Why Netanyahu has set Israel’s sights on Africa

Why Netanyahu has set Israel’s sights on Africa

Why Netanyahu has set Israel’s sights on Africa
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Arab city of Nazareth, Israel. (File/AP)
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure in office has included an important but little-noticed blossoming of ties between African nations and Israel, which paved the way for the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states.

The normalization of ties between Israel and Sudan, and then Morocco, were key successes for Netanyahu’s outreach to Africa. Indeed, Netanyahu has made observer status in the African Union an Israeli foreign policy goal since 2017.  When he assumed office for the second time in 2009 such a goal would have seemed impossible, but after peace deals with two of the African Union’s oldest and most influential states, it is tantalizingly close.

While Netanyahu and Israel have sought to develop ties with a variety of African states, the traditional focus for Israeli foreign policy in Africa has been the Horn of Africa. During the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli leaders developed an “Alliance of the Periphery” doctrine that sought to develop new relationships far from its borders. Israel sought stronger ties with the Shah of Iran, Turkey, and Kurdish groups in Iraq.

Little remembered today, this strategy also included Africa, notably Ethiopia, then ruled by Emperor Hailie Selassie. In the 1950s, Israel built informal ties with Sudan’s Ummah Party. When those ties became untenable, it switched in the 1960s to supporting the “Viper Venom” rebels of Joseph Lago, whose uprising against Khartoum led (in fits and starts) to the independence of South Sudan after one of Africa’s longest civil wars. Yet Israel’s then Prime Minister Golda Meir saw a more limited conflict at the time. “If you have a chance to reach a peace settlement with the north, we will not stand in your way,” she told Lago.

Netanyahu has correctly sensed the time is ripe for a different era in Israeli relations with Africa.

Joseph Hammond

Israeli trainers and Mossad agents were active across Africa during the Cold War in various anti-communist efforts. Last year Netflix distributed “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” a film which, according to Variety, took the white-savior complex “to shameful extremes” yet still offered a rare pop cultural nod to such clandestine operations; in this case, Israel’s effort to help Ethiopian Jews flee the most brutal communist dictatorship in Africa at the time. 

Netanyahu has correctly sensed the time is ripe for a different era in Israeli relations with Africa. Chad severed ties with Israel in 1972 but the two countries agreed to restore ties in 2019 during a visit from Netanyahu. Netanyahu has also built new relationships and improved others with Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Uganda. 

Israel’s pivot to Africa under Netanyahu came in response to the efforts of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to bolster Iran’s influence in the region. However, current Iranian President Rouhani has largely abandoned those efforts. He has not visited Africa during his tenure, opening opportunities for Israel to mend ties with nations that were once enemies.

Israel planned to host an Israel-Africa Summit in Togo in 2017 that was canceled at the last minute amid domestic turmoil there. Politics aside, both Israel and its African partners stand to benefit from renewed ties. In the case of Sudan, Israeli agricultural technology could increase agricultural productivity in a nation where millions of acres of potentially arable land remain under-developed. Other economic benefits are more subtle; the opening of Israeli and Sudanese airspace to commercial flights to both nations will reduce the flight times of Israeli aircraft to South American and Africa.

“Israel has returned to Africa,” Netanyahu declared in 2017 during a visit to Liberia. His diplomatic offensive in the past few months shows that whoever wins the election in March, it is determined to stay.

  • Joseph Hammond is a journalist and former Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. 
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