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(North Africa) Call It a Comeback – Israel’s Grand ‘Return’ to Africa

We Need to Make better Decisions for Africa’s Future!

In exchange for development support, Israel wants African votes at international forums. This may prove trickier than it thinks.

This June, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke new ground as he became the first non-African leader to speak at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit. During his speech in Monrovia, he declared once again that “Israel is coming back to Africa”.

This mantra is not just hot air. Israel is making considerable efforts to strengthen its relations with the continent. A year ago, Netanyahu became the first Israeli PM to visit Africa in decades as he travelled to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Since 2016, at least nine African heads of state have visited Israel.

Netanyahu’s vow that Israel is “coming back” to Africa is a reference to the thriving relations of the 1960s. In that period of African independence, Israel established relationships with over 30 countries and offered them technical assistance in fields from security and military training to agriculture, urban planning, education and health. Independent since 1948, Israel positioned itself as a model for successful post-colonial modernisation and as a provider of the solutions, skills and technologies that younger African nations lacked.

Israel’s engagement was largely driven by the need to gain support at the UN and curb Arab influence. For example, Israel made sure to maintain strong ties with Kenya and Uganda, while providing significant military support to Ethiopia and, more briefly, to southern Sudanese rebels. By establishing a presence in countries in the Horn and East Africa, it strategically surrounded its Arab enemies.

But these close relations weren’t to last. Following the 1967 Six Day War – in which Israel captured neighbouring territories, including Egypt‘s Sinai Peninsula – relations began to slow down. In 1972, under Arab pressure and fearing African disunity, African states began severing ties with Israel.

Like 50 years ago, Israel is positioning itself once again as the provider of solutions to African problems. No Israeli-African press conference is complete without several references to security, technology and agriculture – all fields in which Israel can supposedly assist the continent. Military technologies often attract much attention in this context, being some of the most famous and sought after “solutions” Israel advertises when it goes to Africa.

Similarly, the main objective of Israel’s return to Africa is – as it was in the 1960s – diplomatic support in its disputes with its Arab neighbours. Israel promises economic opportunities, technologies and development. In return, it expects African leaders to support it at international forums.

Israel is seeking diplomatic support from African states as its old allies, the US and Europe, are slowly becoming impatient with its right-wing leadership and its manifested lack of interest in ending the occupation of Palestine. In this context, the need for Israel to improve its diplomatic relations with African countries has become clear.

Israel’s re-engagement on the continent has yielded some successes, but not everyone has succumbed to its charm offensive. Last year, Nigeria‘s President Buhari reportedly blocked Israel from participating in the ECOWAS summit. When Netanyahu was invited to 2017 edition, the leaders of Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Morocco chose not to attend. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI explicitly cancelled his participation because of Israeli PM’s presence, but the others did not give a reason.

The support Israel gets from Africa may prove invaluable at points, but it will take different forms in different countries and, in many cases, is likely to remain ambivalent or unstable. It will also not be able to substitute – at least in the foreseeable future – the massive material and diplomatic backing Israel still gets from the US.

Whatever extra diplomatic support Israel manages to get from Africa, however, the worse it is for Palestinians. Netanyahu’s speech at the ECOWAS summit took place on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and thus, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The more international support the Israeli government finds, the less likely it is to bring this occupation to an end.

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