a new watershed in Israel’s relations with Africa and with Islam and Muslims in Africa. A brief note on why this is a watershed is spelt out by history.

From 1948 to 1967 Israel had good relations with post-colonial African states providing assistance including agriculture, education, military and construction. After the 1967 war many African states broke off diplomatic relations with Africa.

During the 1980’s after the peace treaty with Egypt and the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel made strong headway in re-establishing ties. For example last year Guinea, a Muslim-majority country that was the first African nation to sever ties with Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War re-established diplomatic ties.

Every bit helps! Even though African states are small and poor, such diplomatic ties chip away at the BDS movement and at the Middle East Islamic bloc in the United Nations. In this bloc Shia (Iran led) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia led) bury their differences to initiate debates, motions and votes against Israel.

Closing the gap with Africa and isolating Iran is a slow process. This week’s visit was not Netanyahu’s first. Last year he visited the continent as the first sitting Israeli prime minister in 29 year to do so visiting Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda and meeting the presidents of Somalia and Kenya. This was of particular significance as those two countries severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016.

Looking closely at these visits and the policy shows that the objectives of Israel’s focus towards Africa are no different from the foreign policy objectives towards all states. The top of the list is recognition of Israel as an independent sovereign state by all others with its identity being the homeland of the Jewish nation.

Implementing this includes improving the outcomes for the Jewish state in U.N. votes, expanding economic cooperation, curbing Iranian influence in Africa, establishing diplomatic relations with Muslim-African states and isolating Israel’s enemies such as Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah.

No doubt that this is back to the future for 2017 looks like 1961 where Netanyahu at the ECOWAS conference offered Israel collaboration with African states in agriculture, desertification, trade, education, health, homeland security, cyber and communications, energy, culture and science, and the military, including terrorism.

As with most diplomatic appearances of this kind, it is informing the world of an ongoing process and testing the water for adverse reactions. Israel for some years has become closer to Ghana, Mali and Niger. Also for example Avigdor Liberman (the previous Foreign Minister) was known to have spent many long hours on the phone sometimes through the night persuading African states to vote for Israel, or at least not vote against Israel, in the UN. A prudent move considering that African countries are 54 of the 193 member states of the UN.

The importance of the ECOWAS address by Netanyahu cannot be understated. Listing the audience clearly shows states with an Islamic majority: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. For some terrorism also features prominently as do religious strife for example in Nigeria.

However not all went according to plan. The one country in Africa which has the closet historical ties to Judaism in contemporary times was not happy; and because of Netanyahu’s presence, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI cancelled plans to attend the ECOWAS conference.

Africa is Africa but is North Africa really Africa? No doubt winning the hearts and minds of Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya and turning them against Iran will show that ECOWAS-easy.

To counter Iranian influence Netanyahu must turn towards establishing diplomatic ties where it will hurt Iran most, and this is Persian Gulf states including Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic ties with these will also prove once and for all Israel is the Jewish national homeland.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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