Eli Groner, director general of the PMO, with Benjamin Netanyahu on a recent helicopter flight.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dozens of Israeli clean-energy firms and utilities will be able to access multi-million-dollar contracts facilitated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for its Power Africa program, set to provide electricity to some 60 million Africans by 2030.
Behind the scenes, the Prime Minister’s Office was working diligently — with a few hiccups — to get a memorandum of understanding signed with USAID, one of the largest aid agencies in the world.
“These things, in hindsight, always look easier than they are,” Eli Groner, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, told The Jerusalem Post. Groner played the key role in negotiating between Israel and USAID.
What helped kickstart the process was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia in June 2016, the first time in years that an Israeli leader traveled at length to sub-Saharan Africa.
“Finding the right opportunity for a signing ceremony took almost as long as negotiating the deal,” Groner chuckled. “That’s more a commentary on how quickly we were able to negotiate than anything else.”
Given that President Trump proposed slashing billions of dollars from USAID earlier this year, it’s unclear if Power Africa will be affected. In Trump’s earlier budget, Israel was the only country to escape proposed cuts to foreign aid, a sign that Jerusalem may possess lobbying clout to reverse any future cuts. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the US budget.
The memorandum of understanding also includes no stipulation barring the participation of Israeli companies based in West Bank settlements, a contrast with many European agreements which rule out working with businesses from the disputed territory.
For Netanyahu, the project portends a chance to cement his legacy, as the project creates the opportunity to electrify broad swaths of the African continent still without power while providing a boom to Israeli utilities and companies.
“It’s another instance of Prime Minister Netanyahu opening up new markets for new products for Israeli companies. I think that when the history is written about the Israeli- US relationship – and that book will be written sometime in the next ten, twenty, thirty years – people will [look] back at this as one of the milestone achievements.”
According to a businessman contracted with Power Africa, several African leaders are also interested in procuring the latest agricultural and water-management technologies. While most Arab countries in northern Africa lack diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, sub-Saharan countries are more open to working with Israeli companies.
“If I’m reading the diplomatic map correctly, in the future, economic relationships will lead to diplomatic relationships – and that’s a real change from typical diplomatic sequence throughout history,” Groner said.
The initial liaison was Arthur Lenk, who until July was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. He met with officials from Power Africa – whose headquarters are based in South Africa – and connected them to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I know the head of Power Africa,” said Lenk, referring to project coordinator Andrew Herscowitz. “He and I went to lunch. He said that there was a problem, a misunderstanding in the Israeli government on how they could benefit from Power Africa,” adding that after clarifying things to colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, they took over.
Israeli businessmen also touted the Prime Minister’s Office for getting Israel included into the lucrative humanitarian program.
“Because Eli Groner was the economic minister in the Israeli embassy in DC when we were doing our international financing for the solar field in Rwanda, he has a unique understanding of leveraging the international financial institutions and agreements to advance Israeli interests in the developing world,” said Energiya Global CEO Yosef Abramowitz, who also played a match-making role in negotiations between the Israeli and American governments, and whose company is already working with Power Africa in 10 countries.
Israel will officially join the project in a signing ceremony on December 4 in Jerusalem, with African heads of state and ministers, the US Ambassador, and other Israeli government officials in attendance.