Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Entebbe, Uganda.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Most media coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US focused on his meeting with US President Barack Obama, his speech at the UN and his meetings with US presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Another event that received less attention but was arguably no less important, however, was a meeting that took place between Netanyahu and African leaders. Three heads of state were present as were 12 prime ministers and foreign ministers from Africa.
There has been recently a veritable renaissance in Israel- Africa relations. Indicative of the changing sentiment was a statement by Togo President Faure Gnassingbe that African countries hesitant about strengthening ties with Israel should stop looking for excuses and begin to work with Jerusalem.
“Africa is beset by difficulties and Israel holds the key to them,” Gnassingbe said. He is planning to host an Israel-Africa summit in the spring of 2017.
Israel is finally coming back to Africa.
In the decades after the establishment of the state, Israel enjoyed a relationship with many African countries. Like Israel, the African states had recently escaped the bonds of colonialism – in Israel’s case British colonialism and in the African instance various European colonialist nations such as Belgium, France, Britain and Germany.
Africans stood to benefit from Israel’s knowhow, while the Israeli interest was to break out of the diplomatic isolation imposed on it by its Arab neighbors.
Relations soured after the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Fueled by Arab and Soviet propaganda and by a dislike for America, African nations became persuaded by the lie that Israel had become a modern-day colonizer that was occupying Arab lands.
Before Netanyahu’s historic visit to Africa in July, the last prime minister to pay an official visit was Yitzhak Shamir in 1987.
However, a number of factors have come together to improve relations between Africans and Israelis. Israel has developed technologies that are particularly well-suited to dealing with the sorts of threats faced by these countries.
Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia are facing terrorism from Islamist extremists, and Rwanda is concerned about a spillover effect. One of the reasons for this enhanced concern is the break-up of Libya, and the negative forces that it unleashed on its neighbors – Mali and Chad. These countries, and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, are more concerned with questions of homeland security than they were some 20 years ago, and they see Israel as one country with a great deal of experience – and technology – in this field. Israel is uniquely positioned to help these countries confront their terrorism threats.
Not all is smooth going. Nigeria – a country plagued by the terrorism of Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram – is opposed to Netanyahu taking part in the summit planned by Gnassingbe. Muslim elements within Nigeria are reluctant to cooperate with the Jewish state.
In addition to increasing the Islamist terrorist threat on the African continent, the break-up of Libya has had another impact as well. With Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gone, one of the biggest obstacles to normalization of ties between Israel and Africa has been removed. Gaddafi was the one who pressed to get Israel’s observer status removed from the African Union. Gaddafi lobbied to keep other African nations from welcoming Israel. His fall has had a positive impact on Israel-Africa relations.
Another factor that has helped enable Israeli-African cooperation has been the dynamics created by Iran’s confrontation with leading Sunni Arab nations. The opposition to Iran’s belligerence in the region has aligned Israel with a number of Arab nations. Discreet ties with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries and more public cooperation with Jordan and Egypt has made it possible for African nations to do business with Israel themselves without risking relations with Arab nations.
For all of these reasons, “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel,” as Netanyahu recently stated. The beauty of this burgeoning relationship is that it is a win-win situation. Israel will enjoy economic benefits as well as a diplomatic push as more African nations support it in international forums such as the UN. African nations, meanwhile, will benefit from Israeli know-how and technologies. This sea change may not be making headlines. But it is important nonetheless.