The decision by the African Union Commission last month to grant Israel observer status membership in the AU was the culmination of years of relentless Israeli efforts aimed at co-opting Africa's largest political institution. Why is Israel so keen to penetrate Africa? What made African countries finally succumb to Israeli pressure and lobbying?
To answer the above questions, one has to appreciate the new Great Game underway in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, which has always been significant to Israel's geopolitical designs. Starting in the early 1950s to the mid-70s, Israel's Africa network was in constant expansion. The 1973 war, however, brought that affinity to an abrupt end.
What changed Africa?
Ghana in West Africa officially recognised Israel in 1956, just eight years after the occupation state was established atop the ruins of historic Palestine. What seemed like an odd decision at the time, given Africa's history of western colonialism and anti-colonial struggles, ushered in a new era of African-Israeli relations. By the early 1970s, Israel had established a strong position for itself on the continent. On the eve of the 1973 Israeli-Arab war, it had full diplomatic ties with 33 African countries.
"The October War", however, presented many African countries with a stark choice: siding with Israel — a country born out of Western colonial intrigues — or the Arabs, who are connected to Africa through historical, political, economic, cultural and religious bonds. Most African countries opted for the latter. One after the other, African countries began severing their ties with Israel. Soon enough, no African state, other than Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland, had official diplomatic relations with the occupation state.
The continent's solidarity with Palestine then went even further. In its 12th ordinary session held in Kampala in 1975, the Organisation of African Unity – the precursor of the African Union – became the first international body to recognise, on a large scale, the inherent racism of Israel's Zionist ideology by adopting Resolution 77 (XII). This same resolution was cited in the UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, adopted in November of that same year, which determined that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". Resolution 3379 remained in effect until it was revoked by the Assembly under intense US pressure in 1991.
Since Israel had remained committed to that same Zionist, racist ideology, the only rational conclusion is that it was Africa, not Israel, which changed. But why?
First up was the collapse of the Soviet Union. That seismic event resulted in the subsequent isolation of pro-Soviet African countries which, for years, stood as the vanguard against American, Western and, by extension, Israeli expansionism and interests on the continent.
This was followed by the collapse of the unified Arab front on Palestine. That front has served historically as the moral and political frame of reference for pro-Palestine, anti-Israel sentiments in Africa. This particular collapse started with the Egyptian government's signing of the Camp David Agreement in 1978-79 and then the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestinian leadership and Israel in 1993.
Covert and overt normalisation between Arab countries and Israel has continued unabated over the past three decades, resulting in the extension of diplomatic ties between Israel and several Arab countries, including African-Arab countries, like Sudan and Morocco. Other Muslim-majority African countries also joined the normalisation efforts, including Chad and Mali.
The new "scramble for Africa" was renewed with a vengeance. Neo-colonialism brought many of the usual suspects back to Africa; Western countries are, once more, realising the untapped potential of the continent in terms of markets, cheap labour and natural resources. A driving force for the West's return to Africa is the rise of China as a global superpower with keen interests in investing in Africa's dilapidated infrastructure. Whenever economic competition is found, military hardware is sure to follow. Now several Western armed forces are operating openly in Africa under various guises; the French in Mali and the Sahel region, for example, and America's many operations through US Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Tellingly, Washington not only serves as Israel's benefactor in Palestine and the Middle East, but also worldwide, and Israel is willing to go to any lengths to exploit the massive leverage it holds over the US government. This stifling paradigm, which has been at work in the Middle East for decades, is also at work across Africa. For example, the US administration agreed last year to remove Sudan from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for Khartoum's normalisation with Israel. In truth, Sudan is not the only country that understands — and is willing to engage in — this kind of "pragmatism", a euphemism for underhanded political bartering. Others too have learned to play the game well. Indeed, by voting to admit Israel to the AU, some African governments expect a return on their political investment, a return that will be exacted from Washington, not from Tel Aviv.
Unfortunately, albeit expectedly, as Africa's normalisation with Israel has grown, Palestine has become an increasingly marginal issue on the agendas of many African governments, who are far more invested in realpolitik — or simply remaining in Washington's good books — than honouring the anti-colonial, anti-apartheid legacies of their nations.
Netanyahu the Conqueror
However, there was another driving force behind Israel's decision to "return" to Africa, not just political opportunism and economic exploitation. Successive events have made it clear that Washington is retreating from the Middle East and that the region is no longer a top priority for the dwindling American empire. For the US, China's decisive moves to assert its power and influence in Asia are largely responsible for Washington's rethink. The 2012 US withdrawal from Iraq, its "leadership from behind" in Libya and its non-committal policy in Syria, among others, were all indicators pointing to the inescapable fact that Israel could no longer count solely on blind and unconditional American support. Thus, the ongoing search for new allies began.
For the first time in decades, Israel began confronting its prolonged isolation at the UN General Assembly. US vetoes at the UN Security Council may have shielded Israel from accountability for its military occupation and war crimes, but they were hardly enough to give Israel the legitimacy that it has long coveted. In a recent conversation with former UN human rights envoy Richard Falk, the Princeton Professor Emeritus explained to me that, despite Israel's ability to escape punishment, it is rapidly losing what he refers to as the "legitimacy war".
Palestine, according to Falk, continues to win that war, one that can only be achieved through real, grassroots global solidarity. It is precisely this factor that explains Israel's keen interest in transferring the battlefield to Africa and other parts of the Global South.
On 5 July 2016, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, kick-started Israel's own "scramble for Africa" with a visit to Kenya, which was described as historic by the Israeli media. Indeed, it was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister in fifty years. After spending some time in Nairobi, where he attended the Israel-Kenya Economic Forum alongside hundreds of Israeli and Kenyan business leaders, he moved on to Uganda, where he met leaders from other African countries including South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Within the same month, Israel announced the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and Guinea.
The new Israeli strategy flowed from there. More high-level visits to Africa and triumphant announcements about new joint economic ventures and investments followed. In June 2017, Netanyahu took part in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), held in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. There, he went as far as rewriting history.
"Africa and Israel share a natural affinity," Netanyahu claimed in his 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." With these words, Netanyahu attempted, not only to hide Israel's colonial intentions but also to rob Palestinians of their own history.
Moreover, the Israeli leader had hoped to crown his political and economic achievements with the Israel-Africa Summit, an event that was meant to officially welcome Israel, not to a specific African regional alliance, but to the whole of Africa. However, in September 2017, the organisers of the event decided to postpone it indefinitely, after it was scheduled to take place in Lome, the capital of Togo, a month later. What was seen by Israeli leaders as a temporary setback was the result of intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying by several African and Arab countries, including South Africa and Algeria.
Ultimately, this was a temporary setback. The admission of Israel into the 55-member African bloc in July is considered by Israeli officials and media pundits to be a major political victory, especially as Tel Aviv has been labouring to achieve observer status since 2002. At that time, many obstacles stood in the way, like the strong objection raised by Libya under the leadership of Muammar Ghaddafi and the insistence of Algeria that Africa must remain committed to its anti-Zionist ideals, and so on. However, one after the other, these obstacles were removed or marginalised.
In a recent statement, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid celebrated Israel's African Union membership as an "important part of strengthening the fabric of Israel's foreign relations." According to Lapid, the exclusion of Israel from the AU was an "anomaly that existed for almost two decades." Of course, not all African countries agree with his convenient logic.
According to TRT News, citing Algerian media, seventeen African countries, including Zimbabwe, Algeria and Liberia, have objected to Israel's admission to the Union. In a separate statement, South Africa expressed outrage at the decision, describing as "appalling" the "unjust and unwarranted decision of the AU Commission to grant Israel observer status in the African Union." Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said that his country will "not stand idly by in front of this step taken by Israel and the African Union without consulting the member states."
Despite Israel's triumphalism, it seems that the fight for Africa isn't over yet; the political, ideological and economic battle is likely to continue unabated for years to come. However, for Palestinians and their supporters to have a chance of winning it, they must understand the nature of the Israeli strategy through which the occupation state positions itself as the saviour of various African countries, bestowing favours and introducing new technologies to combat real, tangible problems. Being more technologically advanced when compared with many African states, Israel is able to offer its superior "security", IT and irrigation technologies to Africa in exchange for diplomatic ties, support at the UN General Assembly and lucrative investments.
Consequently, Palestine's Africa dichotomy rests partly on the fact that African solidarity has historically been placed within the larger political framework of mutual African-Arab solidarity. Yet, as official Arab solidarity with Palestine starts to weaken, Palestinians are forced to think outside this traditional box, so that they may build direct solidarity with African nations in their own right, without necessarily merging their national aspirations with the larger, now fragmented, Arab body politic.
While such a task is daunting, it is also promising, as Palestinians now have the opportunity to build bridges of support and mutual solidarity in Africa through direct contacts, where they serve as their own ambassadors. Obviously, Palestine not only has much to gain from this but also much to offer Africa. Palestinian doctors, engineers, civil defence and frontline workers, educationists, intellectuals and artists are some of the most highly qualified and accomplished in the Middle East. True, they have much that they can learn from their African peers, but they also have much to give in return.
Unlike persisting stereotypes, many African universities, civil society organisations and cultural centres serve as vibrant intellectual hubs. African thinkers, philosophers, writers, journalists, artists and athletes are some of the most articulate, empowered and accomplished in the world. Any pro-Palestine strategy in Africa should keep these African treasures in mind as a way of engaging, not only with individuals but with whole societies as well.
Israeli media reported extensively and proudly about Israel's admission to the AU. The celebrations, however, might be premature, for Africa is not a group of self-seeking leaders bestowing political favours in exchange for meagre returns. It is the heart of the most powerful anti-colonial trends that the world has ever known. A continent of this size, complexity and proud history cannot be written off as a mere "prize" to be won or lost by Israel and its neo-colonial friends.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.