Telling the truth has never been a strong trait in Benjamin Netanyahu. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy once described Israel’s prime minister as “a liar”. Uncharacteristically, Netanyahu broke that mould last week when he told his Ethiopian counterpart Hailemariam Desalegn that his visit to Africa was “not just a one shot thing” and that he believed that the continent “has a vast potential.”
Belatedly, Israel has now joined a growing list of countries keen to increase their involvement in Africa. Throughout the past decade, China, India, Turkey and Iran have all sought to pursue greater economic, security and political goals across the continent. However, Netanyahu’s visit to Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda this month was not intended just to promote such interests. He wanted to crown his trip with observer status for Israel at the African Union. Despite the support of Kenya and Ethiopia, though, achieving this ambition is still a long way off.
In their joint statement, Netanyahu and Desalegn spoke about Jewish-Ethiopian links, which go back some 3,000 years to the time of Prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. While that reference may have resonated among Ethiopia’s Jews at home and in the diaspora it did not evoke a similar affinity in other parts of Africa. Whatever its Biblical claims may be, Israel’s current apartheid policies remain a massive stumbling block to its acceptance on the continent, where memories of South African apartheid remain as raw and strong as ever.
It is no wonder, therefore, that South Africa stands out as one of the main opponents of moves to grant Israel an observer’s seat at the AU. Last month, the Western Cape branch of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) issued a statement condemning the country’s Democratic Alliance for its continued support for Israel. “We are more shocked,” it read, “given that this is happening in a province where just over 200,000 South Africans marched against Israeli Apartheid and its oppression against the Palestinians.”
The message from South Africa could not be any clearer. The ANC says that it remains resolute in its solidarity with, and support for, the people of Palestine. “We know full well the importance of solidarity in the struggle and fight against Apartheid,” insists the party.
This was the background to Netanyahu’s failed attempt to have an audience with Dr Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini Zuma. The Chairperson of the AU Commission refused to receive the Israeli prime minister at the headquarters of the organisation. A subsequent claim by Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for the Israeli leader, that he didn’t visit the AU headquarters because of his crowded agenda was a classic Netanyahu lie. The truth is, he was snubbed.
At present Israel has diplomatic ties with 11 of the 54 member states of the AU. It has for some time been trying to secure AU observer status along with countries like India, Brazil, Turkey, China and Japan, as well as the EU. Two previous applications in 1976 and 2014 were rejected, despite its offers of assistance in agriculture, chemical engineering, mining, irrigation and hydro-electricity.
Apart from its apartheid system of oppression, Israel has to account for several other controversial policies before it can possibly expect win the trust of Africa. The proliferation of Israeli arms in South Sudan’s killing fields is one example of many which require urgent investigation. What good is Israel’s scientific and technological assistance to Africa when all of the benefits are destroyed in senseless wars fought using Israeli arms? In 2009, Israel sold $71 million worth of weapons to the continent. That figure tripled to $223 million in 2013 and climbed again to $318 million in 2014.
Furthermore, what about the racial discrimination and police brutality suffered by Ethiopians in Israel? President Reuven Rivlin admits that their grievances have “exposed an open, bleeding wound in the heart of Israeli society.” It is iniquities like these and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that have combined to undermine Netanyahu’s trip.
The visit of the Israeli premier to Africa was the first of its kind in 30 years. His government has decided to forge new relations in the global south and not rely solely on its traditional political, military and economic support from the north. Voting patterns at the UN show that there is a need to bolster Israel’s support in international organisations. At a time when civil societies across the world have been intensifying their efforts for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, it needs to find new allies to secure votes at the UN and other bodies.
The renewed call from Ethiopia for an observer seat at the AU is a victory of sorts, but as long as Israel’s apartheid and racial supremacist policies exist in occupied Palestine the doors to the African continent will remain shut. South Africans bore the brunt of the brutality of their own Apartheid past; they must now take the lead to ensure that Israel does not make any headway in Africa as long as its modern version of the hated political system is still in place.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.