Looking Up: Challenges and Opportunities in Israel-Africa Relations

Israel's ties with the continent have known ups and downs more than with any other region in the world, but in the past decade relations have been improving. African leaders view Israel as a prosperous country and are interested in its knowledge in the fields of security, agriculture, technology, and many others. If Israel continues to take into account the locals’ needs and remains attentive to their interests, it can yield significant economic and political gains in the continent

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Liberia, 2017. Israel has ties with almost all countries south of the Sahara | Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO

The last decade has seen a great improvement in relations between Israel and a large number of African countries. This trend reached new heights with the renewal of diplomatic relations with Equatorial Guinea (2016) and Chad (2019). More recently, Israel has also launched normalization processes with Morocco and Sudan.


The State of Israel has long-standing ties with sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, it established diplomatic relations with most of the continent's countries, and at one stage operated 33 embassies which covered more than 40 countries. Then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion viewed these ties with African countries as a counterweight to the Arab boycott. "We must break through the siege imposed on us by Arab countries and build bridges to the peoples of the Black Continent, who are now liberating themselves [from colonialism]," he declared. Golda Meir, Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister, also viewed budding relations with Africa as an integral part of Israel's foreign policy.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Department of International Economic Cooperation (MASHAV), assisted countries on the continent during that period in areas such as agriculture, health, education, medicine, community development, and women's empowerment. Israeli security assistance to African leaders and consultancy in maintaining the stability of their rule was another area that helped Jerusalem strengthen ties with the continent’s capitals.


Since then, these relations have known ups and downs, the likes of which Israel has not experienced with any other region in the world. The Six Day War in 1967 led to a sharp deterioration in Israeli-Africa relations, which reached an unprecedented low following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Following massive Arab pressure, almost all African nations severed diplomatic ties with Israel, except for three - Swaziland, Malawi, and Lesoto. Tie with these countries, and especially with the former two, have remained strong to this day.


Relations began improving again in the 1990s against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This trend has intensified in the past decade due to the increasing security challenges and the growing war on Islamic terrorism that the continent is facing, but also because Israel is highly revered for its advances in the fields of development, sustainability, and innovation.


A thirst for Israeli tech and expertise


The State of Israel, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, invests considerable efforts in promoting relations with African countries, as evidenced by a series of high-level official visits in the past decade. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the continent twice during his tenure, in 2009 and 2014. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrived in Uganda in 2016 to mark the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe, declared that "Israel is returning to Africa and Africa is returning to Israel." Netanyahu later also visited Senegal, Kenya, and Rwanda, and participated in the 2017 ECOWAS summit in Liberia. Former President Reuven Rivlin visited Ethiopia in 2018, and Israeli ministers have also traveled to the continent.


Israel currently maintains diplomatic relations with almost all sub-Saharan countries, which are managed by 11 diplomatic missions and supported by its headquarters in Jerusalem. In the last decade, Israel has re-established relations with Equatorial Guinea and Chad, but has only opened a new mission in Rwanda due to budgetary constraints. Admittedly, having such a small number of embassies handling relations simultaneously with so many countries is challenging, to say the least.

African countries have grown increasingly aware of Israel's unique value as a “start-up nation” and as a leader in the fight against terrorism

Strengthening ties with the continent’s countries is vital for Israel’s strategic, political, and economic interests. The Horn of Africa’s strategic importance in securing shipping lanes and air passage over East African countries cannot be overstated. At the same time, the rise in terrorist activity in Africa has led these nations to increase security cooperation with Israel, who is perceived as a world leader in the field of counterterrorism. At the economic level, too, there is a growing recognition of the continent's importance for Israel, which, as a result, has posted economic attachés in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa.


At the diplomatic level, the African "bloc" is very influential in international forums and, in fact, the largest compared to other continents. Traditionally, African countries’ stances in international forums have not always aligned with those of Israel. In recent years, however, there has been a positive change in their approach as they grow cognizant of Israel's unique value – as a “start-up nation” and as a leader in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, the intensification of local terrorism has led several African countries to tighten cooperation with the Jewish state. Israel offers these nations unique technology and advanced equipment to fulfill their security needs, which have expanded over the years.


Israel’s investment in Africa is already bearing fruit in the diplomatic arena. For example, on May 27th, 2021, the UN Human Rights Council called for the establishment of an investigative commission to examine Israel's conduct in Operation “Guardian of the Walls”, but Malawi and Cameron opposed the anti-Israel decision. In fact, except for South Africa and Namibia, African nations’ reactions and responses can be considered balanced.


Economically, Africa has great potential and in recent years several countries, such as Ethiopia, have recorded some of the highest growth rates in the world (8% in 2019). It is worth noting that in recent years, countries such as China, Turkey, Russia, and the Gulf states, along with European countries and the United States, have invested many billions of dollars in the continent.

Local Christian communities, whose sympathetic approach towards Israel in many ways echoes that of Evangelical in the United States, also contribute to the improving relations between Israel and Africa

Although African economies have suffered greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, once the situation stabilizes, the continent’s nations - whose populations are the world’s youngest - will continue to present broad and challenging economic opportunities for Israel. Israel, indeed, invests heavily in its ties with young Africans, especially those who have visited the country to undergo advanced MASHAV training. In some African nations, it has also established "peace clubs" that keep in constant touch with their Israeli embassies.


The historical cooperation between Israel and Africa in the fields of agriculture, health, communications, infrastructure, and education has continued and even expanded over time. Israel's proven technological capabilities in these areas, and the knowledge it shares with countries on the continent, make it increasingly relevant to Africans, all while contributing towards improving bilateral relations. One noteworthy example in this context is the avocado project in Ethiopia, which was launched in 2005 in collaboration with the US State Aid Agency (USAID). The project was concluded successfully last year, at which point Ethiopia evolved from a grower of avocados to an exporter.


Another factor contributing to the improving relations between Israel and Africa are the local Christian communities, whose sympathetic approach towards Israel in many ways echoes that of Evangelical Christians in the United States.[1] Working to tightening the ties with the Christian leadership and their communities in Africa will yield significant achievements for Israel. It can, for example, help form coalitions of countries that will side with Israel in regional and international forums, as well as curb extremist Islamic elements supported, among others, by Iran and Hezbollah.


In fact, Christian support for Israel is already bearing fruit. For example, in September 2020, immediately after his election, President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi - a devout Christian - announced the opening of his country’s embassy in Jerusalem.[2] Additionally, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, an Evangelical, officially opposed the International Criminal Court’s position that it has jurisdiction to discuss the Palestinian lawsuit claiming Israel has allegedly committed war crimes. Uganda was one of only seven countries to express their opposition to the move.[3]


Despite this emphasis on the connection with Christians in African , it is important to note that the Ministry's representatives in the continent also work closely with Muslim populations through social projects and by strengthening relationships with their leaders.


Conclusion


Israel, which borders Africa, has no colonial past on the continent. It is an object of admiration, being a young country that has undergone a process of "nation building,” and has developed solutions to the challenges faced by African countries. Crafting policies that are informed by a deep understanding of African nations’ needs, alongside dialogue to advance mutual interests, will contribute to the rapprochement and strengthening of relations between Israel and the continent.


The Africa Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to work to advance this goal, both bilaterally and with continental and regional organizations. We strive to strengthen the cooperation in the fight against Islamic terrorism, to improve support in international forums, and to increase the volume of trade.


Ambassador Aliza Ben-Noun is Deputy Director General for Africa at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She previously served as ambassador to France and Monaco and to Hungary, the Head of the Political Bureau and Director of Department of Coordination Bureau. She holds a Master’s degree in African Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and French, both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

(Photo: Erez Lichtfeld)


Notes:


[1] Gina A. Zurlo, "Who Owns Global Christianity?"Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, December 11, 2019.

[2] Malawi announces its intention to open an Embassy in Jerusalem,” Maariv Online, September 6, 2019 (in Hebrew).

[3] Hodaya Karish-Hazoni, “ICC: It is ‘within our jurisdiction’ to investigate ‘Israeli war crimes’,” Makor Rishon, May 3, 2020.


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