Following the Six Day War in 1967, Guinea-Conakry was the first African country to sever relations with Israel. By the time of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, only three sub-Saharan African states maintained ties with Israel.
But by July last year, after 49 years of the diplomatic cold shoulder, Guinea-Conakry, a Muslim-majority country, was ready to re-establish ties with Israel. Indeed, 2016 marked the blossoming of relations between Israel and the African continent. No fewer than 40 African countries have relations with Israel and this is set to grow further following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly successful trip to Africa in mid-2016 – the first by an Israeli prime minister in 30 years.
Reflecting on the changed circumstances which made this thawing of relations possible, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at a joint press conference with Netanyahu in Nairobi in July stated, “We think that the world has changed. Global problems that we now share are different compared to some 30 years ago. And we need to partner with each other. We need to deal with the security threats we have together.”
Put differently, Arab states following the disruptions of the Arab Spring have lost their leverage over Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of how these countries conduct their Mideast foreign policy. As such, African countries are freer to pursue their national interests in a more pragmatic manner.
During his trip to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Netanyahu, who is also Foreign Minister, stressed that it was for the mutual benefit of both Israel and Africa that cooperation takes place. Without doubt, Israel’s diplomatic offensive holds great promise for it in the economic and political realms.
As a representative of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, Tomer Heyvi, noted as he accompanied a group of African diplomats on a tour of Jerusalem in November, “In 2015 trade with African countries made up only three percent of Israel’s international trade, and we believe that the potential is far greater and still not materialized”.
Politically, as Netanyahu has pointed out, the days where the United Nations automatically votes against Israel are numbered. The African bloc, comprising 55 states, traditionally pro-Palestinian in voting at the UN General Assembly, were no longer displaying antipathy towards the State of Israel.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, center, is given a dryland farming demonstration on a visit to Kibbutz Kalia on the shore of the Dead Sea, February, 2016; Credit: PSCU, Kenya.
Netanyahu, however, blotted his copybook somewhat, when he retaliated against Senegal after it voted in December with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. Daniel Pinhasi, a former Israeli ambassador to Senegal asked in an Haaretz op-ed "What justified the recall of the ambassador for consultations and the freezing of relations with a friendly Muslim country?"
African nations could also serve as launching pads for developing closer relations with other international organizations. Consider the case of Somalia, a Sunni Muslim country, which also happens to be a member of the Arab League. The meeting, reported by The Times of Israel, between Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Netanyahu was unprecedented given the fact that Somalia has never recognized the State of Israel.
"The danger for Israel is that it could be associated with regimes with appalling human rights records"
African countries, too, are set to benefit from closer ties with Israel. Israeli medical technology has come to the assistance of Sierra Leone and Liberia ravaged by the Ebola virus. Ethiopia relies on Israeli expertise to expand its horticulture industry. Ghana, meanwhile seeks Israeli assistance in childhood education whilst South Africa seeks to learn more about Israel’s water management techniques and growing crops under arid conditions. Kenya, fighting the scourge of terrorism, seeks the security assistance of Israel and its renowned counter-terrorism expertise.
It is, however, in the realm of security where the greatest peril lies for both Africa and Israel. Given the fragility of the African polity and the conflict-ridden nature of the continent, the one thing Africa does not need is arms. Yet Israeli arms sales to Africa have doubled between 2012 and 2013 and reached $318 million in 2014. While these military exports are minuscule compared to other international players, it still has a potentially devastating negative impact. One UN study found that Israeli arms were serving to fuel the conflict in South Sudan.
Security cooperation also holds potential peril for Israel and its international standing. The terrorist threat in Africa does not emanate from global jihadism writ large – that develops later. Rather, terrorism begins as local insurgencies against corrupt African political elites and are motivated by real grievances. Rapacious political elites then make use of external security assistance to crush dissent as opposed to responding with inclusive and responsive governance.
The danger for Israel is that it could be associated with odious regimes with appalling human rights records.
Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State and is also a Senior Research Associate of the Jerusalem-based Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA).