Israel has been able to conjure up strong allies since it was founded in 1948. Britain and France supported it militarily, politically and economically until it launched the Six Day War in June 1967, after which it shifted to a strategic alliance with the United States.
Ever since Israel's creation in occupied Palestine, successive governments have sought to gain access to Africa and build close relations with nations across the continent to give the impression that, despite its military occupation of Palestinian land, it is a normal state. It has its reasons for this, including the strategic importance of African countries, especially those in the Nile Basin, where Israel wants to take advantage of their water sources and put pressure on Egypt and Sudan, while exploiting them politically. There are also economic motives behind Israel's concern about links with African countries, not least their natural resources, including diamonds, gold, timber and oil, the latter mainly in Nigeria and Angola. Furthermore, Africa's population of 1.2 billion people is a prime market for Israeli goods.
At a time when Jewish migration from Europe and America to Israel has declined, its institutions have focused on encouraging African Jews to make the move. There is a large number of Jews in Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Israel seeks to create the conditions that would attract thousands of them to migrate, while exploiting those who remain to put pressure on their home governments to support Israel against international resolutions condemning the policies and practices of its military occupation. African states carry a lot of weight in, for example, the UN and other international organisations.
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Israel has been able to build complex relations with many countries in Africa, relying mainly on the projects of its Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) in order to transfer technology and develop human resources. Activities are intended to enhance professional capabilities in theory and practice, and adapting new technologies to meet development priorities on the ground in Africa. Various ministries, professional bodies and academic institutions in Israel are involved, as well as research centres.
MASHAV works in partnership with African countries whose economies are in transition in order to face challenges in areas such as poverty reduction, basic health services, food security, early childhood education, desertification, gender equality, small and medium size businesses, and rural development.
Observers of Israeli affairs know that Israel-Africa relations have witnessed a few changes since 1948. Recognition of Israel by African countries peaked in 1963 by which time 23 Israeli embassies had been opened across the continent. Relations deteriorated after the Israeli attacks against neighbouring Arab countries in June 1967, but improved after the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to occupied Jerusalem in 1977. It was not enough for Israeli ambitions, though.
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The development of Israel's relationship with Africa was linked closely to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is evidenced by the fact that the African diplomatic boycott of Israel during the 1970s and most of the 1980s, followed by the quick restoration of relations at the beginning of the 1990s, was linked to two major events: the October 1973 War and the Madrid Peace Conference at the end of 1991, as well as the (Oslo) Declaration of Principles signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993. This hastened the decline of many African countries' sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause.
Israel invested in this in order to strengthen and expand its relations in Africa and, as of late 2018, had managed to build links with 45 African countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said several times that his strategy is to direct foreign policy in a way that penetrates Africa and strengthens relations via an economic gateway and the enhancement of trade. His government has urged local companies to take advantage of resources and increase their exports to Africa.
While the value of Israeli exports in 2017 exceeded $100 billion, the value of its exports to Africa was less than $1 billion. Expanding relations with Africa is thus a priority for Netanyahu. In July 2016, he went on an extensive African tour that included Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, and made promises to support development projects, modernise agriculture and livestock husbandry, transfer technology and develop education and health provision. Israel's Ministry of Economy and Industry is working to find new channels into Africa, including the opening of two offices for the ministry in the capital of Ghana, Accra, and in Nairobi, Kenya, which will work alongside the trade attaché based in South Africa.
In general, Israel wants its relations with African countries to achieve three goals: expanded diplomatic relations; the opening up of new markets for Israeli companies; and breaking African support for Palestine at the UN. African states, meanwhile, hope that having good relations with Israel will help them to benefit from Israel's security, technological and agricultural expertise.
Translated from Al Arabi Al Jadid, 14 January 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.