In February Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced, “Israel is coming back to Africa.” In July, he followed through on this commitment by visiting Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Netanyahu is the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit sub-Saharan Africa since Yitzhak Shamir in 1987.
The Israeli Government hopes this trip will mark the beginning of new and improved relationships focused on economic growth, military strength and diplomatic partnership. This trip is in part the culmination of work carried out by current Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his earlier stint as foreign minister.
Interestingly, each country Netanyahu visited has a unique connection with Israel: Uganda and Ethiopia have historic Jewish communities; Rwanda experienced genocide; Kenya and many others are battling Islamist extremist forces. By understanding the complexities and uniqueness of each nation, Israel is hoping to reap the benefits of improved relations.
The Historic Bond
When Netanyahu refers to going “back” to Africa, he is recalling a historical connection between Israel and Africa that began before any of these countries were founded.
Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, identified strongly with African independence. Both Herzl and Golda Meir often spoke of the moral obligation Israel had to aid Africa and the new states that, in Meir’s time, had, like Israel, recently rejected foreign control and won self-determination. This moral and emotional bond between Israel and many African countries became the foundation of Israeli foreign policy toward Africa from its founding until 1973.
However, the connection between Israel and these new African states extended beyond an emotional one. There was a growing urgency to secure votes in the United Nations and garner international support for this new state. At the height of the Cold War, newly established countries without ties to either the West or the Soviet Union were seen as great opportunities for Israel to cultivate as potential allies. The idea was that these states would not have to pick sides while Israel had expertise to offer them.
Additionally, the Israeli-Arab conflict was a key reason for the energy and tenacity devoted to Israeli-African relations. As Benyamin Neuberger of Tel Aviv University writes:
“Israel’s efforts to be involved in the Third World cannot be fathomed without understanding the centrality of the Israeli-Arab conflict to the country’s international relations… It was an all-out war – a campaign waged by the Arab world against Israel’s very existence by means of terrorism, an economic boycott, and a concerted effort to politically delegitimise the ‘Zionist entity’. One of Israel’s responses to these attempts at delegitimisation was to forge a sprawling network of international relations.”
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and into the early 1970s, Israel continued to work with African allies, establishing full diplomatic relations with 33 African nations. These relations included trade and substantial military and economic aid. Israeli aid often came without any strings attached, and its ability to provide crucial goods such as cooking oil made its aid valuable.
From 1968-1970 Israel had 5,190 experts in Africa, over 60% of all the Israeli experts in developing countries. Twenty per cent of the experts in Africa were focused on agricultural development.
Israeli agricultural aid helped many African nations build sustainable farms in the dry climate. Israeli experts taught locals how to create these farms, which would help eradicate poverty in countries like Zambia and Ethiopia. The Zambian farms, created in the mid-1960s, focused on corn, vegetables and chicken coops. MASHAV, the Israeli Centre for International Cooperation, has been working in Africa since 1958, building the farms in Zambia and others like them around the continent.
Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was able to gather enough votes to block resolutions that called for its expulsion from the UN – with the backing of many developing countries, including African nations.
However, after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, pressure from Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League led almost every African nation to cut ties with Israel.
In addition to the broad goals and ideals that connected Israel with Africa, in general Israeli relations with each country had their own characteristics.
Israel and Uganda cooperated in the 1960s to support South Sudanese rebels, but Idi Amin’s rise to power through a coup in 1971 made relations tumultuous. He established relations with Israel in 1971, even visiting the country. However, after a meeting with Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Amin severed all ties and became an outspoken antisemite, expelling all Israelis from Uganda in 1972.
In 1976 an airplane was hijacked by pro-Palestinian terrorists and held at Entebbe Airport. Israel launched a covert rescue mission, successfully saving 98 hostages (a few were killed), and only one Israeli solider was killed, Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, the task force commander, for whom the mission was posthumously named.
In 1994 Ugandan President Museveni restored full diplomatic ties and he visited Israel in 2003.
Uganda is also home to the Abayudaya community, a native Jewish community numbering around 3,000. The Jewish Agency recognised this community as Jews in 2015, providing a measure of protection – including the option of moving to Israel – if the need arises.
Golda Meir visited Kenya as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1963, making it one of the first African countries to host an Israeli leader. Even without official relations (which ended in 1973), cooperation continued. Kenya abstained from the 1975 UN ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution, one of a handful of African countries to do so. In 1976 Kenya let Israel land and refuel its planes there during Operation Yonatan – without which it would not have been possible. In 1988 full diplomatic ties were restored.
In 1998, when Nairobi was struck by a terror attack, the IDF helped it rebuild. When an Israeli-owned hotel was attacked in Nairobi in 2002, Kenya and Israel continued to cooperate on combatting terrorism. Today, Israel and Kenya also work together on irrigation and agriculture, including signing a trilateral agreement with Germany in 2012 on water purification and fisheries.
Rwanda is considered the “Israel of Africa” and Israel’s closest friend on the continent. Israel and Rwanda have the shared goal of combatting genocide and Israel has given Rwanda significant help in nation building.
Some claim that Israel sold weapons to Rwanda from 1990-1995 during the international ban during the Rwandan genocide, but the Israeli High Court refused a request to release documents to substantiate or refute those claims. Today, the Rwandan genocide reminds many Israeli leaders of the Holocaust, and how their nation grew out of a need to protect a persecuted people.
While Israel’s ambassador in Ethiopia also covers Rwanda, Rwanda opened up an embassy in Israel in 2012.
Israel cooperated with Ethiopia throughout the 1960s and 1970s to prevent the spread of Arab nationalist influence and secure the Ethiopian-Somali border, albeit secretly. When Moshe Dayan admitted to this in 1978 (after most of the continent had severed ties with Israel), all Israelis were expelled from the country and relations ended.
Throughout this troubled relationship, Israel always took into account Beta Yisrael, the Ethiopian Jewish community, and worked to allow them safe passage to Israel.
Through Operations Moses, Solomon and Dove’s Wing, Israel evacuated tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Relations were re-established in 1989, with the agreement that Israel would provide Ethiopia military assistance and Ethiopia would let the remaining Beta Yisrael immigrate to Israel.
The only current Ethiopian Knesset member, Avraham Neguise, said of the Africa trip, “It would be an important message to Africa and the world about Israel. I came here, got equal opportunity, and am now a legislator. This is the answer to those who say Zionism is racism, that Israel is apartheid. This is the answer to BDS.”
A central reason for Netanyahu’s visit was to strengthen economic relations. Prior to his visit Israel passed a NIS 50 million (US$13 million) plan for economic collaboration with Africa. Included is cooperation through the World Bank, the opening of four MASHAV centres (one in each country Netanyahu visited), increased government collaboration in health systems, technology, engineering and domestic security and a space agreement with Ethiopia. Israel’s trade with Africa only constitutes 2% of its foreign trade, providing plenty of room for growth.
Following this package deal, Netanyahu brought a large business delegation with him from companies specialising in security, drones, chemicals, fertilisers, drip irrigation and more. He held two business summits, one in Kenya and one in Ethiopia.
In Kenya, Netanyahu said to Israeli businesspeople:
“Come closer, come and invest in Kenya. This is an opportunity. We have strategic interest, we have national and international interests, but I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t think that you would benefit because the opportunity here is first of all talented people, many possibilities and a government and a President that wants you here.”
In Ethiopia Netanyahu brought a similar message, saying, “This was a partnership made in heaven. It has a long history, but more importantly, it has a brilliant future. Invest in each other.”
He promised that the Israeli Government would help Israeli companies invest, providing security and promising financial protocols to reduce risks.
In Kenya, there is a lot of work already underway. In February Israel announced that it would accept more students from Kenya to study irrigation technology at Israeli universities and direct flights from Israel to Kenya would begin.
Additionally, Netanyahu and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed an agreement that will increase Kenya’s health services capacity, and Israel will continue to partner with Kenya over farming, water security and learning from Israeli practices in water collection, recycling and irrigation techniques.
In Rwanda there is a growing desire for energy technology, medical equipment and other software, which Israel is eager to fill. Israeli companies hope their investment in Rwanda’s solar technology will generate 8% of Rwanda’s total electricity needs.
Israel and Ethiopia also enjoy a strong and growing economic relationship, signing Memorandas of Understanding on science and technology, tourism, agriculture and capacity building.
As Glen Yago, Senior Director of the Milken Innovation Centre at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, outlines, Israel is already in a prime position to fill Africa’s needs going forward.
“Israel’s experience as a developing nation has contributed to it becoming a hub of innovative and relevant technologies for other developing countries. Israel’s expertise in financial technologies, alternative energy, sustainable water, and smart agriculture, are all vital for efficient and large-scale economic development in this century.”
But, what they are missing, he says, is a financial “bridge” to allow easier business partnerships crucial for long-term financial success. This bridge, alongside exports, knowledge transfers, and partnerships in water, agriculture, health services and technology, will allow both Israel and Africa to benefit economically.
One of the most prominent aspects of the trip was cooperation on security issues, especially combatting terrorism.
The most notable event that took place on this issue was the counter-terrorism summit hosted in Uganda, featuring leaders from Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda. At the summit, Netanyahu argued that the relationship between Israel and Africa is based both on development and fighting “a savage medievalism that seeks to take all our societies back, to destroy them, destroy our freedoms and destroy our hopes.”
First and foremost, these countries are interested in Israel’s defence capabilities. As Stratfor, a US-based geopolitical intelligence firm, noted, “As a leader in physical and cyber security, [Israel] is capable of providing technical expertise to East African states seeking to improve counterterrorism abilities.” Israel has been fending off terror attacks for decades, and thus has much expertise to contribute to these nations.
Indeed, Kenya is interested in partnering with Israel to build a security wall between Kenya and Somalia to stop the movement of terrorists into Kenya, some of whom were responsible for the Westgate shopping centre attack in Nairobi in 2013. Israel’s successful construction of a West Bank security barrier dramatically limiting the number of terrorists, who execute cross border attacks, is seen as something to emulate.
As Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post points out, “Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia… are facing terrorism from Islamic extremists, and Rwanda is concerned about a spill-over effect. These countries are afraid that what has happened in Libya, Mali and the Ivory Coast could happen to them as well.”
However, there is much for Israel to gain in strategic terms as well. Israel views this region as very important geopolitically. Kenya and Uganda, both majority Christian nations, constitute somewhat of a roadblock crucial to preventing the spread of the Islamist radicalisation, which has manifested in Al Shabab, Hamas, and unrest in Somalia and Yemen.
Further, Stratfor points out: “Israel also wants to block Iran from using the Greater Horn of Africa region as a land route for weapons destined for Gaza militants… Ties with Ethiopia, Kenya and other East African countries give Israeli intelligence officials cover to better monitor Sudan, a previous target of Israeli operations aimed at blocking Iran from supplying Gaza militants with arms.”
Recent events bode well for Israel’s goal of containing terrorism in the region. Security cooperation with Jordan and Egypt remains stable, with Egypt reportedly authorising the use of Israeli drones to fight ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. This cooperation is encouraging other leaders to reject having to choose between cooperation with Israel and keeping Arab allies, instead working together for their security.
Equally important as the economic and security cooperation, this trip is part of an ongoing effort by the Netanyahu Government to bolster Israel’s standing in the international arena.
Even before the trip began, some were talking about its pragmatic nature. Arye Oded, former Israeli diplomat and expert on Africa, said that the Israeli Government wants to improve relations and increase economic cooperation “and wants more countries not to vote against us at the UN.”
Ethiopia will start its term on the UN Security Council on 1 July 2017, and strong relations could ensure a supportive voting record, crucial to blocking a resolution pushing a non-negotiated solution to the ongoing conflict.
Furthermore, Netanyahu announced that Kenya and Ethiopia would support Israel’s bid to gain observer status in the African Union. While Israel had observer status in the Organisation of African Unity, when the AU replaced the OAU in 2002, Muammar Gaddafi blocked Israel from any role.
All of this contributes to speculation that Israel may run for a UN Security Council seat in 2018, Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky of INSS reports. Israel would hold a seat representing the “Western Europe and Others Group,” currently represented by Spain and New Zealand, with Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands (with Italy and the Netherlands each taking one year) taking over next cycle.
Some, however, are sceptical of the diplomatic impact Netanyahu’s trip will have. Emanuel Navon, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, said, “They all still have business with the Arab states and Iran, so it’s a matter of calculating costs and benefits… I don’t see much significant change anytime soon.”
Jeffery Gettleman of the New York Times writes that it’s a mixed bag – on one hand Christian Africans feel tied to Israel’s biblical ties and recognise a common enemy in Islamist extremism, but on the other hand they identify with Palestinians who are viewed as the oppressed people who were colonised in the conflict.
Boaz Bismuth of Israel Hayom argues that cooperation with Africa is already working, specifically in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Egypt has periodically raised the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, but African nations have rejected them, with Rwanda leading the charge. Additionally, former Israeli ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor points to the Security Council’s rejection of a 2014 resolution calling for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the “occupied territories”, with Nigeria and Rwanda abstaining.
It is expected that the President of Togo will visit Israel in August, and Israel hopes to convene a roundtable of leaders like the one in Uganda with West African nations. Furthermore, it was reported that Netanyahu spoke on the phone with a Muslim leader of an African state that has no diplomatic ties with Israel, suggesting further opportunities to expand ties in the region.
Netanyahu has made it clear he views his Africa trip as part of a larger effort to integrate Israel into the international arena economically and diplomatically. He emphasised these points to his cabinet, saying, “There is no doubt that this is the start of a long journey toward dealing with the automatic majority against Israel in international forums, an automatic majority that rests, first and foremost, on a bloc of African countries.”
Not without Controversy
There were a few mishaps over the course of the trip, but none are expected to substantively impact the positive results.
Days before the trip, the African Group issued a statement at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to “end Israel’s occupation, settlements, and blockade,” during a discussion of Agenda Item 7, the mandatory “debate of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians” held during each UNHCR session.
In Uganda, there was a long, rambling, and at times problematic speech by Ugandan President Museveni that showed a lack of finesse or sensitivity to Israel’s history. In Kenya there were some erroneous reports of an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Netanyahu, based on the changing route of Netanyahu’s motorcade. Both Israeli and Kenyan officials deny any security incident.
In Rwanda, Netanyahu wrote the words “Never Again” in the guest book. Some argued this phrase should only be used to reference the Holocaust, the event for which the term was coined. However, it was part of Netanyahu’s broader message drawing similarities between the two atrocities and trying to build a relationship with Rwanda centring on overcoming genocide.
Finally, MK Avraham Neguise expressed his disappointment that PM Netanyahu did not meet with community leaders of Ethiopian Jews. While many thousands of Ethiopian Jews have left Ethiopia for Israel, a few remain and some are concerned about whether Netanyahu will honour the agreement to bring them to Israel.
Moving Forward: What’s Next?
The Netanyahu Government plans on continuing to grow Israel’s international relationships in Africa, Asia and Europe, hoping to visit Kazakhstan by the end of 2016. It was also announced in late July that Israel and the Republic of Guinea, a majority Muslim West African nation, renewed diplomatic relations.
While the Arab League said the visit would have no impact on Arab-African relations, others say it could undermine Egypt’s leadership in the region and access to water as concern over Ethiopia’s dam-building efforts grow. Additionally, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas visited Sudan recently, but denied that Netanyahu’s trip had anything to do with his visit.
While the full impact of this trip may take many years to pan out, there seems little doubt that Israel stands to benefit in the long term. As Netanyahu told the Security Cabinet upon his return from the trip, Israel is already receiving positive feedback from his trip, as many countries seek to take advantage of Israel’s technological expertise and success in combatting terrorism. Additionally, he said that countries that do not have relations with Israel are reaching out, indicating that Israel will likely continue to build its relationship with the African continent, a relationship that was founded upon historical parallels and ideological affinities and continues today.