September 25, 2017 — New York
Israel’s peripatetic prime minister has been expanding relations around the world by visiting countries that have not hosted an Israeli leader in decades or, in some cases, ever. In sub-Saharan Africa, whose 48 nations comprise more than one-fourth of the UN membership, the recent public re-engagement with Israel is especially remarkable, given the time that has passed since the wholesale breaking of diplomatic ties with Jerusalem after the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.
In July 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister since 1987 to visit East Africa when he traveled to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia. This past June, he attended the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) annual conference, where regional economic and security issues are discussed, and met with 11 heads of state. The capstone of this growing rapprochement was supposed to be the first Africa-Israel Summit in Togo. Originally scheduled for late October, it has been postponed to next year.
“There is great potential to the Israel-Africa relationship, and the Jewish community in the United States has a role,” says Eliseo Neuman, director of the AJC Africa Institute.
Facilitating Africa-Israel relations is a core mission of the institute, an arm of AJC (American Jewish Committee), the global Jewish advocacy organization. “One of our principal objectives is to build a network of African leaders to create a forum for the promotion of business ties, to have an annual conference, in Israel or in Africa.”
Neuman has been traveling regularly to the continent since AJC honorary president Stanley M. Bergman and Dr. Marion Bergman made possible the creation of the Africa Institute in 2006. The Bergmans have maintained a strong interest in the region since they emigrated to the US from South Africa. In May, they hosted a dinner for 18 African ambassadors to the UN, also attended by Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, to promote the Africa-Israel Summit.
Fourteen African ambassadors have traveled to Israel on trips co-organized by AJC and Israel’s mission to the UN.
Neuman has visited more than 15 African countries. He was in the newest of them, South Sudan, which he visited in 2008, before it gained independence in July 2011 and immediately established diplomatic relations with Israel.
Most recently, in June, an AJC delegation in Rwanda saw the impact of Israeli assistance at an agricultural center established by Mashav, an arm of the Foreign Ministry, and at a solar field built by the pioneering Israeli company Gigawatt Global. When it began operations it was the largest such facility in East Africa, directly connected to Rwanda’s grid and powering 7% of the country’s electricity needs.
“Historically, there is a deep interest in what the Jewish state can share with developing nations and admiration for the achievements of a similarly young nation, as well as the patriotism of their citizens,” says Neuman.
“Business-to-business relationships are vital for cementing existing ties as well as for establishing new ones.”
As Netanyahu remarked on the eve of his 2016 trip the four East Africa nations, “From commercial relations, great diplomatic relations can follow.”
The Africa Institute, chaired by Marion Bergman, agrees. Neuman has led three delegations of African business leaders on visits to Israel, organized by AJC Project Interchange.
A number of those business leaders have revisited Israel, and Neuman expects many of the trips’ alumni to attend the Africa-Israel Summit. The institute also has developed cooperative ties with the large Kenyan, Nigerian and Senegalese diaspora communities in the US.
The driving force behind the summit has been Prof. Robert Dussey, Togo’s foreign minister, whose website is a tribute to Israel and its relations with his country and Africa.
“This summit inaugurates a new era of multilateral partnership between Africa and Israel,” Dussey said after he visited Israel in January.
For Togo, a narrow country of seven million people that aspires to become a regional and global leader among African states, a successful Africa-Israel Summit is a priority.
The decision, made in consultation with Israel, to postpone the Togo summit was due to concerns about security in the wake of protests against President Faure Gnassingbe, who, together with his late father, have ruled the country for 50 years, as well as possible pressures from the Palestinian Authority and its allies to dissuade African heads of state from attending.
Still, Israeli Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem told Israeli media that 14 African presidents had said they would participate in the Togo summit. With more time to plan the event, whether it convenes in Africa or Israel, the summit might attract the 25 heads of state that Togo was expecting.
While the high-profile summit remains a goal, business-to-business ties and other bilateral relationships continue to form and expand. In the past year, more African countries – Rwanda, Senegal, South Sudan and Tanzania – opened embassies in Israel.
Hurdles can lead to opportunities, and, in the case of Africa, Neuman notes that building relationships requires a lot of patience, a concept that Israel, too, has long applied well.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.