Israel’s unsavory African partners: Are they worth cultivating?

First of all, the news from Uganda is good. A public meeting of an Israeli leader with a Sudanese counterpart is a significantly positive step. It carries symbolic value for many if not most Israelis who know “Khartoum” less as the Sudanese capital than for the “three no’s” of the Arab conference there in 1967: “no peace, no recognition, no negotiation” with Israel. Negotiation, at least, has been openly achieved, and this reversal — if it pans out, as domestic and Arab opposition has already kicked in — is what matters, with due respect to prospective overflight rights from Israel to South America which are being touted as a benefit. Still, the Israeli public’s incuriosity about African affairs and our media’s propensity to overuse the term “historic” have meant too facile an acceptance of our Prime Minister’s election-season spin.

“Public” is the keyword here, as covert accommodation with various Arab and African states predated Netanyahu (since it lost the black, Christian south to an Israeli-supported rebellion, Sudan has been more Arab/Moslem than African).  Sudan looked the other way when Ethiopian Jews passed through its territory on the way to Israel. But it also provided passage for Iranian arms en route to Gaza, drawing Israeli long-range strikes. So the attitude toward Israel has always been transactional — a by-product of the Sudanese regime’s momentary priorities. Right now, after throwing off the terrible, decades-old dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, his successors believe that Israel can issue them a visa to Washington and a clean bill of health to present there for removal of sanctions. This ulterior motive was confirmed with astonishing candor by both the Sudanese and Israeli sides this week. But it was nothing new. I remember, for example, the Nigerian foreign minister declaring the same when he came here to reestablish relations in 1992, while his country was descending into brutal military rule that drew US sanctions.

The Trump administration is not as finicky as its predecessors where strongmen are concerned, but Congress may be less compliant. Netanyahu’s interlocutor, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, replaced the initial head of Sudan’s Temporary Military Council one day after it took power last April, precisely because al-Burhan was considered less responsible than other generals for the al-Bashir regime’s genocidal campaign in Darfur province. But after a visit with Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, in June 2019 al-Burhan’s government conducted a bloody crackdown against the same protesters that had brought down al-Bashir. Dozens of murders and other horrors were attributed to the same Janjaweed militias that had perpetrated the Darfur atrocities. This recent record might hamper the most domestically advantageous anticipated payback for Netanyahu: repatriating the thousands of Sudanese asylum-seekers or plain illegal migrants whom potential Likud voters in southern Tel Aviv want out. Those of the Sudanese who really fled the massacres in Darfur will hardly be eager to comply. But this will play out only after our election.

Now like al-Sisi, al-Burhan may claim that he is combating the threat of a takeover by Islamist militants, and he may well have some receipts to prove it — though the protesters who were decimated in Khartoum included genuinely democratic groups too. Africa, and particularly the sub-Saharan Sahel belt across the continent, is a major battleground against Islamist terrorism, which rarely makes headlines elsewhere except in such extreme cases as Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls. Israel has both a direct security interest and a principled common cause with those African governments that resist this evil. Israeli military assistance, which was always central to our African relationships, is thus again at a premium – as it was during Israel’s “honeymoon” with the newly independent African colonies in the early 1960s.

Then it was the Cold War that reinforced justification for training and arming the forces of such pro-western despots as  Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now again the Democratic Republic of Congo). Idi Amin, the predecessor of Netanyahu’s Ugandan host this week Yoweri Museveni, was likewise Israel’s darling at the start. Bibi’s brother (and my buddy in the paratroops) Yoni Netanyahu, fell in the airborne Entebbe rescue of 1976, after Amin turned both monstrous and anti-Israeli. So Bibi is undoubtedly and rightly aware that military support can pay off in a crunch: the indispensable refueling stop at Nairobi was ensured by continuing security cooperation with Kenya after it severed formal relations under Arab pressure in 1973.

But such partnerships have their risks, too – besides moral objections. Heavy-handed suppression of any dissent may keep a ruler in power for decades. But when pent-up opposition finally explodes and brings him down, his allies will also be remembered and targeted – especially if they abetted a domestic reign of terror in addition to legitimate defense. The clearest example is Iran, whose influence in Africa (not to mention closer arenas to Israel) we now has to counter. I have little doubt that besides Shia theology, Israel’s collaboration with the Shah’s dreaded SAVAK security police was a major cause for turning us into the Ayatollahs’ “little Satan.”

Back in 2008, I chided then-President Shimon Peres for bestowing the distinction of a Knesset speech on the then-boss of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, as part of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Few Israelis knew or cared what or where that country is. Apparently that’s still the case, as a Jerusalem street still bears its obsolete name Upper Volta. But as former foreign minister and timeless global diplomat, Peres should have known that Compaore was not only one of Africa’s most murderous strongmen, but also a loyal ally of then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in fomenting a string of lethal civil wars in West Africa. So, I theorized, perhaps Compaore was bearing a conciliatory message from Gaddafi, which might justify letting him in — but at the tradesmen’s entrance, not as an honored guest. Well, Gaddafi is, famously, gone and Compaore — less famously — has been overthrown. Diplomatic relations were (re)established ten years before he was feted here, and continued after his downfall at the same quite satisfactory level (the Burkinabe non-resident Ambassador was and still is based in Cairo). I recall no Burkinabe votes for Israel at the UN, before or after. So what was gained by soiling Israel’s reputation with Compaore’s bloodstained hands?

A new case in point may be unfolding as I write. A year ago, Israeli media happily adopted the official line in trumpeting another such visit as “historic.” This time it was the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, a longtime player in that desperately poor country’s unending civil wars and a sometime Gaddafi protégé at various turns of his mercurial alliances. Déby, president since 1990, rivals Museveni (1988) for longevity in power and unscrupulousness in preserving it. Netanyahu even made a reciprocal visit to Chad, hailed in our media as another sign of “Israel’s return to Africa.” The agreement he signed promised that ambassadors would be exchanged “as soon as possible.” Trying to check whether that had materialized, I was informed by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson that Israel’s envoy in distant Ethiopia was appointed as non-resident ambassador to Chad but no credentials have been presented on either side. So what has gone wrong?

Unlike the Israeli scene, there has been much interest in the Chadian media – such as has survived Déby’s censorship or fled abroad. An expatriate website published evidence that Israeli arms sales go back at least to 2008, (e.g., 2000 Galil rifles, which turned up with a pro-Déby militia). So the additional shopping list which he reportedly submitted here last year as a quid for the diplomatic quo must have been really something.

What could Israel have expected as a worthwhile return? In a remarkable public debate in Chad’s capital, it was hinted that this had to do with Israel’s nuclear project. There are reputed uranium deposits in the Aouzou Strip along the Chad-Libya border, the hotbed of wars between them in which Déby alternated between the sides. Other reports referred more generally to untapped mineral wealth — another perennial target of Israeli business involvement all over Africa, often positioning Israelis as powers behind a throne.

But those tempting resources pit Israel against intensifying and competing efforts by Russia (with mercenaries and arms) and China (with money and technical manpower), not to mention Arab petrodollars and the former Western colonial powers. Can we be outbid? It happened once before, after Israel seemed to have gained genuine popularity throughout the continent in the early 1960s. Israel’s aforementioned military and business presence was balanced by a massive training program for thousands of newly independent Africans here and more in their own countries, as well as agricultural, medical and technical assistance (full disclosure: my father, Aharon Remez, founded and directed, 1960-1965, the Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation Department that oversaw the program). But it came to naught when, under Arab oil pressure, nearly all African nations broke with Israel after the Yom Kippur War. Our estrangement from the continent increased when Israel’s isolation drove it into military and political alliance with Apartheid South Africa. Israel’s “return to Africa” has not been bolstered by large-scale resumption of that human connection, so it remains entirely transactional and therefore reversible. There’s no reason to avoid making African hay while the sun shines, but getting too contaminated by involvement in domestic repression or civil conflict may ultimately leave us with an indelible stain and little to show for it.

About the Author
Gideon Remez, formerly head of foreign news at Voice of Israel Radio, is an associate fellow of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University. The views expressed here are his own and not the Institute's.
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