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Power and politics: Israel makes new inroads into Africa Open in fullscreen

Charlie Hoyle

Power and politics: Israel makes new inroads into Africa

Israel is making diplomatic inroads into Africa. [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 March, 2019

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Israel is making diplomatic inroads into Africa to counteract political support for Palestinians and deepen strategic influence and security ties in a region traditionally ambivalent to Tel Aviv’s ambitions.
In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu touched down in East Africa for a four-day tour, the first trip to the continent by an Israeli leader in more than 30 years.

The landmark visit was a turning point in Tel Aviv's diplomatic relations with African states, the culmination of a decade-long push to normalise ties in the region and turn the tide on support for Palestine at international forums - one of Netanyahu's key foreign policy objectives.

The Israeli leader would visit the continent a further three times over the coming years as part of his international diplomatic strategy, proclaiming: "Israel is coming back to Africa. Africa is coming back to Israel".

Africa's geopolitical battleground

The gradual thaw in Israel-Africa ties comes after decades of frosty relations.

Israeli firms were initially active in the 1960s in construction and agriculture projects during post-colonial state-building, but most bilateral ties were severed following the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars as Israel became associated with colonial oppression and African states aligned with Palestine.

Africa's 54 internationally recognised states hold significant weight at the UN and other international forums, and traditionally vote in support of Palestine

Relations were further strained by Israel's economic and military ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

While Israel has continued to play a small economic role on the continent in the post-cold war era, it found itself outmanoeuvred diplomatically, as African states continued to deepen diplomatic ties with Palestine.

In 2013, the African Union granted Palestine observer status, a position coveted by Israel that allows access to all member states and offers key diplomatic influence.

Africa's 54 internationally recognised states hold significant weight at the UN and other international forums, and traditionally vote in support of Palestine.

 

In recent years, the UN has voted overwhelmingly in favour of granting Palestine non-member observer status at the General Assembly, while UNESCO admitted Palestine as its newest member - further evidence of what Israel has long lamented as Palestine's "automatic advantage" at the global body.

Netanyahu has long sought to change these voting patterns, offering economic assistance and military hardware in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to elicit political support and undermine Palestine's ability to mobilise allies.

"Israel's outreach to Africa is part of broader diplomatic efforts to achieve recognition and strengthen bilateral ties in parts of the world which have not traditionally been seen as Israel's greatest supporters," Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow with the MENA programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.

"By bringing these countries onside you can slowly chip away at what was once seen as an automatic advantage that Palestinians would have in terms of votes at the UN and international bodies."

Diplomatic inroads: Votes and Influence

Despite having few official ties to African states, and a low penetration of diplomatic representation, Israel has always played an economic role on the continent via the private sector.

More recently, however, the diplomatic initiative pursued by Netanyahu has begun to offer public victories.

In 2016, Israel renewed diplomatic relations with the Republic of Guinea, an overwhelmingly Muslim state in West Africa that severed ties with Tel Aviv in 1967.

That same year, Tanzania agreed to open an embassy in Israel for the first time since ties were severed following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In February this year, Israel opened its first embassy in Rwanda, while a month earlier Israel and Chad had repaired diplomatic ties severed for three decades.

Above all it is the diplomatic dividend that Israel seeks most; to project legitimacy onto a right-wing Netanyahu government internationally regarded as hostile to a Palestinian state and the peace process

Israeli officials have long stated their goal of restoring formal ties with Mali, Niger and even Sudan, with Muslim majority Chad potentially laying the groundwork for future relations.

Some officials see this as part of curbing Iranian influence in Africa and furthering the normalisation of ties with Gulf allies.

"It [Israel] seeks further alliances with Arab countries in this regard, and some African countries are perceived, I believe, beneficial for this initiative," Inbal Ben Yehuda, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told The New Arab.

African leaders also have their own incentives for responding to Israel's diplomatic outreach.

Read more: Netanyahu's dangerous connections with Europe's far right

"Better ties with Israel often mean both access to quality military equipment as well as improved relations with the US and international respectability," Yotam Gidron, a PhD student at Durham University writing on Israel-Africa relations, told The New Arab.

Africa also offers the Israeli private sector new markets in security, agriculture and telecommunications while "arms sales have long been a central aspect of Israel's activities in Africa" and have grown significantly over the past decade, Gidron adds.

But above all it is the diplomatic dividend that Israel seeks most; to project legitimacy onto a right-wing Netanyahu government internationally regarded as openly hostile to a Palestinian state and the peace process.

"I think that for Israel, the relations themselves are the resources," Ben Yehuda, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, said.

"There is an aspect of self-image and of selling this image to the world, in and via Africa, in addition to selling actual products in the field of security, intelligence, surveillance."

Netanyahu really does see this campaign as vindication of his longstanding position that you don't need to solve the Palestinian issue to move forward

Sidelining Palestine

Israeli diplomatic efforts in Africa mirror more high-profile, and controversial, outreach endeavours in Central and Eastern Europe and the Gulf to counter international support for Palestine.

"As far as Israel is concerned, this generally relates to curbing Palestinian efforts to use international law in order to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations or advance Palestinian statehood," Gidron says.

Such efforts, Gidron adds, aim "to improve Israel's international standing and legitimacy and advance its regional geo-strategic objectives against the background of an increasingly open Israeli rejection of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution".

Israel markets itself based on what each region wants; agricultural technology, military hardware, or private sector investment. More recently, that also includes access to the Trump administration in the United States.

The strategy of quid pro quo influence extends, somewhat controversially, to Central and European far-right leaders who have flirted with anti-Semitism, such as in Hungary.

In other cases it manifests in support for autocratic leaders such as Filipino authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte, who has been dogged by his controversial rhetoric and embroiled in a violent war on drugs - often using Israeli arms.

More recently, Netanyahu has developed close military ties with India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist leadership, and gushing relations with far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro - both countries once staunchly pro-Palestine.

"Netanyahu really does see this campaign as vindication of his longstanding position that you don't need to solve the Palestinian issue to move forward; he would point to what is happening in the world and say 'I was right'," Lovatt says.

Netanyahu's vision has also been bolstered by the Trump administration.

In policies which have seen nothing extracted politically from Netanyahu, the US has recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moved its embassy to the divided, occupied city from Tel Aviv, and cut funding to Palestinians.

With Palestine, and a resolution to the conflict, now of inconsequential concern to the US administration, Netanyahu's global outreach to foster allies, including African states, can continue to gather steam, albeit while boosting often authoritarian governments and exacerbating human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Charlie Hoyle is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter @CharlieCHoyle

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