Israel’s Triumphant Return to Africa

Is the cancellation of the Africa-Israel summit scheduled for October in Lome of political significance? This seems unlikely considering the extent of the relationships built up between them over the last two decades. The time is long past when practically the whole African continent boycotted Israel

Benyamin Netanyahu, invited to the ECOWAS summit in Monrovia, congratulates Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, who has just been elected president.
Kobi Gideon/

It may well be Israel’s diplomatic isolation that has prompted the strenuous efforts of rapprochement with Africa undertaken by Benyamin Netanyahu, otherwise the principal artisan of Israeli entrenchments. After having coined the slogan “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel in February 2016 to mark the creation of a “pro-African lobby” in the Israeli Parliament, the PM did the rounds of East Africa — Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda in June of that same year. And in June 2017, he gave a speech at the 51st summit of the Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS). At the same time, there has been no lack of official African visits to Israel these last few years, one of the most recent being that paid by Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, in July 20171. While at first Netanyahu’s watchword had had considerable success—it was taken up by the international media whenever there was a new Afro-Israeli exchange—the cancellation of the Africa-Israel summit originally planned for October in Lome may well mean that Israeli diplomacy is going to have to keep a low profile.

Like China, India, or Turkey, Israel hopes to profit by the US withdrawal from Africa, the French eclipse and the petrol monarchies’ entanglement with the wars in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. Netanyahu’s main objective is diplomatic: win new allies in international organizations in order to counter the Palestinian offensive over the last few years in the UN, UNESCO and other world forums. But Netanyahu never loses sight of the geostrategic and commercial interests of the “Hebrew State”.

As for African States, they are concerned to diversify their suppliers of arms and military technology, take advantage of Israeli expertise in such areas as intelligence, treatment and control of information and the social networks, cyber warfare, but also irrigation, water management, and the use of solar energy. “For Africans, having access to sophisticated technology and this kind of know-how will help them be less dependent on Europe and the US,” David Elkaïm wrote in Le Journal du dimanche (6 July 2016).

From anticolonialism to the Oslo Accords

Israel has never ceased, since its very inception, to develop diplomatic and economic ties with the African States and some of its activities enable us to better understand American and European arrangements – or withdrawals. All are involved in an interplay of complementarities, with Israel acting in a back-up or subsidiary role whenever necessary, but always in its own interest.

Until the end of the sixties, the country bathed in something of an aura of anticolonialism2 and maintained good relations with many newly independent African countries. Israel set all the greater store by these as it had been ousted in 1955 from the Bandung conference which marked the political emergence of the Third World on the international scene. Golda Meir concluded an alliance with Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 and opened an embassy in Nairobi. Israel recognized the independence of Mali and Senegal as early as 1960 and maintained diplomatic and often cooperative relations with some thirty African states, among them Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo.

In 1961, Egypt’s diplomatic cartography (produced by the Egyptian Department of African affairs) shows an Israeli encirclement of the Nile Valley via agreements with Ethiopia, Uganda, Zaire, Kenya, Rwanda, Chad and the Central African Republic. A secret agreement was allegedly signed with Uganda in 1969 for the construction of an airport likely to pose a threat to the Assouan dam3.

The first hitches appeared after the 1967 war, but it was the Israel-Arab war of 1973 and the oil embargo declared by the Gulf monarchies which put an end to Israeli-African relations and locked Sub-Saharan diplomacy into a pro-Arab alliance.

The Gulf Monarchies signed a pact with the US centered on oil and a redistribution of markets. From then on, Africa would be burdened with debt, especially due to the high price of oil. Egypt began moving closer to Israel. Abdou Diouf’s Senegal was the only dissenting voice when the Organization for African Unity (OAU) recommended breaking off relations with Israel after the 1973 war.

Yet by 1982, it was estimated that there were nearly 4 000 Israeli experts operating in Africa4.

At the same time, Israel strengthened its ties with the racist Pretoria regime, providing it with diplomatic and military support5. Profiting by its experience in South Africa and its good reputation in the area of policing, Israel offered its services to several autocratic regimes threatened from within: Hissene Habre’s Chad, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaïre, Gnassingbe Eyadema’s Togo. In 1984, Mossad organized the ex-filtration of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Falachas, a small Jewish minority. “Ten thousand Falachas set out on a long journey on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan and on from there to Israel via an impressive airlift. Then, in May 1991, Israel launched Operation Solomon, in accordance with the new Ethiopian government: a crowd of fourteen thousand Falachas gathered in front of the Israeli embassy in Addis-Abbeba will be flown to Israel” 6 In 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, traveled to Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. This was the first official visit by an Israeli minister in twenty years.

Today, Israel maintains relations with some forty African nations, ten of which host permanent Israeli diplomatic missions. But neither these relations nor these embassies guarantee their support for Israel in International organizations. Only Kenya and Ethiopia openly condone Israel’s presence in the African Union (AU). South Africa, Israel’s principal trade partner on the African continent, is opposed to it.

A Market for Military Technologies

Israeli diplomacy still proceeds with the same “mantras” as in the sixties and seventies: military support, intelligence logistics, with solar agricultural technology as a bonus, but it knows now that the geo-strategic situation in sub-saharian Africa interests it directly to varying degrees. If Islamist terrorism were to increase in that region, Israel’s security could be affected, and not only through a major destabilization of the Sinai, its neighbor to the south. Hence, Israel’s presence in the Middle East turns out to be very precious for the security of the region and allows Israel to retain its supremacy in matters of intelligence gathering. The variety of movements operating under the umbrella of Islamist terrorism, the complexity of their development and the hypothesis that they are there to stay demand better knowledge of their growth dynamic. Thus Israel has come to understand how its interests can be served by a war which has become the main preoccupation of most countries in the region, from the Horn of Africa to the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, and how it can fit in with local structures devoid of any real intelligence logistics. It is counting on an alliance with Christians against Iranian and Islamist penetration in East Africa, since several countries there have a Christian or animist majority or sizable minority.

Hence the alliance with the newly created Southern Sudan, where Christians are in the majority. Israeli support for the Sudanese rebellion against Khartoum began shortly after the 1967 war. The oil reserves of this tiny country are among the richest in Africa and if need be could be shipped to Israel by way of the Red Sea.

In order to counter the terrorist threat, Israel’s military diplomacy benefits from an original technological profile: “The Jewish state differs from the other players in the region in one particular respect: the majority of its government officials, as well as a significant share of its political class of every persuasion, are products of the intelligence service or the special units, or have served in them. . .”7 The computer, aeronautic and defense industries have organic links between them. Israel still sells sub-machine guns, tanks, missiles or protection forces for African VIPs, but mostly technologies for surveillance, the collection and digitization of personal data, border control systems, ground and sea surveillance equipment, hard- and software for cyber-warfare and intelligence imagery. Israel also offers African countries, relatively young and fragile, the attractive model of a nation where government and hi-tech military intelligence services form a closely knit elite.

In Israeli exports, the share of technology is now larger than that of military hardware, although the two sectors are so tightly interwoven with industry in general, trade and diplomacy that distinctions are hard to make. Israel’s investments in Africa remain relatively modest and its portion of African military imports is much smaller than that of Russia, Europe or even China, but Israel knows that its share of the market can grow on a continent where arms purchases are rapidly increasing; that Africa will see a galloping demography over the next few decades; and that because of a dearth of classical equipment, it will place an emphasis on technological solutions, finances permitting. And now that three fourths of Israeli production goes to the export trade, and because the military sector remains an important locomotive for hi-tech industries, the Jewish state will always need to conquer more markets, however modest.

Diamonds in Exchange for Weapons

And finally, in its relations with Africa, Israel does not neglect another flagship of its export economy: diamonds. In 2016, the country ranked world’s fifth largest uncut diamond exporter, with a 6.7% share of the market and fourth-largest importer with a 7.6% share. Official Israeli government figures show that the country’s diamond exports in 2016 amounted to 7.3 billion dollars. Official figures also show that arms exports totaled 6.5 billion dollars.

Israel has often used questionable methods to lay hands on African mineral resources, methods solidly linked to its diplomatic and military offensives. Both the recent arrest by the Israeli police of Benny Steinmetz accused of money laundering and bribing persons close to the Guinean government, and the US proceedings against Dan Gertler, another Israeli player in the diamond trade, show that Israel is active in the Kimberley process (an international agreement on the certification of uncut diamonds meant to prevent their sale and purchase for military purposes), but the more of its diamond czars remain abusive, to say the least. In 2010, Gertler was accused of financing the purchase of arms for the Kabila clan in exchange for a monopoly in the diamond trade. The Africa Progress Panel accused him in 2013 of having defrauded the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) of 1.4 billion dollars in mining licenses. And as for Lev Leviev, known as “the diamond king,” he built his fortune on his partnership with Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and his clan for the control of the diamond industry. A business partner of the Trump clan, he is often in the news on account of his dubious financial operations, scandals and lawsuits.

Zero Refugees, Zero Protests

Like the countries of the Maghreb, the Mediterranean basin and Europe, Israel, over the last two decades has seen the arrival of several waves of refugees, especially from Eritrea and Sudan but also from West Africa. Some 50 000 undocumented Africans live there today. With very few exceptions, Tel Aviv never grants them refugee status. A significant proportion of these illegal immigrants find employment in the hotel and restaurant business as well as the construction industry, just like in Europe. Others work in small shops or in the gray economy. But Israel refuses to give them permanent resident status, in particular because of their religion. In 2014, secret agreements were signed with Uganda and Rwanda under which the latter agreed to receive deported African refugees of whatever nationality. Israel, Uganda and Rwanda all ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on the rights of refugees, which urges States to welcome them, protect them and not use them as bargaining chips in global agreements. Yet neither Rwanda nor Uganda regularize the status of refugees from Israel.

Within its borders and without, Israel displays the same traits or weaknesses, always ready to fall in with a logic of conflict, to the detriment of negotiation, systematically favoring the spiral of violence, the logic of war. Israeli strategists and experts – as well as international ones – endlessly go on repeating that this option is dictated by the situation in the Middle East. This is not completely false but neither is it completely true: we need only consider the unilaterally colonial nature of the Israeli occupation of territories which, by becoming Palestinian and independent, would have substantially contributed to a reduction of regional violence, to realize the extent to which forced annexation, government by terror and a predatory economy have become second nature for the Israeli power structure. Not to mention all the rifts created by the borders, walls and checkpoints.

Not unreasonably, Israel castigates its western detractors, pointing to their own predatory practices, but feigning ignorance of one important difference: while the Western powers provide support for their multinational firms in Africa, they have in their own countries democratic counter-powers that stand opposed to the exploitation of Africa, fighting for the independence and democratization of its regimes. This is anything but the case in Israel, where though there do exist some remarkable NGOs, these have nothing like the firm basis which their counterparts enjoy in Europe and the USA. A feeble dissidence, which Netanyahu nonetheless wants to outlaw, arguing that their foreign subsidies, the only source that enables them to survive, endanger national security.

Not Really Respectable Expertise

If, then, Israel’s foreign policy is often criticized, it is because its culture and actions are all aimed at stifling democratic debate. The singular stamp of its diplomacy in Africa, where security questions systematically overshadow other forms of commitment, involves an unfortunate drawback: it places an often grotesque emphasis on the dynamics of government by violence, undoubtedly important but not exclusively so; it conveys a negative and even outrageous image of Africa and Israeli diplomacy. It is this bad image which makes governments like that of South Africa, despite its trade relations with Israel, almost systematically oppose its diplomacy in the various international forums. It isn’t so much antisemitism that motivates the opprobrium which greets Israel’s foreign policies so much as Netanyahu’s undisguised contempt for the international NGOs whenever they raise their voices.

Accustomed as it is to bringing democratic organizations to their knees, the State of Israel spontaneously prefers to negotiate with autocratic regimes or dictatorships. And this refusal to engage in dialogue which tarnishes its diplomacy has ossified it in the end. It has led to an inevitable impoverishment, a lemming-like headlong flight into a culture of suspicion and violence. It is most likely that this thorny rigidification will always stand in the way of Israel’s foreign policy projects and continue to maintain the country in a position where consideration stems less from any sincere esteem than from the recognition of an obvious expertise, but one which is neither completely respectable, nor at all transparent. And while it is certain that this singular pariah status is eroding Israeli society from within, it is hard to know to what bottomless pit it may lead.

1“We are two nations which understand the horror of genocide, and we must show what humanity can achieve in cooperation and understanding,” said President Reuven Rivlin to Kagame. Yet Israel is suspected of having supplied weapons used for the genocide.

2W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP declared in 1909: “For us, the African movement has the same meaning as Zionism for Jews”. This parallel reappears periodically in Afro-American and Pan-Africanist culture, until the sixties, and Israel knows how to exploit it.

3Helmi Sharawi, “Israeli Policy in Africa”, in The Arabs and Africa, Croom Helm, Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1984; p. 288.

4Helmi Sharawi, ibid. ; p. 298.

5“The South-African invasion of Angola was based on Israeli know-how in anti-terrorist strategy, acquired in the Left-Bank and Gaza”, in Marissa Moorman, “The long short history of Angola-Israel relations”. Which did not prevent Israel from concluding at the end of the nineties a pact with its former Angolan enemy for diamond mining.

6Eric Denécé and David Elkaïm, Les Services secrets israéliens, Amad, Mossad et Shin Beth, éditions Taillandier, April 1014; p. 112-113.

7Eric Denécé and David Elkaïm, ibid., p. 165.