Analysis - Political Transformations
Impact and implications of Netanyahu’s Africa tour
Monday، July 11، 2016
On July 4, 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited four African states: Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia, and also met with other heads of states such as South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. This visit, the first of its kind by an Israeli Prime Minister to sub-Saharan Africa since 1987, received considerable attention from official and public circles and the media in Africa and the Arab world, raising a significant amount of controversy surrounding its motivation, results, and impacts on Arab national security.
Importance of the African Continent to Israel
Israeli public opinion supported Netanyahu's recent visit, considering it a golden opportunity to consolidate Israel's relations and expansion in the Continent. Such a visit allows Israel to cement its relations with the countries of the Nile Basin and Horn of Africa, two regions that are of paramount importance to Israeli strategy, which seeks, among several objectives, to encircle Arab states in North Africa, instigate downstream countries against Egypt, and states surrounding the Nile who are dependent on its waters. Tel Aviv also aims to control navigation in the Red Sea and open promising opportunities in Africa for its investors, who accompanied the Israeli Prime Minister on his recent tour.
Despite the fact that this visit comes after almost twenty-nine years since the last visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to sub-Saharan Africa, Israel's leaders have never lost sight of Africa as a strategic ally. Relations date back to the link between the Zionist movement and the African University movement, when Israel's founding fathers sought to create intellectual and organizational relations with African Unity advocates, suggesting the creation of a national homeland for Jews under the ‘Uganda Scheme’ before settling in Palestine. Furthermore, Liberia was the third country in the world to recognize the state of Israel, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Mutual visits between Israeli and African officials, whether at the level of ministers or diplomatic officials; or military and economic experts are a further indication of strong ties between Israel and Africa. Noteworthy visits include Avigdor Lieberman, the current Israeli Defense Minister’s visit to various Nile downstream countries in September 2009 (during the crisis between Egypt and Nile downstream countries before the signing of the Entebbe Agreement), as well as President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit’s visit to Tel Aviv in 2011, to thank Israel for supporting the secession of South Sudan.
However, due to the sensitivity of relations with Israel and the desire to establish some balance with Arab countries, African states used to surround such visits with secrecy and sought to strengthen bilateral ties with executives and technical experts rather than senior political leaders.
Significance of Netanyahu’s visit
Prime Minister Netanyahu began in Uganda, where he visited the tomb of his brother Jonathan Netanyahu, who died in 1976, during the Entebbe Airport operation to free hostages in an Israeli plane hijacked during a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. Netanyahu unveiled a memorial featuring the names of the victims of that operation. This, of course, has symbolic and political connotations, designed to show Israel as a victim of terrorism, like African countries, which suffer from the spread of takfiri religious groups, as well as organizations involved in organized crime.
Strangely enough is Netanyahu's visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, forgetting the human rights violations his government is committing in Palestine. In addition, Netanyahu signed a cooperation agreement with African states to counter terrorism, in a new step to beautify Israel’s image, having preceded by another move where the Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon was elected as a head of the International Law Commission of the United Nations General Assembly, after winning 109 votes, most of which were African votes.
Economic and technical cooperation were high on the agenda since Israel is keen to exploit the African need for its assistance and expertise in these critical areas. The visit has already seen meetings held between Israeli businesspeople and their African counterparts, to identify the opportunities and challenges facing the movement of Israeli trade and investment within the continent. Currently, Israeli foreign trade with sub-Saharan Africa is at approximately two per cent, a figure that does not reflect the size of the political relations between the two sides. During the meetings, it was agreed to establish commercial representative offices and offices for the Israeli Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) in those countries.
Several agreements were signed in the areas of health, education and agriculture, notably the Israeli-Ethiopian cooperation agreement in the field of space and renewable energy, in light of the Ethiopian ambition to shift from electrical energy to self-sufficiency and to export energy, inside and outside the continent. Addis Ababa has increasingly clung to this ambition following the construction of the Renaissance Dam, where the distribution of the generated electricity was commissioned to an Israeli company.
Remarkably, the modest budget that Netanyahu allocated to supporting African states was only 50 million shekels (USD13 million), which highlights two points:
African nation’s adherence to strong ties with Israel might reflect a desire to achieve deeper political and security gains than economic support, especially as Israel is considered a gateway to establish strong ties with the US. Israel is also regarded as an important source of arming and training for African troops, including the presidential guard. Indeed, security cooperation was an essential element in Netanyahu’s visit, which included Major General Yair Golan, Israel’s Deputy Chief of General Staff.
Arab countries made an apparent mistake by hampering the development of relations with African states, by focusing on the formal path of relations rather than creating sustained and strengthened cultural ties with the Continent. Hence, Arab countries are providing aid and spending money in Africa without getting the desired political payoff. On the other hand, Israel attaches great importance to this, because it knows that culture and ideological ties pave the way for politics and economics.
Israel is keen on creating links between Israelis and African citizens, claiming that there are common features that associate them with influential ethnic groups in the continent, such as the Amhara in Ethiopia, the Dinka of South Sudan, and Igbo in Nigeria.
This allows Israel to influence public opinion in Africa and win them over in supporting Israeli issues, given that African countries constitute the second largest voting bloc in the UN General Assembly after the Asian bloc. Thus, Israel is eager to win the support of Africans to build illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, after being condemned by many European countries, as well as gaining their support for its policy in the Gaza Strip. This matter has become more pressing after the General Assembly granted Palestine a “non-member observer state” status at the UN in 2012.
Israel has already succeeded in gaining African voices on many occasions, most notably is the case of Ethiopia’s support of Israel's Separation Wall in Palestine, as well as the fact that African countries are credited for voting against a proposal to place Israel’s nuclear facilities under the inspection by UN observers. Even in cases where African states do not want to condemn Israel, they would merely abstain or do not attend voting sessions.
Perhaps that explains Netanyahu’s eagerness to break the closed official circles to address African public opinion, where he met with clerics sympathetic to Israeli issues. He expressed regret to the Ugandan media about the previous close ties between Israel and apartheid South Africa. He also visited the National Museum of Ethiopia, delivered a speech at the Ethiopian Parliament, during which he sought, indirectly, to stir up negative emotions of Ethiopians against Egypt.
Israel's bid to gain observer status in the African Union
Netanyahu sought African states’ support for Israel to garner observer status in the African Union (AU), which appears to be an important objective after its failure to penetrate the African continent through its Middle East and the Great African Rift Valley projects.
Despite Netanyahu's success in winning the support of Kenya and Ethiopia to grant Israel observer status at the AU, the response of the Chairperson of AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was shocking when she stressed that the AU principles prevent accepting an occupying power as an observer member. In addition, the Foreign Minister of Rwanda, a country that will host the twenty-seventh African Summit this month, underlined that the admission of Israel to the Union is not on the Summit agenda. Here, the role of Egypt and Algeria in response to Israeli endeavors to penetrate the Union was notable, when the two countries insisted on the expulsion of the Israeli delegation of the African Union Summit in Malabo in Equatorial Guinea in June 2014.
Assessment of Outcomes
Plenty of controversy was raised about the results of the Netanyahu visit, as some commentators considered it a breakthrough for Israel. However, despite the fact that the visit reflects Israel’s expansion in the Continent, it has not achieved many of its goals, as Israeli aid to Africa remains less than that provided by Arab states. The visit will not dissuade most African countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya, from endorsing the two-state solution for the Palestinian cause or the development of closer relations with Iran. Moreover, President Mayardit, expressed his reservation on several Israeli proposals during the visit. In return, Netanyahu tried to show a degree of optimism on the outcome of his Africa tour, stressing that the multifaceted impact of the visit will take time to crystalize.
Certainly, no one can prevent Israeli leaders from cementing their relations with Africa, and African states will not accept such preventative measures. However, it is time for Arab leaders to take action in order to achieve and maximize strategic interests with various states in the Continent.