How Israel miscalculated its political power in Africa
The scene of Israeli diplomat Sharon Bar-Li, along with other Israeli delegates, being escorted out of the opening ceremony of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month was historic. The very moment that was meant to crown 20 years of Israeli diplomacy in Africa turned, in a few seconds, into a representation of Tel Aviv’s failure on the continent.
Unable to fathom the breakdown of its diplomatic and political efforts, Israel responded to Bar-Li’s removal by waging a war of words against African countries, accusing them of spearheading a campaign aimed at blocking Israel’s observer status. Referring to a “small number of extremist states like South Africa and Algeria,” a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry alluded to a plot, supposedly hatched by Iran and carried out by African governments that are “driven by hate” for Israel.
The undiplomatic nature of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s language was a major shift from the upbeat, diplomatic rhetoric used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Africa to speak at the Economic Community of West African States in Liberia in 2017. “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel,” Netanyahu had said, adding, with theatrical language and much emphasis on each syllable, “I believe in Africa.”
Netanyahu’s reference to “coming back to Africa” was intended to underscore two points — one, a diplomatic and political return to Africa and, two, an imagined return to the continent as a representation of a shared historical experience.
On the latter point, Netanyahu had made various references to some drummed-up, shared anti-colonial struggle. “Africa and Israel share a natural affinity,” Netanyahu claimed in his 2017 speech. “We have, in many ways, similar histories. Your nations toiled under foreign rule. You experienced horrific wars and slaughters. This is very much our history.”
The diplomatic “return,” on the other hand, is more real than imagined. But the diplomatic ties between Israel and many African countries, starting with Ghana in 1956, took place under unique historical circumstances, in which many African countries were still colonized, semi-independent or largely reliant on their former colonizers. For example, Ghana-Israel relations started when Ghana was still called the Gold Coast. In fact, the diplomatic accords with Tel Aviv were only signed once the Gold Coast had received official approval from London, since the country was still a British colony.
Israel’s motives in Africa are clear: Economic profits and political dividends, particularly votes at the UN.
By 1973, Israel had full diplomatic ties with 33 African countries. Much of this changed, however, in October of that year. When Arab countries fought a war against Israel’s colonial expansion, many African countries broke their ties with Tel Aviv in favor of maintaining their truly historic, economic and spiritual ties with their Arab brethren. It was no wonder that it was the Organization of African Unity — the precursor to the African Union — that first identified Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, as a form of racism in its 12th ordinary session held in Kampala, Uganda, in 1975.
The so-called peace process and the signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestinian leaders and Israel expectedly weakened the stalwart African position toward Palestine, not out of enmity toward the Palestinians but due to Western pressure and the misconception that peace and justice had finally arrived in the Occupied Territories. It was against this backdrop that Netanyahu visited Africa and began his campaign of normalization with many countries.
Israel’s motives in Africa are clear: Economic profits and political dividends, particularly votes at the UN. But years after Israel’s “return,” neither has Africa benefited from the lofty promises made by Tel Aviv to revitalize local economies and fight desertification, nor has Africa, as a bloc, significantly changed its votes in favor of Palestinians’ rights at the UN.
Still, for Netanyahu, the benefits outweigh the disappointments, especially as Tel Aviv fully understands that Africa has once again — more than at any time since the Berlin Conference in 1884 — become a significantly contested geopolitical space. That is where the breakdown of Israel’s calculations happened, thus the humiliating episode in Addis Ababa.
Following the removal of the Israeli delegates, Tel Aviv continued to make a case based on technical grounds: That Bar-Li had the proper accreditation, that Israel was officially an observer member of the African Union, and so on.
Israel’s observer status has caused a rift among African Union members. The approval was granted unilaterally by the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in July 2021. As news of Mahamat’s decision spread, many countries protested and the status was frozen, pending a decision based on a proper democratic process.
Just two days after the Israeli delegation was removed from this year’s summit, the African Union — in fact, Mahamat himself — announced to reporters that the Israeli membership “status is suspended until such time as this committee can deliberate,” asserting that “we did not invite Israeli officials to our summit.”
The Israeli response to all of this reflected a general sense of confusion, if not desperation.
Three weeks after the AU decision, the South African parliament voted in favor of a motion that downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv to a mere liaison office. That decision was a “first step,” with the aim of putting pressure on Israel “to comply with human rights, recognize the rights of the Palestinian people (and) their right to exist.”
As geopolitical spaces open up for countries in the Global South due to the changing global power dynamics, more nations are daring to step up to challenge the hegemony of former colonial powers. Considering their history of valiant anti-colonial struggles, it is no surprise that African countries are leading this momentum toward national and regional independence.
Ultimately, it took only six years for Africa to prove Netanyahu wrong; that Israel did not return to Africa. It is true, however, that Africa itself is returning to its anti-colonial roots.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.