July 3, 2018
By Melanie Kent
When Benjamin Netanyahu stepped off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 2016, nearly three decades had passed since the last Israeli prime minister set foot in Africa. Making up for lost time, Netanyahu returned to the continent twice within 18 months, joining West African leaders at an economic summit in Liberia and meeting with ten African heads of state on the sidelines of the Kenyan presidential inauguration. He intended to go yet again to attend a historic Israel-Africa summit, but the event was postponed due to domestic unrest in the host country, Togo.
This burst of activity is part of a calculated policy change—and it’s being reciprocated. In the last two years alone, Israel has hosted a succession of presidents and prime ministers from Togo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Zambia, Sierra Leone, and Swaziland. Four new African embassies opened in Israel in as many years, and in November, Netanyahu announced plans for a new embassy in Rwanda.
As Netanyahu said in his inaugural visit to Uganda, “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel”—indeed.
The Campaign for Votes
Why is Israel returning to Africa? For Netanyahu, one reason dominates all others. “The automatic majority against Israel at the UN is composed—first and foremost—of African countries,” he told a gathering of Israel’s ambassadors to Africa in February of last year. “Whether in the end or at the outset, our goal is to change their voting patterns.” With three spots on the Security Council and a solid quarter of the seats at the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and UNESCO, these 54 countries can (and have) made all the difference in decisions ranging from a bid on Palestinian statehood to condemning the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem.
This battle is played out on other stages too. The African Union allows Palestine, but not Israel, observer status. And African countries compose nearly half the membership of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Africa’s Global Influence
It’s no coincidence that Israel has chosen to return to Africa now: it is a most dynamic time for the continent. By 2025, almost one-fifth of the world’s people will be living in Africa, 45 percent of them in urban areas. The continent has over a billion consumers, half of whom will own a smartphone in the next couple of years, with a working-age population expected to surpass both India’s and China’s by 2034. Foreign direct investment hit $60 billion in 2015, five times its 2000 level. Africa will be home to six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in 2018.
Israel is only joining the rest of the globe in tuning in.
Yoram Elron, head of the Africa Division at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has spelled this out explicitly: "The reason why Africa is gaining so much importance in our foreign policy is its growing economic and political importance."
The Israeli government is quick to add another vital interest here: security. Creating alliances to counter terrorism makes a great deal of sense for all involved. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government is fighting al-Shabaab, a group responsible for over half the violence linked to Islamist groups in Africa last year. He says Israeli support for counterterrorism is “invaluable.” It’s “a priority concern for both of us,” he emphasized to Netanyahu, who also sees this as a “common battle.” In a continent where attacks rose by 38 percent in 2017, this issue tops the agenda for leaders in Nigeria, Mali, and elsewhere who battle Boko Haram and affiliates of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The links between Israel and Africa run deeper than shared interests. Religion plays a defining role in the identity and worldview of most African cultures and leaders, and many, especially in Christian communities, see Israel’s story tied into a broader spiritual narrative. This connection with Israel resonates in ways that can prove quite influential when it comes to political engagement.
It’s important to note that Africa has always been strategically important to Israel. In the 1960s, Foreign Minister Golda Meir pioneered an effort that led to the placement of 32 Israeli diplomatic missions across the continent. Soon after Israel’s birth, a wave of independence movements had transformed the African continent, and the new countries all faced similar development challenges and an uphill battle in building national identities and institutions. Meir wrote that the Israeli experience could have unique relevance for Africa since Israel “had been forced to find solutions to the kinds of problems that large, wealthy, powerful states had never encountered.” She founded MASHAV, Israel’s international development agency, which sent over 1,800 experts in agriculture, medicine, and education to Africa.
Collaborating for the Future
Israeli technical cooperation, valued so highly in the 1960s, is still relevant today, and in high demand. Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the African Union in January that “Africa’s defining challenge is to create a pathway to prosperity for our people,” adding, “There is no country on our continent that does not want to be part of a more assertive and visible Africa.” For African leaders prioritizing economic growth and development, Israeli tech is a chief selling point in cultivating ties. Having abandoned the model of aid in favor of the model of trade, much is left to be picked up by the business community in bilateral partnerships. That is why economic diplomacy is the heartbeat of the Africa-Israel connection today, with discussions on Israeli expertise in agriculture, infrastructure, water management, and energy taking center stage.
AJC’s Africa Institute has laid the groundwork for Israel’s re-engagement with Africa. The Institute focuses on the critical need to supplement diplomatic outreach with a clear strategy for technology transfers applied to development with demonstrable results. AJC Project Interchange, as part of its global efforts, has brought over 100 individuals from 23 African countries to Israel, a third of them leading business people, as well as ambassadors, journalists, medical professionals, and government officials in water management and agriculture. The Africa Institute is a hub for this budding relationship, providing direction and momentum in African capitals, in Jerusalem, at the UN, and on Capitol Hill. The next chapter is a promising one.
Read the next piece in the Israel-Africa series: "New Life in Israel-Africa Ties at the UN"