Israel is an essential ally to Africa - opinion

Since Israel was revived as a modern Jewish state in 1948, it has provided essential aid to countries in Africa.

The emblem of the African Union. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The emblem of the African Union.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Israel is no mere observer of Africa, but an important ally, partner and friend connected by the land bridge of the Sinai Peninsula to the African continent that for thousands of years has linked the African and Jewish people. History intertwines the people of Africa with the Abrahamic faiths that trace back to Zion and the Land of Israel, and thus the connection is both physical and spiritual.

The modern state of Israel is the only nation in history that has delivered people of Africa from slavery to freedom. This stands in contrast to so many others who have cruelly exploited the African people, plundered their land and resources and, in some cases, still do today.

When Israel was revived as a modern Jewish state in 1948, it did not forget this shared history. In the 1950s, then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir wanted Israel – a fledgling state less than a decade old – to offer African countries a helping hand as they discarded the shackles of colonialism. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the African people and the need for Jews to help them once they themselves became liberated from persecution, and Meir was determined to bring his sentiment to fruition. She saw the compelling need for Israel to provide assistance to these newly independent nations even though the new Jewish state was struggling to help itself.

This commitment spanned from agriculture to infrastructure, and included building airports, setting up shipping operations and establishing educational and training institutions. Thousands of Israeli experts traversed Africa to offer knowledge, advice and assistance.  Numerous African leaders traveled to Israel and saw innovation and the early cultural DNA of the budding start-up nation firsthand. Much of this infrastructure still operates today.

All in all – until 1973 – a total of 33 African countries received a hand up from Israel when it was most needed. The Arab League, extremely hostile toward a Jewish state in its midst, pressured the Organization of African Unity (the precursor of the African Union) to sabotage and cut off ties with Israel on the pretext that Israel had “occupied” African land in the Suez Canal. While this decision disappointed Israel, it was absolutely devastating for the African continent in multiple ways. Africa could have had a different economy today had it developed alongside Israel, educating, liberating and feeding its own people and the rest of the world, had it not succumbed to this political pressure.

Prime Minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)Prime Minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

IN THE past few years, Israel and Africa have been coming closer again, due to new visionary and pragmatic leadership in Africa, the demise of ideologues, and renewed efforts by Israel to rekindle the connection. In the past year, Israel has made peace with the North African countries of Morocco and Sudan, which until recently were longstanding foes of Israel. This has spiked trade and investment, with Morocco benefiting from a 40% increase in trade with Israel the past year alone. Exports between the countries are predicted to increase tenfold over the next few years, bringing world-leading innovation and technologies alongside investment into these African economies.

Business sectors are already reaping the benefits of collaborative efforts with Israel, which include the development of smart cities in Africa, digital health technology and agricultural cooperation. Direct flights have been launched between Marrakech and Tel Aviv and 20,000 Israeli tourists are predicted to visit Morocco each year, bringing millions of dollars annually to the economy.

These developments are transformative for these countries, making a direct impact on the lives of individuals and families besides the country as a whole. Other countries that open up with Israel will see similar gains.

Drought, leading to famine, is Africa’s biggest challenge. Southern Africa has been in the midst of one for three years, bringing severe food insecurity to countries including Zimbabwe, Angola and Madagascar. East Africa is predicted to see extreme drought in the next five years in places like Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. This could lead to malnutrition or starvation for millions of people.

Few nations are able to match the assistance of Israel, a world leader in water technology. Israel has proven how water scarcity can be turned into abundance by tapping underground reservoirs and the ocean. Nonprofit projects in thousands of villages across Africa already use Israeli water technology to sustain millions of people. Israeli solar technology provides power to schools and hospitals, including powering mobile devices for connectivity, research, information and commerce.

Given these dynamics on the ground, it was fitting and long overdue that in July this year, Israel was given observer status at the African Union by AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat. Over 70 countries have observer status, some being former colonizers of Africa, some who do little but plunder African resources or entangle Africa in debt-trap diplomacy, and many who bear atrocious records on human rights abuses of their own.

OBSERVER STATUS simply means that a country may be invited to attend some AU meetings, gain limited access to internal AU documents, but not hold voting rights. When any other country besides Israel received observer status, few cared or even noticed, but when Israel was awarded that symbolic title, the anti-Israel machinery went into manic action. This was largely supported and driven by South Africa, whose opposition to Israel’s inclusion is ostensibly based on solidarity with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, this one-sided position ignores the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize, negotiate or make peace with Israel, as well as their sponsoring and support of terrorism (from which Africa has also suffered).

In truth, many African states now see diminishing returns from making for-show solidarity speeches on the Palestinian issue, particularly because it brings little benefit from the Arab world which is opening up in remarkable new ways with Israel. The Palestinian leadership offers Africa little but a cynical opportunity to leverage the Palestinian issue as a means of diverting attention from domestic problems.

Israel offers Africa a window to the future and innovative solutions to solve problems. This noisy attempt to annul Israel’s observer status is hypocritical. There is silence on the neocolonialism of Africa by other “observer” states and their sometimes atrocious human rights violations in their own countries. We hear nothing of deals with former colonizers, or those observer countries who solicit financing with African states and gain leverage when these states become indebted. This unhealthy obsession with Israel harms none other than the African people themselves, but the Jewish state keeps its heart open to Africa without faltering.

Israel richly deserves its observer status in Africa. It is hopeful that Africa will continue to invest in its own future through this important friendship. Israel is no mere observer to happenings on the African continent, but a long-time partner in Africa’s success. It is in the African Union’s interest to recognize and ensure this.

The writer is the national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, and a recipient of the World Zionist Organization’s Herzl Award.