ISRAEL’S RELATIONS with Africa have known their ups and downs over the years, from the great friendship of the early 1960s to the severing of ties by almost all African nations in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War. 1n 1982, three years after the peace agreement with Egypt, several sub-Saharan nations renewed or established ties with Israel. Today, the Jewish state has diplomatic ties with 40 of the 45 sub-Saharan nations. Such extreme shifts in Israel’s foreign relations have not taken place on other continents.The Organization of African Unity played a decisive role in the stormy nature of Africa’s ties with Israel. The OAU was set up in 1963 with its seat in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and encompassed all the African nations, including the Arab countries.
In the early years of the OAU, the sub- Saharan countries that were friendly with Israel refused to put Middle Eastern and Palestinian matters on the organization’s agenda, claiming that there were more important African issues to be debated. After the 1967 war and the crushing defeat of Egypt, one of the OAU’s founder nations, the organization called for Israel to withdraw from territories it had captured on the basis of United Nations Resolution 242. From that point on, anti-Israel resolutions became more frequent and more severe. In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, the OAU passed an Egyptian sponsored resolution calling on member states to cut ties with Israel. Almost all African countries complied, including those with friendly ties to Israel such as Kenya and the Ivory Coast, which didn’t want to be exceptional and harm the solidarity and integrity of the OAU.Since 1982, when Israel began its return to Africa, MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, has sent experts to each of the 40 countries with which Israel has ties, focusing on agricultural development, drip irrigation, medicine and advanced technologies. Thousands of Africans have come to Israel for training in these fields.On the diplomatic front, mutual visits have taken place with a steady stream of African ministers and even heads of state coming to Israel. While Israeli delegations to Africa have been less frequent now, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman twice visited Africa in his capacity as foreign minister. In September 2009, Liberman visited Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, and in his second spell as foreign minister, in June 2014 he visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. On both of his visits, Liberman was accompanied by large business delegations who signed millions of dollars in deals with their African hosts.In March of this year, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold paid an extraordinary visit to South Africa that was all the more remarkable given that its president Jacob Zuma is extremely hostile to Israel. Gold met with his South African counterpart and the visit received a high media profile. A joint statement was issued in which it was announced that Israel and South Africa would cooperate in a number of fields. The picture that arises is thus one of developed and diverse relations with Africa, even prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tour of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda in early July. However, as I shall endeavor to explain, there was one disturbing aspect to those relations that the prime minister tried to remedy on his visit. Namely, that while bilateral relations with most African countries are good, when it comes to voting patterns at the UN and other international organizations, almost all African countries vote in favor of Arab sponsored anti-Israel resolutions.IN ADOPTING such a dual policy the African countries wish to benefit from Arab assistance in addition to Israeli aid. It is noteworthy that Arab countries are very active in Africa, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on development programs. One prominent example is the Arab Bank for Economic Development of Africa (ABEDA), known better by its French acronym BADEA. The bank is owned by 18 of the 22 members of the Arab League and provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually for development projects. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, in addition to their membership in ABEDA, are also active independently in Africa.All of the above should be taken into account when evaluating the chances of success of the prime minister’s visit. In aiming to change the dual policy of the African nations, Netanyahu hopes to harness the goodwill of the four countries most friendly to Israel from which he recently returned. In Netanyahu’s opinion, the quartet can indeed influence the dozens of other African countries with which Israel already has ties to change their anti-Israel voting patterns in the UN and other international organizations, and constitute a counterbalance to the automatic Arab majority at these organizations.One of the most important events in Netanyahu’s visit, which began with a ceremony in Uganda marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe, was the Regional Summit on Counter-Terrorism, which took place in Entebbe and was attended by the presidents of Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda and Zambia, the prime minister of Ethiopia and the foreign minister of Tanzania. The parties issued a joint statement at the end of the summit stating that “terrorism continues to be a major threat to international peace and security and to the very survival of human civilization” (without mentioning the word Islam) and stressing the need for “increased regional and international cooperation in all fields, including cybersecurity and information gathering, to confront this scourge.”On the Kenya leg of his trip, Netanyahu met with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February of this year. Netanyahu paid tribute at the grave of Jomo Kenyatta, the president’s father, who is considered the father of the nation, and in 1963, the year Kenya gained independence participated with then-foreign minister Golda Meir in the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi.President Kenyatta said during his meeting with Netanyahu that he would push for Israel to receive “Observer Status” at the African Union. Netanyahu said that Israel had possessed observer status at the OAU in the 1960s but that it had later been rescinded. However, it is important to note that Israel never in fact held observer status at the OAU, which grants the right to participate in debates and address the forum. The Palestine Liberation Organization received Observer Status at the OAU in 1974, after the organization decided that the “Palestinian issue was an African issue.” Israel, in the 1960s held ‘Invited Guest’ status that allowed it to attend the forum’s opening and closing ceremonies, but the Arab countries managed to get that status rescinded in 1970. The foreign ministry’s attempts to regain invited guest status failed repeatedly and if Netanyahu were to manage to regain that status, like all other non-African delegations, it would be considered an achievement.The prime minister also visited Rwanda, one of Israel’s best friends in Africa, where the prime minister visited a museum dedicated to the Rwandan genocide. President Paul Kagame sees Israel as an example of a country that has risen from the ashes to build a prosperous society that Rwanda sees as an example, as it tries to rebuild itself from its own tragedy.The visit ended in Ethiopia, where Netanyahu addressed parliament. One point where Ethiopia is of strategic importance is that it is the seat of the AU. In addition to the political aims of his African tour, Netanyahu also set a goal of expanding trade ties with Africa. The prime minister was accompanied by a delegation of some 80 businessmen who signed several large deals. Netanyahu also allocated some 50 million shekels toward that goal and announced that Israel would place economic attachés at its main embassies in Africa.In recent years Africa’s economy has been growing at a fast pace fuelled by natural resources such as oil and diamonds. Israel’s trade with Africa stands at just over a billion dollars a year and leaves enormous scope for expansion.The importance of the visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister in 30 years, was that Netanyahu showed Israel’s interest in increasing cooperation with African countries on matters of importance to them such as agriculture, water management and medicine, as well as in the fields of security and intelligence.At the end of July, the African Union is due to convene in Rwanda, one of the friendliest nations to Israel in Africa. This will be a test as to whether the goals set by Netanyahu, in particular in the diplomatic sphere, will be achieved.I believe there is a chance that more African countries will refrain from voting against Israel by abstaining or being absent from votes at the UN and international forums. However, there is no chance that Israel will receive Observer Status at the AU. If Israel’s friends in Africa help it regain invited guest status that, in itself, will be an achievement. Dr. Arye Oded, a veteran of the foreign service, was sent to Africa in the early 1960s and served in various roles in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi. In the 1990s he was ambassador to Swaziland, Lesotho, Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius and Seychelles. He is currently the head of the Africa Unit at The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.