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The last time I crossed into Ghana from neighboring Togo, I was greeted with a "God bless Israel" by the Ghanaian policeman at the frontier post when he saw my passport. He added as an afterthought, "I love Israel."
Such love for Israel is no exception. Like Ghana's footballer John Pantsil, who plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv and brandished the Israeli flag during his team's World Cup victory celebrations over the Czech Republic, the policeman expressed feelings that are very common in Africa. It may come as a surprise to many Israelis, but on no other continent - with the possible exception of North America - do we have better friends.
We in Israel may have forgotten the period of intense Israeli activity in Africa shortly after the establishment of the state, but in Africa it is still vividly remembered. Our leaders at the time were imbued with a spirit of anti-colonialism and they felt duty-bound to share their experience and help other people who had wrested independence from their colonial masters. As far back as 1902, Theodor Herzl had written, "Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans." Only a Jew, he wrote, can understand "the profound tragedy" of the Africans.
Today we are still living off the reserve of good will that our contribution in agriculture, youth training, medicine, trade union leadership and other fields created back then. Moreover, hardly anywhere else in the world is the Bible so well known and so meaningful as in Africa, and that adds to the solid base for the friendship that still exists for Israel among the people of Africa, though not necessarily among all their politicians.
Alas, we are doing precious little to preserve and foster that friendship. The last time a president of Israel visited Africa was back in the '80s of the last century. President Obasanjo of Nigeria - no small country, by any degree - asked to visit Israel two years ago, yet only now is the Foreign Ministry finalizing a date for him. Other presidents and vice presidents of African countries have expressed a similar wish to visit us, and have received the same treatment.
The director of the African Division of the Foreign Ministry was moved to another post many months ago and no one was appointed in her place. I can think of no other division in the ministry that would have been left for so long without a director. The division's manpower has been drastically cut, making any in-depth work virtually impossible.
In Ghana, where we were once so active, a former foreign minister of ours promised to reopen our embassy in Accra if the Ghanaians opened one in Tel Aviv. The Ghanaians duly opened theirs; we did not. In another African country, the cashstrapped government found the budget to open an embassy in Israel; we, however, closed down the embassy we had in that country. The foreign minister of a country that does not have diplomatic relations with us wanted to come here for talks. We did not follow up.
These are just a few examples of relations with what has become the lost continent for the Foreign Ministry. Yet at the same time, while for our officialdom Africa hardly exists, our private sector has discovered the tremendous potential that the black continent holds for our economy. Hundreds of new projects initiated by Israeli entrepreneurs are being implemented. Our "big fish" - Lev Leviev, Benny Steinmetz, Hezy Betzalel, to mention only a few - are there in force, in Angola, Botswana, Congo, and many other countries. They have discovered the attraction of a market of more than 600 million people who are no longer bound economically to their former colonial masters.
Our agricultural experts, the best one can find anywhere, are discovering new frontiers at a time when agriculture has declined so dramatically here. Youval Rosh, an enterprising entrepreneur, is opening up the continent to manufacturers of hothouses, of irrigation equipment, and to experts in the growth and marketing of fruit and vegetables. Betzalel has brought dozens of Israeli companies to different countries in Africa.
All this activity could be multiplied manifold if our government agencies would make a mental adjustment in their attitude to the African continent. We should be a little less condescending, a little less arrogant. A visit by our president, for example, to certain key African countries would have far greater repercussions than many of the visits undertaken elsewhere. We should welcome African leaders, instead of finding excuses to postpone their visits.
There was a time when the Arab countries did their utmost to isolate Israel, to reduce our contacts to the US and Europe, and close down the rest of the world for us. We now have a new foreign minister. She will, understandably and justifiably, concentrate mainly on our relations with the US, Europe and the Arab countries. There is, however, a big wide universe out there beyond the US and Europe. Let us not make the huge mistake of ignoring it.