“Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel” announced Benjamin Netanyahu, stepping off the plane in Uganda to begin a four-state tour across East Africa, which included Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Sounding like a line from an Odyssey disco album, this month’s diplomatic tour was something of a homecoming for the Israeli PM – it marked the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid, where his brother Yonatan was killed rescuing Israeli hostages. It was also the first time an Israeli leader had set foot in Africa for nearly 3 decades.
From a PR point of view, the trip was a resounding success. In the course of 5 days, Netanyahu posted his speeches and photos on Facebook to thousands of likes. The extravagant spending budget of $12.5 million was, according to his aides, a worthy investment in trying to strengthen Israeli-African ties. Unsurprisingly, his opponents seized every opportunity to deride the trip, accusing the Prime Minister of wasting taxpayer’s money. Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Israeli opposition, argued that Netanyahu was using the trip to ignore domestic issues of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. Others commented that Israel was merely looking for African allies to counter UN pressure and negative press received from pro-Palestinian BDS campaigns. Former South African ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia recently accused Netanyahu of ‘open bribery for votes at the UN forums’.
Certainly Israel and Africa have a history of volatile relations. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, scores of African countries cut ties with Israel in solidarity with Arab states. Israel further isolated itself from Sub Saharan Africa by pursuing a strategic relationship with the South African apartheid regime. However this kind of criticism misses the significance of the tour as marking a new chapter in Israeli- African relations, at a time when great political and economic changes have occurred in the continent.
In the last decade, Africa has become the new frontier for the global war on terrorism– the rise of Islamist militant groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Kenya, as well Islamic State and Al Qaeda cells in the Sinai Peninsula, has meant that security threats to African regions are high. During the Entebbe ceremony in Uganda, the Prime Minister signed a joint declaration with the heads of Sub-Saharan states to combat terrorism and confirm a stronger alliance. Many Muslim African countries, once hostile to Israel, are now enthusiastic about including the country in African political forums. One senior official added that Israel’s covert relations with the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have convinced many African countries that they no longer have to worry about Arab pressure against developing ties with Israel.
In line with the national security agenda, Netanyahu visited the Kigali Memorial in Rwanda, which holds the remains of more than 250,000 victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. There he laid a wreath in memory of the victims and spoke of the stark similarities to the Holocaust. He also affirmed to the media that developing nations must be able to rely on themselves in times of conflict and crisis. Historically, Israel has always identified with African narratives of oppression and struggles for self-determination. In 2011, Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the independent state of South Sudan, which had suffered decades of ethnic genocide and mass rape at the hands of Northern Sudanese government forces. At a recent conference, Israeli deputy Director General for Africa, Yoram Elron noted that Israel’s intelligence and military expertise are becoming increasingly valuable to African states. Although Israel is by no means a major power on the continent, currently only 2% of Israeli exports go to Africa, countries like Rwanda see the possibility of a new partnership amidst increasingly strained relations with their traditional allies in the West.
The prospect of greater economic relations encouraged Netanyahu to bring 80 business representatives with him on the trip. It was rumoured that nearly $1 billion worth of deals were agreed at the various business forums. Israel also pledged a $13 million development package towards health and security. Today, Africa has some of the highest growth rates in the world and presents new opportunities in areas that Israel has extensive expertise in, such as agriculture, telecommunications, and alternative energy. Israeli companies and academic institutes have been investing heavily in African expertise for some time. A few years ago, the Tel Aviv University set up the Pears Challenge, an annual programme which encourages start-up collaboration between Israel and developing countries. Dozens of young tech entrepreneurs from Israel and Africa worked together to develop sustainable solutions to socio-economic and environmental problems. Each year, Israel trains some 1,000 African students in a range of disciplines, which include modern agricultural methods, medicine and communications. Gregory Rockson, Ghanaian tech entrepreneur and co- founder of the hugely successful mPharma data platform, was handpicked by Microsoft R&D to incubate his start up on campus in Tel Aviv in 2013. mPharma is set to be Africa’s biggest e prescription and tracking service, which already has 6000 patients registered.
Such gestures of goodwill are unlikely to redeem Israel in the eyes of its many critics, but incontrovertibly, this small nation, with a population of less than 10 million people, is going out of its way to open doors to Africa and promote a positive image of doing business with Africans. Ultimately, this can only be a good thing.