Power and politics: Israel makes new inroads into Africa
Date of publication: 20 March, 2019. The New Arab.
In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu touched down in East Africa for a four-day tour, the first trip to the continent by an Israeli leader in more than 30 years.
The landmark visit was a turning point in Tel Aviv’s diplomatic relations with African states, the culmination of a decade-long push to normalise ties in the region and turn the tide on support for Palestine at international forums – one of Netanyahu’s key foreign policy objectives.
The Israeli leader would visit the continent a further three times over the coming years as part of his international diplomatic strategy, proclaiming: “Israel is coming back to Africa. Africa is coming back to Israel”.
Africa’s geopolitical battleground
The gradual thaw in Israel-Africa ties comes after decades of frosty relations.
Israeli firms were initially active in the 1960s in construction and agriculture projects during post-colonial state-building, but most bilateral ties were severed following the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars as Israel became associated with colonial oppression and African states aligned with Palestine. Relations were further strained by Israel’s economic and military ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
While Israel has continued to play a small economic role on the continent in the post-cold war era, it found itself outmanoeuvred diplomatically, as African states continued to deepen diplomatic ties with Palestine.
In 2013, the African Union granted Palestine observer status, a position coveted by Israel that allows access to all member states and offers key diplomatic influence.
Africa’s 54 internationally recognised states hold significant weight at the UN and other international forums, and traditionally vote in support of Palestine.
In recent years, the UN has voted overwhelmingly in favour of granting Palestine non-member observer status at the General Assembly, while UNESCO admitted Palestine as its newest member – further evidence of what Israel has long lamented as Palestine’s “automatic advantage” at the global body.
Netanyahu has long sought to change these voting patterns, offering economic assistance and military hardware in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to elicit political support and undermine Palestine’s ability to mobilise allies.
“Israel’s outreach to Africa is part of broader diplomatic efforts to achieve recognition and strengthen bilateral ties in parts of the world which have not traditionally been seen as Israel’s greatest supporters,” Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow with the MENA programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.
“By bringing these countries onside you can slowly chip away at what was once seen as an automatic advantage that Palestinians would have in terms of votes at the UN and international bodies.”
Diplomatic inroads: Votes and Influence
Despite having few official ties to African states, and a low penetration of diplomatic representation, Israel has always played an economic role on the continent via the private sector.
More recently, however, the diplomatic initiative pursued by Netanyahu has begun to offer public victories.
In 2016, Israel renewed diplomatic relations with the Republic of Guinea, an overwhelmingly Muslim state in West Africa that severed ties with Tel Aviv in 1967.
That same year, Tanzania agreed to open an embassy in Israel for the first time since ties were severed following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In February this year, Israel opened its first embassy in Rwanda, while a month earlier Israel and Chad had repaired diplomatic ties severed for three decades.
Israeli diplomatic efforts in Africa mirror more high-profile, and controversial, outreach endeavours in Central and Eastern Europe and the Gulf to counter international support for Palestine.
“As far as Israel is concerned, this generally relates to curbing Palestinian efforts to use international law in order to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations or advance Palestinian statehood,” Gidron says.
Such efforts, Gidron adds, aim “to improve Israel’s international standing and legitimacy and advance its regional geo-strategic objectives against the background of an increasingly open Israeli rejection of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution“.
Israel markets itself based on what each region wants; agricultural technology, military hardware, or private sector investment. More recently, that also includes access to the Trump administration in the United States.
The strategy of quid pro quo influence extends, somewhat controversially, to Central and European far-right leaders who have flirted with anti-Semitism, such as in Hungary.
In other cases it manifests in support for autocratic leaders such as Filipino authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte, who has been dogged by his controversial rhetoric and embroiled in a violent war on drugs – often using Israeli arms.
More recently, Netanyahu has developed close military ties with India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist leadership, and gushing relations with far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro – both countries once staunchly pro-Palestine.
“Netanyahu really does see this campaign as vindication of his longstanding position that you don’t need to solve the Palestinian issue to move forward; he would point to what is happening in the world and say ‘I was right’,” Lovatt says.
Netanyahu’s vision has also been bolstered by the Trump administration.
In policies which have seen nothing extracted politically from Netanyahu, the US has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved its embassy to the divided, occupied city from Tel Aviv, and cut funding to Palestinians.
With Palestine, and a resolution to the conflict, now of inconsequential concern to the US administration, Netanyahu’s global outreach to foster allies, including African states, can continue to gather steam, albeit while boosting often authoritarian governments and exacerbating human rights abuses against Palestinians.