Israel and Africa are neighbours and our relations go back to the biblical time of Genesis. The very beginnings of Jewish peoplehood began when Jacob and his sons wandered to Egypt — to Africa — and the story of our exodus has been a source of human inspiration and freedom for thousands of years.
In modern times, the vision for a Jewish state was connected from the start to Africa. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who posited the idea that Jews, too, should have our own homeland, also wrote in 1902 about African liberation: “There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. … I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
And it seemed natural, in the shadow of the Holocaust, a newly founded, tiny state of Israel joined together with many independent African states, and led by then foreign minister Golda Meir to carry out Herzl’s dream, offered partnership in our shared post-colonial experiences. Israeli experts in fields such as agriculture, education, homeland security, policing and community work were dispatched, working in dozens of countries across Africa. Leaders, officials and students visited Israel to see for themselves the success of these policies as carried out in Israel.
Geopolitics is a complicated thing and countries often get swept up beyond their individual interests. So it was when, in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, nearly every country in Africa broke off relations with Israel, under intense pressure from Arab states.
In recent years, Israel and nearly all African states have found our friendship renewed by a more measured analysis of interests and opportunities in a modern world. Ghana partners with Israel on early childhood education. Ethiopia has used Israeli techniques to develop its horticulture industry and capacity to export flowers to Europe. Israel played a disproportionate role in Sierra Leone and Liberia in responding to the Ebola challenge and a unique Israeli innovation has helped reduce the risk of HIV infection for tens of thousands of young African men. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria see that Israeli responses to radical Islamic terror have application to save lives in Africa. Rwanda sees Israel as a model of how a small country rebuilds after great tragedy.
This meeting of shared interests of peoples, not merely leaders, is exactly the crux of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to four countries in eastern Africa in July, the proposal of the president of Togo to organise an Israel-Africa security and development summit in Lomé next year and a special event planned next month on the sideline of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to highlight Israel’s deepening relationship in innovation with countries across the continent.
These shared interests also offer significant opportunities for South Africa. Israel’s world-renowned experience in defeating drought has created more water solutions for both Israel and its neighbours. Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians all now have more water and, potentially, a new window for co-operation, not conflict.
Early this year, Israel and South Africa agreed on a work plan that included exploring possibilities of exchanging study visits by delegations of senior officials to exchange experience in water management in drought conditions. A few months later, our embassy hosted a week of events with experts sharing water technology and management knowledge that is applicable to current challenges in Southern Africa.
We have also sponsored agricultural seminars in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, sharing Israel’s innovations and opportunities for partnership in ensuring food security and assisting emerging farmers. Similar events are being planned for Swaziland, Lesotho and other regions in South African in 2017.
South Africa and Israel are both vibrant, diverse democracies that hold outsized interest for the world. We share significant trade and tourism interests along with deep people-to-people ties. And South Africa’s ideal of dialogue, negotiation and a pragmatic quest for solutions to seemingly intractable challenges can have great resonance across my wider region, where too many different realities and conflicts often seem to be hopeless.
Obviously, there are benefits for Israel in a deeper relationship with Africa. An open dialogue with countries in Africa allows for Israel’s repeated call for immediate, direct peace negotiations with our Palestinian neighbours to be heard more clearly. As in other important regions, African countries should be entitled to both have a view on the political situation in the Middle East and a relationship with all of the parties, especially when promoting African interests are involved.
Nearly every country, large and small, looks to develop trade and other interests in Africa. That is good for both Africans and for people across the world. Israel is no different in looking to find benefits as well as offer meaningful co-operation. Deeper ties and awareness are already encouraging Israeli innovators and start-ups to emphasise developing responses that have application for African markets and not only focus on North America, Europe and Asia — all traditional and established partners for “Start-up Nation” (Israel is so named because it has the highest concentration of start-up businesses outside of Silicon Valley).
Israel should, of course, be an observer of the African Union. Today, no less than 80 non-African countries from all around the globe and dozens of international organisations are observers accredited to the AU. Nearly one in six Israelis have close family ties to Africa, and many more are descendants of immigrants from the continent. Such a straightforward relationship should be a natural reflection of the deep connection and interests that Israel and Africa share. It should not be held hostage to a decidedly minority attempt at isolation or the abuse of regional politics.
Another mutual benefit would be enabling an African voice to be heard in seeking opportunities for peacemaking in the Middle East. Without relationships, it is obvious that such a voice is muted. Africans should be able to speak clearly in places of real conflict such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and to assist Israelis and Palestinians by encouraging dialogue, compromise and rejecting terror and violence.
Those who truly care about helping both Israelis and Palestinians, and also prioritising development opportunities across Africa, should seek to be inclusive and encourage recent positive developments between Israel and Africa, rather than shun dialogue and co-operation.
Arthur Lenk is ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Follow him on Twitter – @ambassadorlenk