Standing before an audience of African presidents and high-ranking diplomats at the heart of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wiped away a tear as he recalled his strong personal bond with Africa.
In a daring raid to free over one hundred Israeli hostages from the hostile territory of Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1976, Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan became the only Israeli military fatality in a famous mission that became a part of national folklore.
The recollection of his brother’s African martyrdom was a rare public display of emotion by a PM usually known for his inflexible policy positions on everything from the US–Iranian nuclear deal to Israeli settlement building on Palestinian land. Yet all sides of this controversial leader – the grieving brother, the determined diplomat desperate to build support at the UN, and the hardliner obsessed with national security – are helping to shape new relations with Africa. These efforts are helping to redefine ties which fell into a diplomatic deep-freeze following African fury at the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
“Israel has traditionally had very warm relations with Africa[…] unfortunately in the last 40 years Israel has focused on other issues – Palestine, relations with the US, war. It has clearly got Israel far from where it should be in Africa,” says Jacques Neriah, a former foreign policy advisor to ex-PM Yitzhak Rabin and an analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
In a bid to build on an annual trade volume estimated at just $1.3bn a year, Netanyahu has embarked on a year of frenetic activity. Over the summer, the Israeli PM commandeered a 70-strong delegation of business executives on a tour of Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, where he mixed events of high emotional importance – visits to the Rwandan genocide memorial in Kigali and the site of his brother’s death in Entebbe – with practical discussions on how to expand business and counter-terrorism ties.
At the UN General Assembly in September, Netanyahu followed up with an uncompromising speech in which he nevertheless referred to Africa as a “potent partner”. In the same week, he attended a conference of excitable young Israeli tech entrepreneurs, many of whom responded with passionate presentations detailing how their transformative inventions can help Africa.
This marketable vision of Israel as an optimistic new country, shorn of its controversies and happy to share its technological advancements with African friends, is exactly the image Netanyahu would like to offer the continent. “Relations between Israel and Africa are very important for our mutual interest. Israeli technology in agriculture, water, solar energy and other high-tech is very important to African economies,” says Avraham Neguise, an Ethiopian-born member of the Knesset who established an Israeli parliamentary caucus to boost relations with Africa.
As the bonds of anti-colonial and revolutionary solidarity that tied Africa to its Arab partners and the Palestinian cause give way to arrangements based on mutual prosperity, Africa appears ever more open to Israel’s embrace. Neguise says that Israel expanded its diplomatic relations in the wake of the East Africa tour, and has received inquiries from West Africa regarding similar visits.
Paul Odhiambo, policy analyst at the Kenyan Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), says that Africa is increasingly comfortable with separating business interests from historical baggage. “The fact that Netanyahu travelled with business people highlighted the cooperation. A lot of African countries are stressing economic diplomacy. You do not have people focusing so much on the pan-Arab movement.”
Yet for Israel, renewed economic ties represent only the beginning of an African strategy. Decades of scepticism and hostility towards Israel – exacerbated by the country’s settlement policies and regional wars – have isolated Jerusalem at the UN General Assembly. The cool reception afforded to Israel in the UN and other international institutions has been compounded by Netanyahu’s strained relationship with outgoing US president Barack Obama – culminating in rows over settlement building and a US–Iranian nuclear deal that Netanyahu believes endangers his country.
All the while, a newly assertive Palestinian Authority drums up support at the UN and elsewhere. The election of a friendly Donald Trump aside, Israel finds itself in need of new allies. Crumbling anti-colonial solidarity, a lull in the Palestinian conflict and the distraction afforded by other Middle East conflagrations offer a rare opening in Africa.
“What happened lately is that the Israeli government finally realised that your voice at the UN doesn’t matter if you’re a country of 200m like Nigeria or 600,000 like São Tomé,” says Jacques Neriah. “It’s important for Israel to try to combat the automatic majority in the UN’s different bodies by trying to make a rapprochement with these countries and to renew relations. This is at the core of the foreign policy towards Africa in the last few months.”
In October, a vote on an obscure UNESCO resolution, which Israel claimed denied the link between the Jewish religion and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, revealed the impact of Israel’s diplomatic outreach to Africa. Behind the scenes, Tanzania pushed for the vote to be held by secret ballot – a concession seen as favourable to Jerusalem.
The determined push at the United Nations appears to be bearing fruit. Lobbying at the UN is running in tandem with an effort to regain the African Union observer status lost during its 2002 conversion from the Organisation of African States. Yet re-establishing relations after decades of enmity is far from simple. While countries with Islamist insurgencies look to Israel for counter-terror expertise, many others – including South Africa – remain deeply sceptical of ties with Israel.
South Africa has a vibrant Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement lobbying for Israeli isolation. Meanwhile, the anti-colonial history of many African political parties, combined with residual support for the Palestinian cause, means that many could back greater business ties – but not at the expense of solidarity.
“I think the expansion of business, economic and security ties between Africa and Israel will have to develop for a period of time before many African states begin supporting Israel at the UN General Assembly or UN Security Council, especially among non-permanent members from Africa, ” says KIPPRA’s Odhiambo. “Re-engagement between Africa and Israel is just taking root.”