Sixty years have passed since Israel established diplomatic ties with Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence from colonial rule. Since then Israel’s relations with the continent have known more ups and downs than with any other part of the world. Now Benjamin Netanyahu is embarking on a whirlwind visit to four African states in an attempt to launch a new phase in a connection which, despite the stability of its underlying interests, has been unusually bumpy and erratic over the years.
Is Israel, in the Prime Minister’s words, truly “…coming back to Africa”? And is “Africa returning to Israel?” The answer to these questions depends greatly on Israel’s willingness to go beyond ephemeral tailor-made ceremonies that have little to do with Africa and its concerns and immerse itself in the contemporary issues of the diverse states and peoples of the continent of the 21st century.
When Golda Meir launched Israel’s Africa’s venture in the late 1950s, she had three main interests in mind: the political need to nurture relations with dozens of new states that would dominate international forums in the postcolonial world; geo-strategic considerations — particularly in the Horn of Africa and along its eastern coast; and economic opportunities emanating from that geographic proximity which makes the continent an attractive source of raw materials and a potential market for Israeli goods. She wrapped these guiding motives with a messianic zeal that highlighted a common history of repression and discrimination and a shared quest for full independence — economic as well as political. These long-term interests have not changed substantially in the intervening years.
What has changed is the nature of the relationship. At that time, the African connection was the centerpiece of Israel’s policy; in recent decades, it has largely been belittled and ignored, shifting to its farthest margins. The 49 states of sub-Saharan Africa have in the interim undergone tremendous transformation: after years of authoritarian turmoil, several key countries have made successful democratic and economic revolutions. Some are still struggling with chronic civil strife and widespread impoverishment, while others are evincing significant signs of economic revival and political reform. Israel’s links with African states today must take into account these new realities — going beyond a nostalgic and myopic vision of the past to build a solid foundation based on reciprocity and mutual benefit.
The history of Israel’s links with African states is one of substantial fluctuation. The initial honeymoon period of intense and productive exchange (1956-1973) witnessed the established of 32 Israeli missions in Africa and the creation of a broad network of technical assistance in such diverse fields as agriculture, medicine, education and regional development. Israel did receive a diplomatic cushion from African states in the United Nations and Israeli academic interest in the continent flourished. Interactions were close, vibrant and even passionate.
By the late 1960s, however, African disillusionment with the relationship became increasingly apparent. The first decade of independence was accompanied neither by political stability nor by economic betterment. While Israel became more closely associated with the West, African dissatisfaction with their ongoing economic dependence on precisely these interests grew. The 1967 war, the Israeli occupation of territories of Egypt (a founding member of the Organization of African Unity) and increased pressure from Arab states culminated before and during the Yom Kippur War in a massive rupture of diplomatic relations with Israel — to this day Israel’s greatest diplomatic debacle.
The second period (1973-1982), one akin to an emotional formal divorce, came together with the burgeoning of informal ties. While official Israel licked its wounds and in emotion-ridden pushback intensified its relationship with apartheid South Africa, pragmatic interests took over elsewhere. The defense establishment upgraded its presence on the continent and Israeli companies established footholds in many parts of West Africa (notably Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast), Central Africa (most controversially in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire) and in portions of East Africa and the Horn (Kenya stands out in this regard). By the late 1970s, it became apparent that disillusion with Arab states did not fall far behind discontent with the West. The signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978 and the final withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai in 1982 seemed to prepare the groundwork for a diplomatic revival.
During the third phase of Israeli-African ties (1982-1993), relations were renewed with only a handful of Africa states (Zaire, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia). Despite multiple overtures, Israel’s close association with some of Africa’s most brutal tyrants and its South African connection did little to increase its appeal on the continent. Economic interests and security firms proliferated and much of the Israeli presence on the continent was privatized.
The end of the Cold War, the fall of white rule in South Africa and the launching of the Oslo process paved the way for a broader reconnection between Israel and Africa. This fourth stage (1993-2013) came together with the renewal or establishment of diplomatic relations with more than 40 African states and with the return of diplomats and technical experts. But Israeli interest in the continent had waned, replaced by expanding ties with Asian countries (especially India and China) and the new republics of the former Soviet Union. Israeli engagement with the continent and its needs was sporadic at best. To this very day, there are only 10 Israeli “satellite” embassies on the continent, charged with covering the entire sub-Sahara. While official neglect continued apace, individual interests flourished, with security firms receiving over 400,000 licenses to operate in over 30 countries and businesspeople staking out concessions in mineral-rich states beyond the purview of severely-weakened Foreign Ministry emissaries. The African relationship was effectively personalized: while African leaders courted Israel, in a marked reversal, their Israeli counterparts evinced disinterest.
The mental isolation of Israelis from Africa in recent years has been seriously affected by changes within the country. The arrival of Ethiopian Jews raised the specter of racism, which has been compounded by the influx of African refugees. Domestically-driven priorities further dulled interactions with Africa, while ignorance of developments on the continent became widespread with the collapse of African studies in major universities (partially revived through the inter-university program established several years ago). Few Israelis know much about democratization on the continent, Africa’s economic growth surge, the expanding connections with BRICS countries (especially China and Brazil) or the situation in specific African countries.
What has sustained the relationship is the emergence of a series of NGOs involved in Africa and the persistence of a handful of dedicated Africanists in government, the private sector and civil society. For far too long, many African leaders have been left with the sense that Israel is only tangentially responsive to key items on their agenda. Simultaneously, Israeli policy-makers have all too frequently sacrificed long-term interests to short-term security concerns.
Since 2013 a turnabout may be in the making: Israel’s rising international isolation, coupled with a newfound African economic and political openness, augurs well for a closer relationship. Rwanda and Nigeria abstained in key Security Council votes; memoranda of understanding have been signed with several countries. The political importance of Africa to Israel has been enhanced, as has Israeli security backing to select African states. But many issues still remain unresolved: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an ongoing source of contention; its human rights record is viewed as problematic; its attraction as the land of the Bible is counterbalanced by concern over access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims, and Israel’s motives for the renewed interest in the continent are constantly being put under a magnifying glass in the local media.
Israel has yet to assuage these concerns (repatriation of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to African states in return for increased aid does little to mollify local liberals, nor does its continuous military support for some of Africa’s least democratic and longest- serving leaders). The brief visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu is meaningful only if as much attention is paid to the summit to be held with six key African leaders in Kampala (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania) as to the marking of forty years to the raid on Entebbe.
The new realpolitik governing Israeli-African relations may reinforce the dualistic pattern of recent years and entrench its opportunistic, security-based, bent. It might also pave the way for the construction of a more durable relationship based on an informed and consistent policy that takes into account the growing diversity of African states (Nigeria is vastly different than Ghana, just as Germany diverges greatly from Sweden).
This is the challenge facing Mr. Netanyahu. Israel is not going back to Africa: it never left. But if it wants a lasting connection, it must move towards Africa by formulating a varied, nuanced and much more embracing strategy for the future resting on broad civilian commonalities which lead to greater reciprocity in a variety of fields.