/ 15 August 2016

​Israel is making inroads into Africa and no one seems to mind its checkered methods

Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu backtracks on his "Two-state" solution comments
Netanyahu: "Thank you, President Trump, for this historic move. The sanctions are indeed coming". (Reuters)

At the end of July, Israel and the Republic of Guinea quietly announced they would be mending diplomatic relations after 49 years. Between the endless terror attacks and the histrionics of the Democratic and Republican conventions, the story received little play. But make no mistake; it brings Israel full circle on its Africa policy.

Guinea-Conakry was the first African nation to sever its ties with Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973 other African countries followed suit. In fact, only three sub-Saharan countries (Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho) maintained ties after 1973.

Today, Israel has relations with 40 African countries, but have only 11 embassies on the continent. Guinea is also a Muslim-majority country in West Africa, and the development – after 49 long years – signals the end of the North African-Arab influence over sub-Saharan Africa.

While the rekindling of relations is said to be unrelated to PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to East Africa (where he met seven heads of state), no one would claim the move is not inexorably part of Israel’s recent charm offensive on the continent.

“The number of African nations that have yet to renew ties with Israel is becoming smaller and smaller, and we dearly hope that soon there will be none,” Dori Gold, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said.

And he is right. In 2016 alone, Israel has hosted the presidents of Kenya, Ghana and Liberia. On July 14, Gold met with Chad’s President Idriss Déby in the city of Fada, and it would seem that the first step towards reviving relations between Chad and Israel has been taken.

The meetings with Chad and Guinea also follow news that Netanyahu met recently with the Hassan Shekh Mohamud, the president of Somalia. Somalia has never recognized Israel, which makes the prospect of such a meeting even more remarkable.

The last five years have been momentous for the continent. The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the parlous condition of Egypt under General Adbel Fatteh-el Sisi have gifted African leaders, from Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a new flexibility, and muscle. 

It has also given Israel a free hand to reassert itself, a project it first embarked on when it reached out to Ghana soon after its independence in 1957. Israel’s decision to engage post-colonial Africa was done with political purpose. It tried to frame itself as a friend of the new, independent third-world.

Golda Meir, Israeli foreign minister (1956-1966) and prime minister (1969-1974) visited the continent five times and was open about Israel’s need for UN votes. But she was also adamant that “it was far from being the most important motive”.

Ehud Avriel, Israel’s first ambassador to Ghana and an architect of his country’s Africa policy, said at the time: “We must break out of the encirclement by a hostile Arab World and build bridges to the emerging nations on the black continent.” The Yom Kippur war in 1973 changed their access to the continent, even if many African countries continued to talk to Israel through informal channels.

Israel is left with few friends in Western Europe, and despite its unrelenting support from the US and the cosying up to India, it knows it needs new friends. More than anything else, Israel needs friends in Africa to vote in its favour at the UN, for it is fast running out of options when it comes to maintaining the status quo.

Tripoli had been able to limit Africa’s relations with Israel, but those days are long gone. Today, al-Shabaab on the east coast and Boko Haram on the west present Israeli and African leaders from Nigeria to Kenya many excuses to engage.

Many African leaders are readily subscribing to the “war on terror” narrative like never before. The ‘fear’ suits their anti-democratic inclinations. Today, far from the anti-imperial fervour of Gaddafi’s leadership, American troops are conducting some of the biggest military exercises and building partnerships across the continent.

In what was seemingly inconceivable just a few years ago, African leaders are now more willing to talk about granting Israel an observer seat at the AU. South Africa has vehemently opposed this move and is unlikely to change its views, but given the opportunism elsewhere on the continent, others might.

Speaking about the issue, the Ethiopian PM recently said Israel was “working hard in Africa” and that there was “no reason to deny [it]”.

It is no secret that African countries are looking to take advantage of the technologies proffered by so-called Israeli ingenuity, when it comes to water, agriculture, security, health care and innovation. 

In November 2014, Israeli’s aid agency Mashav said it would help nations in need, even those who do not have relations with Israel. It is not difficult to understand Guinea’s about-turn given Israel’s assistance in tackling Ebola in 2014.

In 2015, South African intelligence documents leaked to Al Jazeera described Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman’s 2009 trip to Africa as an “exercise in cynicism”. The “spy cables” said Israel was paving the way for arms deals and exploiting the continent’s resources “under a philanthropic guise”. 

But, leaving aside the scepticism over Israel’s possible inclination to exploit the African continent, the biggest issue is the deliberate disregard for Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian resources. 

Independent experts have dubbed Israel’s success in water sustainability for instance, as a “constructed fantasy” due to their unequivocal theft of Palestinian resources. Israel thrives in the same way South Africa thrived during apartheid: as systemic exploiters of resources and scant regard for the development or the rights of those in the Bantustans/occupied West Bank.

The expansion of the settlements means that Israel is encroaching further on Palestinian land. There is also the little issue of 1.5 million people in Gaza who continue to suffocate inside an open prison. While Israel proudly exports medicinal technology, Gazans continue to face water, food and medicinal shortages.

African countries are also seemingly prepared to ignore the systematic racism endured by African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel. In 2015, Rwanda was actually prepared to take in African asylum seekers expelled from Israel in exchange for grants or contracts.

It is ludicrous to expect African leaders to stand up for Palestinians, when few Africans are known to stand up for the rights of other Africans. In South Sudan for instance, where a war between two male egos is playing out to devastating consequences, the UN found recently that Israeli arms were playing a definitive role in the conflict. In fact, Israeli arms sales to the African continent doubled between 2012-2013, and reached upwards of $318 million in 2014.

Israel might make good business sense for African leaders. But as a settler-racist state, much like apartheid, it’s no good for the people.

Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and the co-founder of The Daily Vox