Analysis: Israel's renewed interest in Africa

Israel is displaying renewed interest in Africa, after the extensive ties that developed in the 1960s had crumbled.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements after they delivered joint statements in Jerusalem, February 23 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign agreements after they delivered joint statements in Jerusalem, February 23
(photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced that he will pay the first visit to Africa by an Israeli prime minister in almost 30 years.
The trip, which will include stops in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and possibly another country, is aimed at showing the importance Israel attaches to the continent. This also was manifested in February when a pro-Africa parliamentary lobby was established in the Knesset.
The importance of Africa for Israel is in three main areas. The first is political-diplomatic and the African nations are seen as a critical voting bloc that could prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and other international forums. Although the African nations usually vote in a bloc, following the decisions of the African Union, there have been recent instances of schisms within the bloc.
Today out of 48 Sub-Saharan African countries, Israel has diplomatic relations with 40.
North Africa, in the eyes of the Foreign Ministry, is a different region ‒ part of the Middle East. Currently Israel has 10 permanent diplomatic missions in Africa: South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal. Its other representatives in Africa are non-resident.
African nations have 15 diplomatic missions in Israel. None of the African nations represented in Israel has a military attaché.
The second area is economic. Africa is considered by Israel, as it is by the rest of the world, to be a potentially huge export market. So far Israel has barely tapped this emerging market. Two-way trade between Israel and the continent of Africa is a mere $1 billion annually, two-thirds of which comes from trade between Israel and South Africa, mainly in diamonds.
Africa’s third area of importance to Israel is strategic and military, but the extent here is very small. Israel is among the top 10 arms exporters in the world and soon-to-be-released figures are expected to show that Israel signed $5 billion of arms deals in 2015.
Of that amount, however, barely 3 percent – $135 million – was with African countries.
One might have expected that Israel would be deeply involved in assisting the Nigerian military in its fight against Boko Haram, the local version of Islamic State, but there have been no deals between the two countries in the last two years. In fact, the only indirect Israeli assistance in the anti- terrorism battle is that the highly praised Cameroon forces, which are taking part in the war against Boko Haram, were trained in the past by Israeli military advisers, and their basic gear is Israeli-made.
The threat of terrorism, which is of concern to more and more African nations – including Rwanda, Kenya, Ivory Coast and Ghana – has led to interest in Israeli counterterrorism tactics and intelligence support.
In February, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Israel and talked openly about the need to coordinate the international struggle against terrorism, Israel included.
He even suggested that in the future he might ask Israel to upgrade his air force.
In the military realm, there has been a major shift. Whereas in the past, Israeli arms sales to Africa, even if marginal, mainly focused on light weapons, firearms, mortar shells and armored vehicles, nowadays African nations are asking for more sophisticated equipment, such as control and command centers, and intelligence capabilities.
The Israeli security interest in Africa is also due to Iranian efforts to make inroads on the continent, as well as the presence of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shi’ite organization Hezbollah in various parts of Africa, particularly on the western coast.
Diamonds and other important raw materials also attract Israelis to the continent, but the search for commodities has sometimes contributed to the negative image of the “ugly Israeli” operating in Africa. These are Israeli tycoons with international outreach who go to Africa to explore and exploit its minerals and are no different from other international tycoons who navigate their way ‒ with a little help from kickbacks ‒ to obtain lucrative concessions and contracts.
Sometimes they get what they want in return for helping the local rulers by training and equipping their bodyguards and providing them with bugging systems to spy on their opponents.
Russian-born tycoon Arkady Gaydamak, a sometime Israeli, who is now in a French jail for tax evasion, operated in Angola, where France accused him of selling weapons to the regime and bribing top officials.
Israeli real estate and diamond magnate Lev Leviev also was very close to the Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and his family, and received major diamond concessions in the country In Congo (formerly Zaire), Israeli Dan Gertler became a good friend of President Joseph Kabila and is considered one of the most important businessmen mining diamonds, cobalt and other raw minerals. Another prominent Israeli – who gave up his Israeli passport for tax reasons ‒ is diamond merchant Benny Steinmetz. A decade ago he obtained an ore concession in Guinea only to find himself now being investigated by France, the UK, US and Switzerland on suspicion of bribery in Guinea.
While some of these individuals portray Israel in a dark light, there are numerous examples of Israelis who work in Africa with good intentions rooted in idealism.
Each year, Israel trains some 1,000 African students in a range of disciplines, in particular in modern agricultural methods, medicine and communications.
In the 1960s, Israel was deeply involved in the African continent, sending agricultural experts, medical assistance and military advisers to the emerging African democracies.
These emissaries were mostly welcome as Israel was neither a colonial power like Britain or France, nor did it have imperial ambitions, as did the US and the USSR to extend the Cold War into a new continent.
Though, of course, for Israel, it wasn’t philanthropy.
At the time, Israel was isolated and under constant threat from the Arab countries, particularly Egypt, which was a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity. So Israel’s interests on the continent were to increase its influence and win friends and supporters in international forums to battle the Arab economic boycott and reach new markets.
The Israeli presence in Africa also served two hidden agendas. One was to use some key countries in Africa, such as Kenya in the east and Ivory Coast in the west, as intelligence stations for the Mossad espionage agency. Of special interest was the northeastern Horn of Africa ‒ because of its proximity to Egypt, Israel’s strongest military threat at the time, and its strategic position in relation to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea leading to the southern Israeli port of Eilat.
For two years, between 1968-70, Israel helped the South Sudanese rebellion against the central Khartoum government. A small team of Mossad operatives and doctors trained the South Sudan Liberation Movement, participated in some of their sabotage and ambush activities against the army, and provided light weapons to the rebels via Uganda The Horn of Africa also served as a launching pad to deploy and recruit agents in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and to build observation and communication posts in Kenya and Ethiopia. The special relations with Kenya proved invaluable to Israel in 1976 when the Kenyan government of Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s father) allowed Israeli intelligence agents to operate reconnaissance missions against Uganda in preparation for a raid on Entebbe Airport, where Israeli hostages were being held by Palestinian and German terrorists.
After the successful rescue, Kenya permitted the Israeli transports to refuel in Nairobi on their way home.
The second secret aim was to serve as a front for the CIA. Most of the funds that enabled Israel to support the various economic and development projects on the continent originated in the American trade union movement, which was a channel for the flow of secret intelligence money.
This golden-era honeymoon between Israel and Africa ended with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Most African nations broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, and rallied in support of Egypt and Syria.
Actually, a few years before the war, the Israeli image had already begun to dwindle.
Once seen as an anti-colonial country with a pioneering spirit and social democratic values, Israel became, in the eyes of many, an occupier after its victories in the 1967 Six Day War.
While acknowledging that the 1967 war was instigated by Arab states, this did not justify to many Africans that Israel was controlling the lives of some two million Palestinians.
Israeli leaders apparently believed that if the world was ruled only by interests, there was no place for morality, justice or ethical values when it came to international relations.
Finding itself becoming more and more isolated, Israel was embraced by South Africa, which was – due to its apartheid regime – considered to be an international pariah. This strategic alliance made South Africa an important market for Israeli military materiel. The Jewish State sold the apartheid regime missile boats, artillery, avionics and intelligence equipment.
The two countries cooperated in developing missiles and, above all, in the nuclear field, which reportedly led to a joint Israeli- South African nuclear test or, at the very least, a South African nuclear test in the presence of Israeli experts.
This partnership is a dark stain on Israel’s history. A country founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust had allied itself with a racist and discriminatory regime. Unfortunately, Israel was among the last Western nations to join the international sanctions against South Africa and to gradually begin to divest.
In the period between the early ’70s and early ’90s, Israel’s image of colliding with dictators and brutal regimes was further tarnished. With the backing of the Defense Ministry, Israeli military industries and former military and intelligence officials were encouraged to provide security assistance and firearms to various African dictators, such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and similar iron-fisted rulers from Cameroon, Togo and the like.
Israeli military advisers helped these despots to train and equip their Praetorian guards, whose main purpose was to protect the rulers and oppress their opponents.
These activities gave Israel a bad name and its reputation as a supporter of corrupt dictators who abuse human rights.
But, like a roller coaster, the international siege against Israel gradually lifted, first when it signed its peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and evacuated its military forces from Sinai, then again when it signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in 1993, and further with its 1994 peace agreement with Jordan.
During this time, many African countries renewed diplomatic relations with Israel as its image began to change for the better and Israel was hopeful the biggest Africa countries, such as Nigeria and Kenya, would serve as major markets for its military products.
Israel’s presence and influence in Africa, including in military and security areas, however, remain much smaller than is commonly perceived. Indeed, when it comes to arms, its role is marginal when compared to the military sales of the US, UK, France, Russia, China and even South Africa.
Over the past five years, the Israel government has become somewhat more conservative in formulating foreign and security policies. While, until 2007 or 2008, the Defense Ministry ‒ a state-within-a-state – was the sole decision maker when it came to arms sales, the Foreign Ministry now has a more influential voice in the process. Human rights and moral values are now taken into consideration in addition to narrow security interests. 
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman