Another golden era in Israel-Africa relations ?

By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)

Israel is displaying renewed interest in Africa, after the extensive ties that developed in the 1960s had crumbled. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Monday in Uganda, the first stop of a four-day trip that will also include visits to Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia

Prior to his departure, he declared, “I am now leaving on an historic visit to Africa. This visit will begin with a summit meeting with leaders from seven African countries (Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia) who are coming especially to Entebbe, Uganda, for this meeting, to welcome a Prime Minister of Israel for the first time in decades on African soil. All these countries have declared their need for cooperation with Israel.

He is the first sitting Prime Minister to visit sub-Saharan Africa since Yitzhak Shamir visited four western African countries in 1987.

“Coming on a journey like this is also very important from diplomatic, economic and security perspectives and I am pleased that Israel is going back to Africa in a big way. We are opening Africa to Israel again,’’ Netanyahu declared.

But the visit in Uganda started with a ceremony at Entebbe International Airport marking the 40th anniversary of the famous July 1976 hostage rescue operation carried out at the airport by the Israel Defense Forces to free more than 100 e passengers of an Air France plane from Tel Aviv to Paris hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists. The Prime Minister’s older brother, Yoni Netanyahu, was the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit that carried out the rescue, and was the sole IDF fatality in the operation.

“Over the years, the operation has become part of the Israeli ethos of an uncompromising war against terrorism. And as is the case with any operation, everyone has their own story,” former Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo wrote recently. Pardo took part in the raid as a lieutenant. He was Sayeret Matkal’s communication’s officer and was part of Yoni Netanyahu’s assault team. He is right. Everyone indeed has their own story.

The Israeli premier is being accompanied on his Africa trip by a delegation of around 80 businesspeople from over 50 companies.

Ramzi Gabai, the chairman of the Israel Export Institute, said, “There is great potential for Israeli exports to Africa and this potential is far from being fulfilled.”

Israeli officials are hoping that Netanyahu’s visit — the first by an Israeli prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in three decades — will usher in a new era in which Israel provides African states with security and agricultural assistance in return for support in international forums.

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Dozens of African dignitaries have visited Israel in recent years, including Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Each year, Israel trains some 1,000 African students in a range of disciplines, in particular in modern agricultural methods, medicine and communications.

Israel played a prominent role in assisting newly independent African countries in the 1960s when Israel was deeply involved in the continent, sending agricultural experts, medical assistance and military advisers to the emerging African democracies.

But those relations crumbled in the 1970s, when Arab countries, promising aid, pressured African nations to limit or cut ties with Israel. The 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.

Rise of jihadism across Africa

With the recent rise of jihadism across Africa, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants in Somalia, Israel has found common ground with countries like Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. The “Golden Era” in African-Israeli relations has been restored to the days of the 1950s and 1960s, when then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir managed to do wonders in a continent that shared Israel’s values (a desire for independence from colonial powers).

“Since 1982, the Africans realised they had made a mistake in cutting the ties,” said Arye Oded, a former Israeli diplomat and expert on Africa.

In recent years, Israel’s lack of progress in reaching peace with the Palestinians forced it to renew its African interests. “Israel renewed its interest in Africa because there were difficulties with Europe and other places,” Oded, who has been ambassador to several African nations, said.

At a recent conference on Africa-Israel ties, the foreign ministry’s deputy director general for Africa, Yoram Elron, noted Israel’s need for support from African nations in international forums.

“Today relations with the African continent are high on our foreign policy agenda,” he told dozens of African dignitaries and diplomats.

“We’re talking about some 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa who vote in one bloc at the U.N.,” he said. Indeed in recent weeks Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ghana’s foreign minister and a delegation of African Muslim religious leaders visited Israel.

While Israel’s trade with Africa constitutes only two percent of its foreign trade, the potential for growth exists. “Africa, which has today one of the highest growth rates in the world, presents many business opportunities in areas Israel has extensive expertise, such as agriculture, telecommunications, alternative energy and infrastructure,” Elron said.

He also noted Israel’s intelligence and military expertise were valuable for African states dealing with groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shebab and Al-Qaeda.

Security training and assistance

While Israeli military exports to Africa are limited, Israel provides several countries with security training and assistance.

Israeli defense officials say intelligence sharing is limited to a few close allies for now. Israel has military ties with several African countries, and Israel’s Defense Ministry has given clearance for private Israeli security firms to operate in some nations, including some arms sales.

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.

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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.

Currently, only 2 % of Israel’s exports go to Africa and this could increase dramatically.

Africa needs a lot of the know-how that Israel has, specifically in the area of water technology, agriculture, energy and cyber-security.

“From commercial relations, great diplomatic relations can follow,” said Eli Groner, Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office, who insisted that one of key goals of Africa trip is to strengthen economic ties.

Today out of 48 Sub-Saharan African countries, Israel has diplomatic relations with 40. ‘’Netanyahu’s visit is taking place even as people lament Israel’s so-called isolation,’’ writes journalist and commentator Boaz Bismuth, a former ambassador to Mauritania, in daily Israel Hayom.

‘’Now that a reconciliation deal with Turkey has been signed, Israel is surrounded by many friends or “just” partners: Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, as well as central Asian nations. Then there are closer ties with Egypt and the thriving relations with East African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. These diplomatic relations are just facts. There are also old-new developments on the other side of the continent, on the west. A new pro-Israel axis is forming around Togo, comprising countries that want to deepen their ties with Israel, such as a Ghana and Ivory Coast.’’