The soul of Israel’s schizophrenic Africa strategy

Here’s what the next Israeli government should do.

DR. HANNA KLEIN (center), vice president for research and project development for Energiya Global, (photo credit: Courtesy)
DR. HANNA KLEIN (center), vice president for research and project development for Energiya Global,
(photo credit: Courtesy)
High above the African continent, I asked to see Avigdor Liberman, then in his second term as Israel’s foreign minister. He waded through the business-class section of the unmarked chartered jet past several MKs and Foreign Ministry officials, through the three dozen Israeli business executives jamming the narrow coach section aisle buzzing with deals, and to the quiet back of the plane, where I was waiting with a message.
The five-nation African tour in 2015 – to Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia – preceded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four high-profile visits in the past several years, and set the stage for the forces, often contradictory, battling for the soul of Israel’s schizophrenic Africa strategy.
Israel’s Africa strategy has been so closely associated with Netanyahu that African heads of state, ambassadors and others are beginning to wonder what a post-Netanyahu Africa strategy looks like for the Jewish state. The same is true for Israeli and Jewish development nonprofits and businesses, as well as the financially emasculated Foreign Ministry.
With the eventual formation of a new government in Jerusalem, there is a historic window of opportunity to establish some strategic sanity in the Africa policy so that Israel – and the Jewish people – can become a superpower of goodness, largely through our industries of goodness – like water, green energy, agriculture and medicine. With the engines of the Israeli economy slowing down, largely because of the economic slowdown of our major trading partners, a new report suggests that the nearby growing African market is ripe for Israel-related products, services and investment.
Yet in the past five years, Israel’s policy toward Africa has been complicated by arms sales, attempted forced deportation of African asylum seekers, racism and deceit in the aliyah policy toward the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia, select Israeli tycoons being charged with bribing African officials, and the decimation of Foreign Ministry-related budgets to nearly zero-out Israeli technical support for developing countries.
I accompanied Netanyahu on half a dozen occasions – at the UN, on Africa trips, signing the US-Power Africa MOU – when he declared, “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel.”
It’s a good line; Golda Meir, the architect of Israel’s legendary technical assistance program in Africa, would approve. But, according to one former Israeli ambassador in Africa, “It’s 100% not true.”
CHILDREN OF Karamoja, Uganda enjoy access to clean and safe water for the first time (Innovation: Africa)
AT THE height of Israeli-African relations, Israel maintained 30 embassies throughout the continent until the Yom Kippur War, when Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, then head of the Organization of African States, led to most African states breaking off relations as part of the Arab League boycott. Foreign minister Golda Meir’s trip to Liberia in 1958 was the impetus for the establishment of Israel’s famed technical assistance program, MASHAV, which drove diplomatic and economic relations, especially with Africa. MASHAV boasts more than 200,000 graduates worldwide in such areas as agriculture, water management, women’s empowerment, education, renewable energy and more.
Today, even after the renewed efforts of Liberman and Netanyahu, Israel maintains only 14 diplomats in Africa, in 11 embassies. Israel on paper has relations with 39 of 47 sub-Saharan countries, mostly through non-resident ambassadors, either sitting in regional embassies or from Jerusalem. Yet, every Israeli ambassador for Africa with whom I spoke mentioned that they have zero travel or activities budget and therefore relations with most of these countries remains symbolic and ineffective.
Indeed, when the US last year put forward a resolution at the UN condemning Hamas rocket fire against Israeli civilians – which should have been an easy win – only seven of the continent’s 54 countries – Rwanda, South Sudan, Eritrea, Malawi, Liberia, Lesotho and Cabo Verde – voted with Israel and the US. Twenty-eight reflexively voted against, 10 did not vote and 10 abstained. Israel simply didn’t have the firepower to get the job done and Hamas declared victory when the resolution, requiring a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, narrowly failed.
For all the Africa talk and high-level meetings of the past five years, little is happening on the ground because the Israeli government has little ability to follow up with meaningful actions after the high-profile fly-in of Israeli leaders. Instead, the vacuum is being filled in part by Jewish and Israeli NGOs and companies, but with only a fraction of the footprint because of lack of Israeli government coordination and support. And while the State of Israel lets budget-cutting Finance Ministry officials limit its foreign relations, the international competition for African market-share and business is moving fast, and includes Turkey, Russia, Europe, Japan, the US and China.
“All the clichés about Israeli expertise in water, agriculture, renewable energy and innovation are true,” says Ambassador Gideon Behar, Head of Bureau, Africa Division of the Foreign Ministry. “There is a need to free up resources for the Foreign Ministry for MASHAV in order to realize our great potential. I know, as a former ambassador in Senegal, how much Israeli expertise could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Africa. And now with the fight against climate change and its effects, Israel could lead the way. We have the knowledge, technology and will.”
Israel graduated to be a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2010, where members have a target for foreign assistance to be a little less than 1% of each country’s national budget, at .7%, which would translate to just shy of NIS 3 billion a year. Israel, at the bottom of the OECD list, spends about .01%, and that is only if you count the Israeli government allocation to Taglit-Birthright and aliyah benefits to new immigrants; dubious line-items, at best, yet claimed by the Israeli government as “foreign assistance.”
The pattern of making commitments and raising expectations in Africa and then claiming no budgets has also been a consistent feature when it comes to the Ethiopian aliyah by successive Israeli governments, except those of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who authorized the Operation Moses and Solomon airlifts. In 2015, the Israeli cabinet, at the initiative of Likud MKs Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, voted for Government Decision 324 to finally bring home the remaining 9,000 members of the community. Four years later, only about 2,000 have since come, with the Finance Ministry failing each year to budget more than a symbolic amount – despite the government decision and the willingness of world Jewry to pitch in.
Dozens of members of the Jewish community die each year waiting for their aliyah. The prime minister this month was finally shamed into allowing the aliyah of Masrat Warika and her two young children. She is the sister of Solomon Tekah, who was recently killed by an off-duty Israeli policeman, whose shooting sparked demonstrations about police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis. But about 7,000 remain, many hungry, and all with family in Israel.
And the budget for the MASHAV water, energy, agriculture and other courses for Africans this year and next is officially zero.
If Israel is really “coming back to Africa,” where have all the budgets gone?
SIX KILOMETERS from the Egyptian border stands the empty barbed-wired Holot detention center, a symbol of Israel’s failed policy toward approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers. At its height, Holot housed about 2,000 Eritreans and Sudanese at any given time, with the goal of making Africans feel so unwelcome in Israel that they would leave.
The desert facility cost NIS 323 million to build and about NIS 100 million a year to maintain for the five years it was operating. Every African asylum seeker who refused to go to Holot and was instead imprisoned at Saharonim or Ketziot nearby, cost the Israeli taxpayer NIS 100,000 a year per person. Between Holot and the prisons, the State of Israel wasted about NIS 1.5 billion on a failed detention and prison program targeting African asylum seekers here. (Israel is a signatory to the post-Holocaust 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and was supposed to instead process asylum requests.)
The NIS 1.5 billion spent on various forms of prisons for Africans in the past seven years dwarfs Israel’s entire MASHAV budget for the past 61 years, since its founding. Israel, apparently, doesn’t lack for resources. While one arm of the Prime Minister’s Office was spending freely on Holot, another government unit, through the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, has been allocated $20 million to begin designing an international Jewish Peace Corp program in Africa. And a third unit, this on a top floor of the Prime Minister’s Office, has been working quietly with the Blum Center for Developing Economies in Jerusalem, as well as the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem, to redesign Israel’s engagement with the developing world for greater impact and investment and to leverage Israeli technology and know-how to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. (The three units are not coordinated with each other or the Foreign Ministry and do not have the support of the Finance Ministry.)
“Africa is the new China,” says a senior member of the prime minister’s team charged with increasing Israeli commercial engagement in Africa. “We would be foolish not to engage in a more strategic way that helps our economy by advancing Israel-related businesses with impact throughout the continent. The question is how?”
This past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi hosted in Moscow about 50 African heads of state for the Russia-Africa Summit, which followed similar summits by Japan this year and China last year. Government-supported private sector deals worth tens of billions of dollars were announced at each summit with African leaders.
Similarly, the US is about the announce the launch of the $60 billion US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) so that American-related companies can compete with the Chinese and others in Africa, juicing up the Power Africa program, of which Israel is a partner.
An Israel-Africa Summit was planned two years ago in Togo but was canceled last minute mostly due to lack of attendance of African leaders or financing for deals, as well as street protests in Lome against the ruling family. (See Jerusalem Report cover story: Why Was the Landmark Israel-Africa Summit Shelved?)
“The State of Israel does not have the same resources as the other countries promoting their companies in Africa,” says a government source. “But if we don’t move forward now creatively, Israel-related enterprises won’t stand a chance in the world’s fastest growing economies, half of which are on the African continent.” According to the Blum Lab for Developing Economies report co-issued with the Prime Minister’s Office, “the decline we are seeing in the national economy can be attributed to a sharp decline in foreign trade that has ripple effects across industries. Israel’s trade has been in an accelerated drop with little recovery since 2012. By 2017, it had undergone a dramatic 23% drop for the period.
“Relative to GDP, its trade stands at half the OECD average.”
If MASHAV had a budget for five years to have programs in 50 countries, “we would end the automatic majority vote against Israel at the UN,” said Ambassador Gil Haskel, MASHAV’s director and former ambassador to Kenya, when he visited with Liberman. A confidential position paper promoting that this idea would also promote Israeli development businesses, obtained by The Jerusalem Post/Maariv, was approved by the prime minister. But the Finance Ministry quietly killed it and the prime minister was too busy to fight it.
The last time Israel had a full-time and not interim or acting foreign minister was in 2015, under Liberman. Since then, Netanyahu has held the portfolio along with the prime ministership and other ministries. (Israel Katz temporarily holds the portfolio.) With no champion for MASHAV and the Foreign Ministry in the cabinet, the Finance Ministry slashed and burned their budget by nearly a third, crippling the signature programs in the developing world just as Israeli political leaders were raising expectations with their African counterparts on state visits.
Say what you want about Liberman and his politics, but when I encouraged him in his role as foreign minister to speak more the language of partnership than paternalism when our plane touched down in Kenya, he delivered the message effectively and professionally and highlighted the work of MASHAV. Only then did Netanyahu show up in Nairobi – twice – and cut all programs, except for some security cooperation against the Al-Shabaab fundamentalist group.
WITHOUT ADDING one shekel to the state budget, one dramatic move the State of Israel could make tomorrow if it is serious about advancing relations with Africa is to name either former Likud MK Avraham Neguise, who served as head of the Africa-Israel Lobby in the Knesset, or former ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia, to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. The replacement for Ambassador Danny Danon, who advanced relations with many African and Arab countries during his tenure at the UN, has not yet been named. (Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had been named to the post but pulled back from accepting to play his cards in the quiet wild-card succession game in the Likud.)
One of the opportunities for the State of Israel to save money – and save face – is to re-accept the deal signed two Passovers ago with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), which included them paying all the costs of resettling to Western countries nearly half of Israel’s asylum seekers, in exchange for Israel granting legal residency to the other half. (Before Rwanda and Uganda stopped accepting Israel’s asylum seekers, the State of Israel paid their one-way plane tickets, $3,500 in pocket money and a short hotel stay – which was preceded by the expensive detentions.) After an intense public campaign to reverse the decision by the Israeli government to either imprison asylum seekers or to forcibly deport them, Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Deri signed a historic agreement with the UNHCR to end the crisis. It was then promptly canceled in the face of right-wing backlash.
A little-noticed provision of the short-lived agreement involved training up to 5,000 of the asylum seekers in the latest Israeli development technologies, with the voluntary option of them relocating to African countries seeking Israeli know-how and willingness to provide legal status. MASHAV was ready to provide all the training here in Israel but deferred to the Prime Minister’s Office on the idea.
On a related note, on one of the trips with the prime minister to Addis Ababa, he was running late and I was already at the next event, a business session with 500 people, along with his senior staff.
David Sharan, then chief of staff to Netanyahu, and I began to talk about the asylum seekers. I mentioned to him the idea that it’s cheaper to train asylum seekers in Israeli development techniques than to imprison them. The training – three to six months – would carry the stipulation that whoever accepts the water, solar or agriculture training along with some modest start-up money would voluntarily be willing to be relocated to Africa as long as it came with safe and long-term status. “This can work!” he said.
Sharan then left the government, and is a key witness now in the Case 4000 against the prime minister, but the idea that African asylum seekers can be transformed from detainees to Israeli development ambassadors has begun to take root.
“GOD WORKS in very strange ways,” Joey Low told a group of 100 African students who recently gathered at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya at the first conference of the African Students Association in Israel. Low, who underwrites scholarships at IDC for both Ethiopian Israelis and also for Africans, mostly asylum seekers, has been at the forefront of the idea. He was part of a network of business leaders and philanthropists active in shutting down the forced deportations.
“It is sad that you had to leave your countries,” he told the students. “But you are a tremendous asset for the State of Israel. You came here, learned about the culture and you know the culture, languages and networks in Africa. I am optimistic about the business opportunities for when you choose to go back or to work with Israeli businesses focused on Africa.”
One of the most articulate spokespersons for what Israeli technology and know-how can contribute to African development is Sivan Yaari from Innovation: Africa, which has become a flagship NGO waving the blue and white. Innovation: Africa has completed more than 250 small solar and water installations across 10 countries, impacting more than 1.5 million people with access to solar energy, light, clean water, education and healthcare.
In 2018, Innovation: Africa had an annual budget of approximately $5 million, and in 2019, they are expecting to double that. Their 2019 budget is roughly equal to what MASHAV’s budget was at its highest, when it received most of its funding through a secret London bank account from the US Central Intelligence Agency. (The allocation was allegedly canceled in retribution for the Pollard spy affair in 1985, and the state has since never made up the difference.)
Innovation: Africa, like Low and the IDC scholarships, is an example of how philanthropy can outperform the state’s efforts. Yet for all their impact and goodwill, neither can truly scale without government budgets, financing and support. And it will add little to strengthen the Israeli economy unless there are business models that can scale into the billions of dollars.
MY DAY job is heading a solar and wind development company focused on Africa, which is the hat I wear on Israeli state visits. With 600 million Africans lacking electricity, and 200 million or more paying for expensive and polluting diesel power, there is not enough philanthropy globally to lift a continent out of poverty through energy access.
Thus, a business model is needed to deploy billions of dollars. We have 130 individual impact investors who want Israel to be a force for good through a business model, and are currently working with an investment bank on our Series A round. We are at various stages of development of projects in 10 African countries and the pace of development is directly dependent upon our access to capital and international financial guarantees.
Our first solar fields, in Rwanda and Burundi, are recognized as transformative projects – but the State of Israel did little except cheer and celebrate. All the financing came from international development finance institutions, which most Israel-related firms cannot access, and of which more is needed.
Earlier this year, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Milken Innovation Center and the Prime Minister’s Office gathered world leaders in development finance and issued a report, calling for the creation of an Israeli development financing platform. “Israel-based financial instruments will level the playing field for local companies,” say its authors,“by enabling them to draw more private and foreign capital due to the decreased risk, and to create capital structures that enable better margins for the project performance, affordable capital for projects and end users, and allow competitive returns to investors.” The report concludes that “in addition to building economic growth at home, the Development Finance Instrument (DFI) will bring significant value added through financial diplomacy that supports technological and economic development and fieldwork promotion.” For every dollar that is available through these facilities, the authors estimate, another $10 are leveraged from the international community. That’s how $1 billion turns into $10 billion, which helps revolutionize Israel’s development efforts and economy through trade.
Basically, the Prime Minister’s Office’s vision is to match Israeli government funds with Jewish-related endowments funds – like from the federations, foundations and rabbinic pension funds – to create a pool of capital for Israeli development companies to expand their reach throughout Africa. (There are $50 billion of Jewish organizational endowments under management worldwide.) The Israeli government would provide a guarantee on those funds, which could then finance solar fields in the poorest countries, water infrastructure projects in the most vulnerable areas and help Africans double their crop yields in famine-threatened areas with Israeli technologies.
The authors note that “Israel possesses competitive advantages in eight of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals: hunger, health, education, clean air and water, clean energy, sustainable cities, climate action and partnerships,” and “this coupling of great need with great potential forms a sweet spot for many Israeli firms and sectors positioned to help developing nations.”
Fifteen European countries already have Development Finance Institutions (DFIs), which provide low-cost capital, grants, guarantees and concessionary financing to their companies to compete in Africa, especially against the highly subsidized Chinese competitors. “The truth is, Israel must diversify into young, expanding, new developing markets, or its export market will continue to shrink,” warns Glenn Yago, director of the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem.
To do so, Israel should double its representations in Africa, train 5,000 African asylum seekers to send as development ambassadors, relaunch MASHAV with projects in 50 African countries, and make higher-risk capital available inexpensively to impact for-profits scaling Golda Meir’s original vision. The icing on the cake would be appointing an Ethiopian Israeli to be Israel’s UN ambassador.
Yet, despite government decision No. 4021 from July 2018 to take the first steps to set up the Development Finance Institution to enable scaling solutions, which would both strengthen the Israeli economy and advance African development, the Finance Ministry is against it.
And there is no position of minister for international development in the Israeli cabinet to fight for it. Nor a prime minister focused on it. Or even a foreign minister who’s cared about it since Liberman.
The writer serves as CEO of Energiya Global, a green energy impact investment platform, and is one of the founders of the solar industries in Israel and Africa. Any views expressed in the article are his alone and do not reflect those of his partners or organization. To follow him on Twitter: @Kaptainsunshine
UK chief rabbi excerpts in Addis Ababa, May 2018
I had the honor of joining President Reuven Rivlin’s state visit to Ethiopia in May 2018, which was organized with the Society for International Development-Israel and OLAM, a consortium of Jewish and Israeli development NGOs. – Y.I.A.
Here are excerpts from the Impact for Good conference in Addis Ababa, by Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth.
“Toward a Jewish ‘foreign policy’”:
The question is asked in the Jerusalem Talmud: “What is the most important verse in the entire Torah?” The great sage Rabbi Akiva famously replied, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
[Simeon] Ben Azzai suggested a different verse: “This is the book of the generations of man, on the day that God created man, in the image of God He made him.” Ben Azzai was pointing out to Rabbi Akiva that whereas his verse calls upon us to be considerate to our neighbors – those to whom we are already close – from Genesis we learn that since every human being is created in the image of God, our compassion must extend to one and all.
Just as Israel and any other nation-state constructs a foreign policy, which determines how it interacts with the rest of the world, we must ask: What should the “foreign policy” of the Jewish people be? Inspired by the lesson of Ben Azzai, I believe our interaction with the world should be based on the principle that every human being reflects the divine. If we are in a position to help others and we fail in our responsibility to them, then we fail in our responsibility to God.
The timeless wisdom of the Torah cannot change the world in and of itself. Neither can the technical know-how of our NGOs, nor the resources and ingenuity of the Jewish state.
But together there is no limit to what we can achieve. This week in Ethiopia for the first time, we are combining the forces of our Judaism, our altruism and our Zionism to make a lasting impact.
This unprecedented collaboration has the makings of a Jewish “foreign policy” for the 21st century. It is no less than the Torah demands of us and its realization is a sign that both the Jewish state and a flourishing Diaspora are maturing.
Neither Israel nor the Jewish people ever asked the world for anything but to be left to live in peace. Indeed, the greatness of our story has been that we depended on nobody but ourselves and God. And that is why we do not merely offer handouts to the developing world. We do not patronize or demean them. Instead, we offer what Maimonides declared to be the highest level of tzedaka (often insufficiently translated as “charity”): to help others become self-sufficient. We can share the agricultural and technological solutions which helped to make the State of Israel an unqualified success. We can share the expertise in education and community-building which has sustained us for thousands of years. This is the call of the hour for the Jewish people.


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