Why was the landmark Africa-Israel Summit shelved?

The story behind the story of the Africa-Israel Summit stretches back to Theodor Herzl via Golda Meir to Avigdor Liberman.

Netanyahu inspects a guard of honor at the National Palace during his State visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu inspects a guard of honor at the National Palace during his State visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The diplomatic ambitions of two longtime rulers, in Togo and Israel, brought together by the dream of the first Africa-Israel Summit scheduled for October, succumbed to mostly domestic political threats to their rule – and resulted in an indefinite delay of the historic gathering.
Record numbers of protesters gathered in Togo’s capital, Lomé, in early September, calling for the resignation of President Faure Gnassingbé, and demanding a review of the country’s constitution to limit his presidential term. Gnassingbé, who has been in power for 12 years, took over from his father, who ruled Togo for 38 years.
Meanwhile in Israel, pressure mounted on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the attorney general announced plans to indict his wife, Sara, pending a hearing, and the expected September 17 lifting of the gag order on Ari Harow, his former bureau chief.
The political processes in both countries converged to deny the two heads of state a legacy they had carefully plotted and scripted.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem announced on September 11 that the Israel-Africa Summit would be delayed, and a new date would be set by Israel and Togo.
“We are hopeful that it is only a temporary delay for reasons beyond our control, and we are confident that Israel’s return to Africa will go ahead in full swing,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In the near future, Israel will hold consultations in Africa to guarantee “the full success of the summit,” the ministry added.
“Israel is fully committed to continue its efforts vis-à-vis the African continent,” the statement said. “Israel believes that the African countries and Israel can only benefit from the continuation of practical cooperation between the two sides, and this in important areas such as water, agriculture, health and technology.”
The story behind the story of the Africa-Israel Summit stretches back to Theodor Herzl via Golda Meir to Avigdor Liberman.
Liberman, still wearing a tie but no jacket after a grueling 18-hour day, wove his way from the first-class cabin through a herd of Israeli business leaders to the quiet back end of the unmarked charter plane somewhere over central Africa to confer.
For hours and hours, darkness flew by, with no lights visible below. In 2014, the then-foreign minister, was midway through a historic, five-nation African tour of Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya, tilling the diplomatic soil ‒ after decades of neglect since the Golda Meir era ‒ for a major push into Africa by the State of Israel.
This year's summit, in Lomé, on October 23-27, was expected to attract African heads of state and key ministers, at least four Israeli cabinet members, the Knesset’s chair of the Africa-Israel Caucus, MK Avraham Neguise, and swarms of Israeli business people and diplomats from across the continent. Interestingly, the summit was also going to be attended by delegations from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington as well as the American Jewish Committee, which lobbies African UN ambassadors. Their scheduled attendance signaled that Africa has become a new frontier for the US-Israel strategic relationship and a concern for world Jewry.
From the start, the summit had its detractors, who worked hard to undermine African attendance and cancel the gathering.
A little over a year ago, Israeli flags adorned East African capitals, as the prime minister received thunderous, royal welcomes in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia. He made an upbeat repeat performance with 18 African heads of state at the General Assembly at the United Nations last September, along with seven Israeli companies that advance social and economic development in Africa. And Netanyahu ‒ to the consternation of the king of Morocco who sought the privilege ‒ became the first outside speaker to address ECOWAS, the economic union of 15 West African states, which met in Monrovia, Liberia, this past June. I was alongside the prime minister on all these missions and will be heading a green-energy investment delegation to the summit.
The Russian-accented Liberman, who naturally focused a fair amount of his tenure as foreign minister on the former Soviet states, was impressive on this maiden voyage to Africa but his message needed some fine-tuning. “Speak more the language of partnership,” I counseled him, as we stood in the back of the chartered plane. “Africa is a proud continent. Business in Africa is all about the speed to trust. We have no colonial history, just historic goodwill. If you project a philosophy of true partnership, Israel could become a superpower of goodness in Africa.”
Say what you want about Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister ‒ and there’s a lot to say from every corner of the Israeli political and Jewish world ‒ as foreign minister, which has been one of his additional portfolios since 2015, he truly shines. It is in this role in which he appears happiest, harkening back to his heady yet frustrating days as UN ambassador, when there was an overwhelming anti-Israel automatic majority against Israel, no matter how articulate or compelling the young ambassador was.
He served in the era when Zionism was officially racism. Now, with rising jihadist terror in Africa and over 50 high-level African delegations in the past three years making the pilgrimage to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, it is diplomatic payback time for Netanyahu. Big time.
“When you look at the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development goals toward 2030,” says Glenn Yago, a development economist at the Jerusalem Institute’s Milken Innovation Center and the Blum Lab for Developing Economies, “Israel has clear advantages with over half of them. The prime minister understands that the summit is not only his moment, but also for Israeli companies that can advance development in Africa.”
According to Bruno Finel, the CEO of Africa-Israel Connect and organizer of the Africa-Israel Summit, “the Lomé conference constitutes a historic milestone for the Africa-Israel relationship.” The proposed draft summit schedule speaks to Israel’s strengths and Africa’s needs: water, security, renewable energy, and agriculture, along with the requisite gala dinner and photo opportunity of the premier surrounded by African heads of state or foreign ministers.
I would like to think that what is driving Africa and Israel together was Israel’s growing humanitarian concern. Yet the Jewish state doesn’t even come close to living up to its foreign assistance obligations under the OECD, which mandates that member states should be donating 0.7% of their gross national product. (Israel is officially at 0.07%, a tenth of the required, but it’s actually much lower). The truth is that humanitarian concern, while genuine – like the recent emergency airlift of food to South Sudan and Sierra Leone – is down on the list of priorities after economic opportunity, diplomatic considerations and fighting jihadism.
The first time I ever heard of al- Qaida was when I was on an assignment for the Forward, covering a rescue mission of 8,000 Ethiopian Jewish Falash Mura in Addis Ababa in 1998. As I landed, two bomb-laden trucks, nearly simultaneously, barreled into the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, killing 224, wounding 4,085, and opening the African front for Islamic jihadist terrorism against the West. The number of civilian deaths from Islamic terrorism in Africa in 2015 equaled the numbers in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, and, according to The New York Times, Islamic groups have raked in over $90 million in ransoms from kidnapping Europeans in the last decade.
“An African-based alliance between the United States and Israel strengthens both and is a natural outgrowth of our strategic relationship and shared values,” says Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Institute for Public Policy and an architect of Israel’s Africa strategy. “Extending the benefits of the US-Israel relationship to Africa combines the financial, diplomatic and military reach of a superpower with the innovation, risk-mitigation, intelligence and tenacity of Israel.”
The United States government planned to send a delegation to the summit to coordinate Africa strategy and President Donald Trump recently appointed Col. Adrian T. Bogart to lead the National Security Council’s efforts in Africa.
His NSC predecessor, Grant T. Harris, in a recent report for the Atlantic Council, writes, “The continent’s uneven democratic and economic growth and pockets of conflict contribute to a disproportionate number of weak and failed states, which threaten US interests at home and abroad by opening the door to terrorism, criminal activity, and pandemics… Terrorist groups based in Africa are inflicting terrible suffering and directly threaten the interests of the United States and its allies.”
Earlier this year Rwandan President Paul Kagame became the first African head of state to address the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Stephen Schneider, AIPAC’s director of international relations, says that the pro-Israel lobby “supports the expanding relations between Africa and the State of Israel. Israel has much to offer the African continent in the areas of water and energy security, development assistance and homeland security. Israel’s historic work with Africa, starting soon after the creation of the Jewish state, has tremendous possibilities which is good for both parties as well as the strategic interests of the United States.”
Israeli homeland security firms, or HLS, as the Israel Export Institute labels them, would have comprised the largest group of the 70 or so Israeli companies accompanying the prime minister in Togo, with closed-door sessions throughout the summit, lots of clean-cut former IDF officials, and tall guards with earpieces and special security badges. On previous trips with the premier to Africa, I learned to distinguish between Israelis in security and in development by the length of their hair.
For Netanyahu, whose brother’s death in Entebbe seems to hover over him whenever he is in Africa, the summit, and its stagecraft were going to play to his strengths and trigger his emotions in a way rarely seen by the Israeli public. Surrounded by the eleven Israeli ambassadors who serve 42 of the 54 countries with which Israel enjoys relations Netanyahu was seeking a redemptive legacy far away from the quagmire of the Middle East: readmission of Israel as an observer at the African Union, jihadist-blocking homeland security deals, lifesaving humanitarian development deals, and the end of an anti-Israel majority in the UN General Assembly, where African states represent a quarter of the body’s votes and two swing votes on the UN Security Council. With the possible indictment of Netanyahu sometime after the High Holy Days, he is also seeking to ensure that his African statesmanship provides a political boost at home and ring-fences him against would-be opponents.
The summit was scheduled to take place a month after Netanyahu’s planned trip to Argentina. Colombia and Mexico, and he and US President Donald Trump were scheduled to meet and then address the UN General Assembly in New York right before Rosh Hashana. The prime minister will be meeting with as many African leaders at the United Nations as possible to limit the damage from the cancellation of the summit and to explore how best to regroup.
Netanyahu has learned the hard way that there are some things beyond his control. Kenya’s High Court recently called for immediate new elections after invalidating the recent presidential contest, a bold and unprecedented step that undoubtedly calls into question President Kenyatta’s attendance at the summit. Furthermore, recent anti-government demonstrations in Lomé itself against the 50-year rule of the Gnassingbé family has left several dead and dozens injured, which has distracted the Togo government from devoting its full attention to the summit and has slowed confirmations.
Like most of the roads in Africa, the diplomatic one to Togo was not yet fully paved. South Africa and Morocco, with the encouragement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, worked hard to undercut attendance at the conference – a kind of diplomatic BDS. The Moroccans are worried about Israeli economic encroachment in the region and the South Africans object in solidarity with the Palestinians, who they claim suffer under an “apartheid regime.”
I was a leader in the anti-apartheid movement on US campuses in the 1980s – “another Zionist against apartheid” pin proudly poking holes in my ANC T-shirt – and wrote a booklet called “Jews, Zionism & South Africa” to counter the attempted hijacking of the movement by pro-Palestinian activists. At the time, UN ambassador Netanyahu asked permission to use the booklet to refute the cynical linking of Israel and apartheid at the world body.
Today, Dr. Avraham Neguise is playing that role. Neguise, a Likud member, is the only Ethiopian member of the 20th Knesset and was seated strategically next to Sara Netanyahu when her husband wowed the Ethiopian parliament last year. “It is an insult to South Africa’s own difficult history,” admonishes the normally soft-spoken Knesset member in his distinctive cap, “when they allow the word ‘apartheid’ to be used against Israel. By calling for a boycott, they are holding needy Africans hostage, even though they could benefit from Israeli solar and water technology.”
The prime minister acknowledged at a recent cabinet meeting that indeed there had been diplomatic pressures to cancel the summit. “These pressures are the best testimony to the success of our policy, of Israel’s presence in Africa,” Netanyahu told his ministers. Quietly, the Foreign Ministry worked overtime to try to shore up the conference and strengthen the resolve of Togo’s embattled president. Its cancelation strengthens BDS forces worldwide and undermines Netanyahu politically at home.
The push into Africa has deep roots in the Zionist narrative. At the time of Theodore Herzl, Africa was ruled and exploited by European empires. Just as the “Jewish Question” at the end of the 19th century obsessed Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism identified with the Africans under colonialism.
“There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question,” wrote Herzl in his diary in 1901.
“Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different.
I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
Fifteen years later, a strong-willed Golda Mabovitch, just 16, ran away from her Milwaukee home to Denver to escape an arranged marriage to someone nearly twice her age. This assertive act of personal self-determination changed the course of Jewish history, as well as African self-determination.
In 1921, the newly minted Golda Meyerson, later Meir, immigrated to pre-Israel Palestine and rose through the ranks of leadership at a time when European colonialism was in retreat. The lowering of the Union Jack in Israel in 1948 coincided with the lowering of European flags across Africa.
In 1958, the 60-year-old Golda Meir, then foreign minister of the 10-year-old Jewish state, set off on a tour of African countries.
Her worldview, influenced by socialist visions of statehood and her critique of American racial inequality ‒ “it’s a tragedy that the Negro problem wasn’t resolved fifty or a hundred years ago” ‒ came together powerfully when she stepped onto the poverty- ridden shores of Liberia and was welcomed as a queen.
“Independence had come to us, as it was coming to Africa, not served up on a silver platter, but after years of struggle,” wrote Meir in her autobiography. “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together and how to defend ourselves…. We couldn’t offer Africa money or arms, but on the other hand, we were free of the taint of the colonial exploiters because all that we wanted from Africa was friendship. Let me at once anticipate the cynics. Did we go into Africa because we wanted votes at the United Nations? Yes, of course. But it was far from being the most important motive. The main reason for our African ‘adventure’ was that we had something we wanted to pass on to nations that were even younger and less experienced than ourselves.”
With the backing of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Meir formed Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in 1958, several years even before USAID or the British Government’s aid programs were created.
When Netanyahu declares “Israel is coming back to Africa,” he is channeling Golda.
And when he says “Africa is coming back to Israel,” he’s channeling Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the “Lion of Judah,” who claimed King Solomon as an ancestor.
So much of Jewish and Israeli engagement with Africa channels Golda – from Sivan Yaari’s Innovation Africa to Anne Heyman’s Agahozo Shalom Youth Village to Mashav’s annual renewable energy training course at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to the Pears Program for Global Innovation, the Jewish Agency’s Project TEN, along with two dozen other programs, many under the Olam nonprofit umbrella. (www.Olamtogether.org)
The American Jewish Committee was a sponsor of the summit, in part because it would like to “enhance trade and investment to impact the lives of millions in a continent whose people – if not always their governments – have always harbored an abiding admiration and true affection for the State of Israel,” says Marion Bergman, chair of the AJC’s Africa Institute.
The scale of African economic opportunity is staggering.
Boasting 11 of the 20 fastest-growing economies on the planet, according to the World Bank, Africa’s 54 countries’ landmass together is greater than the landmass of the United States, Eastern Europe, India and China combined. Its billion plus people will double by 2050, and currently use 700 million cell phones, with more than half the continent’s population under the age of 25 – making the region ripe for economic development or, if not managed well, disenfranchisement and discontent. ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates recruit disaffected young African men for under $500 each, sometimes far less, and many of the asylum seekers boating to Europe are Africans fleeing poverty and oppression.
On a US congressional trip to Africa, accompanied by the U2 frontman Bono, I stood before the first commercial scale solar field in sub-Saharan Africa, in Rwanda, explaining the connection between “elections and electrons.” Those who wish to stay in power by means of the ballot need to, literally, supply power to their people. There are 600 million Africans without access to electricity, over 300 million without access to clean water, and a famine is sweeping East Africa affecting 16 million, including the hungry 2,000-member Abayudaya Jewish community in eastern Uganda. Energiya Global, and our family of associated companies, is deploying $250 million in impact investments in the next 12 months into Africa as part of a $2 billion commitment for solar and wind projects over the next five years as part of the US Power Africa and World Bank programs. (Food donations can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/urgent- famine-relief-for-namanyonyi.) But doing business in Africa can be tricky and some Israeli companies, or their local representatives, don’t always live up to the highest ethical standards, hurting Israel’s good name.
George Soros’s Global Witness NGO has targeted Israeli diamond billionaire Benny Steinmetz’s questionable and lucrative mining deal in Guinea, a small West African state, and he has been detained by Israeli police twice this past year for his alleged involvement in fraud and money laundering. There are plenty of others.
You don’t have to attend the summit to see Israelis involved in the African feeding frenzy. Nearly monthly, defense sales forces circle African officials in the lobby of the King David Hotel, as each one is escorted into the wood-paneled historic Oak Room for the requisite brief meeting of a head of state surrounded by nodding ministers and whispering key advisors.
I recently interrupted the sorties of well-dressed Israelis swooping in, when I squeezed my way through into the stately room to pitch renewable energy to the leaders of one of the most war-ravaged and destitute of African countries. I was unfortunately shadowed by a suspicious and pushy Israeli advisor to a key official in the room, who perked up at the words “invest $40 million,” and made sure later that nothing advanced unless there would be creative violations of the US and UK anti-corruption laws. (We took our investment elsewhere.) For all the challenges of working in Africa and with the postponement of the summit, Netanyahu is getting ready to unleash Jerusalem’s secret weapon in his damage control efforts. I clumsily stumbled across it on the top floor of a Chinese-financed and built African presidential office, a grand non-residential Asian-style White House, out of place amid the poverty of the country.
After surrendering our phones, we were welcomed into a well-guarded stately office.
On the main desk, where president Lyndon Johnson would have had a sign that said, “The buck stops here,” sat a simple olive wood sign that read “Genesis 12:3.”
I asked this most senior African government official what the biblical sign referenced, and saw the surprise on his face at the ignorance of this kippah-clad representative of a Jerusalem-headquartered company.
“‘I will bless those who bless you,’ God promised,” he answers, with a tone slightly indignant that I didn’t know the verse. “I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” He takes a long pause to ensure that God’s promise to Abraham sinks in with me.
“The Lord has blessed Israel, and we seek your blessings, which today is technology.”
“OK,” I answer. “We will invest $200 million in your solar energy projects if you can champion the project with your ministers and key officials.” A strong handshake followed.
Yet before we could finalize the investment, he and his government were swept out of power, largely because of an angry electorate frustrated with the corruption that held back electrification and economic development – “electrons and elections.”
“Faith-based diplomacy has opened up endless possibilities for cooperation with African countries at the highest level of government. It is no coincidence the vast majority of African heads of state involved in the Israeli government’s new diplomatic push are Bible-believing Christians,” says director of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, Josh Reinstein. “This is just the beginning. This new wave of support will prove itself both politically and economically in the years to come.”
On the first trip to Africa with the prime minister, I was asked by Christian friends in Nairobi to shlep two beautiful Yemenite curlicue shofars for the occasion. When Netanyahu entered the Kenya Christian Friends of Israel event, he was greeted triumphantly with the blasts of the rams’ horns, befitting the coming of the Messiah.
My same Christian friends had been planning to come to Lomé, shofars in hand.
Now they will have to wait a while.
The writer serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based impact investment platform for deploying solar and wind energy in Africa and is a founding partner of the US Power Africa program. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine and is coauthor with Sharon Udasin of the forthcoming ‘Shine on! A Solar Superhero’s Journey to Save the World’