PM Netanyahu and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Only time will tell if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Africa will turn out to be a footnote or turning point in Israel’s relationships on the continent. But the mere fact that, after decades of hostile rhetoric, the leader of the Jewish state is welcome in Africa is another indication of the change and opportunity often produced by turmoil.
East Africa, where Netanyahu visited Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and where in Uganda six African heads of state came to see him, has an especially close view of the impact of Islamic radicalism in neighboring countries such as Somalia, and across the narrow straits separating it from the Arab world.
African leaders know all too well that terrorism and violence are not confined to the Middle East, and most have learned that reflexive public antipathy toward Israel is a fruitless exercise.
Privately, more and more Israelis in recent years have brought scientific know-how, agricultural projects, medical innovations and other commercial opportunities to Africa. Until now, global politics and government-to-government engagement hasn’t caught up to the advances made in the private and NGO sectors, but the Netanyahu visit may be a sign of a breakthrough.
For several decades, many African nations have succumbed to the bias that permeates the United Nations and its various arms. Israel once enjoyed strong diplomatic and commercial ties to dozens of African countries, with two-way travel for business the norm.
Contrast that with the long, recurring history of non-Muslim, sub-Saharan Africans as victims of genocide perpetrated by some Arab countries.
Last month’s declaration by a group of African nations at the United Nations Human Rights Commission that Israel must immediately return to 1967 “borders” so that a Palestinian state can be established forthwith isn’t exactly a blockbuster idea. Israel accepted the two-state solution even prior to its founding, but nearly 70 years later the only constant is Palestinian rejection of every Israeli proposal.
African leaders can’t have it both ways. Buying into a Palestinian strategy of avoiding the difficult choices necessary for achieving a negotiated agreement with Israel and, instead, pursuing the internationalization of the conflict is a non-starter. It doesn’t make it any easier to swallow pointing to the renewal of invitations for Israelis to return to the continent.
If African countries want the economic and humanitarian benefits of a relationship with Israel, it’s not too much to ask that they refuse to go along when the UNHRC declares, for example, that Israel is the world’s greatest offender against the rights of women, or that a country where 20 percent of the population consists of Arab Israeli citizens is committing ethnic cleansing.
For many years, I have worked with many African leaders who know the potential benefits their nations can derive from Israeli science and innovation.
They are genuine in their appreciation of what a deepening relationship with Israel can bring to their people.
However, as burgeoning friends who should speak plainly to each other, Israel has every right to expect African nations to abandon their “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” approach with respect to the treatment of the Jewish state in international settings.
African leaders are painfully aware that the violence and extremism roiling the Middle East, fomented by jihadis who have politicized and militarized a religion, knows no boundaries.
Islamism has brought nothing but death and destruction to Africa. In this context, the inability of Palestinians to project a peaceful future, with round after round of vilification of Israel accompanied by acts of terrorism, is not a formula African leaders should support.
The Netanyahu visit may reveal that a tipping point has been reached, and the sooner African leaders take the next step by expressing their views in international forums about the new dynamic, the sooner Palestinians will be forced to face reality. Africa has the opportunity to show the world how to chart a new course that cuts the cord of blindly following the same old failed policies of the past. They will not be turning their backs on the Palestinians; to the contrary, they can show that peace and prosperity arrives only via a abandonment of extremism and a new openness to engage honestly with all parties.The writer is president of the American Jewish Congress.