Many African states face the challenges of development. Since receiving internationally recognized sovereignty, they have searched for proven models of success in order to establish their influence on the global scene and accelerate their development process. To this end, they forge close links with many countries, including the state of Israel.
Historically, however, the first contacts between the peoples of Israel and of Africa date back to a very distant time, as written in the Holy Scriptures. We find many examples of common destinies, both spiritual and geopolitical, between these two nations. For example, Joseph, son of Jacob, was sold by his own brothers to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt as a slave before he became Pharaoh’s prime minister. Jacob and his family later settled in Egypt on Pharaoh’s instructions. Likewise, the Holy Scriptures recount the flight of Mary, Joseph, and their son Jesus to Egypt in order to preserve Jesus’ life when King Herod decreed the killing of newborns and toddlers up to two years of age.
With regard to diplomatic relations in modern times, the first official contacts between Israel and certain African states began before their independence. Golda Meir, as Israeli foreign minister, initiated her country’s first diplomatic relations with Africa when an Israeli consulate opened in Ghana in 1956, a year before Ghana officially gained independence in 1957. Most Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Togo, would follow suit in the 1960s. By the mid-1960s Israel had established diplomatic ties with 33 African countries.
However, following the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), several African countries decided to break off diplomatic relations with Israel so as to comply with a resolution of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). However, on an unofficial level, economic diplomacy continued, conducted via the embassies of other Western countries in certain African states. In the 1980s Israel’s relations with several countries of the continent gradually resumed.
The current international context is very different. Today the multilateralism promoted by the main players on the international stage has created better conditions for a diplomatic offensive led by many countries. By the early 2000s Israel had official relations with 39 Sub-Saharan African countries, and it currently hosts some 15 African embassies; today we see a growing interest in the Jewish state among additional African countries. What are the signs of this diplomatic thaw with Jerusalem and what are its true motivations?
Diplomatic Signs of the Vitality of African Cooperation with Israel
Frequent Official Contacts
In July 2016, during a historic tour to East African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the diplomatic activity occurring between his country and the African continent. As he put it, “Israel returns to Africa and Africa returns to Israel.” The facts on the ground, involving regular contacts between senior African and Israeli officials, bear out this slogan, which first came into use in February 2016. Netanyahu’s tour confirmed a renewed dynamic in African-Israeli relations.
In addition, Netanyahu was the special guest of the 51st Summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), held in Monrovia, Liberia, in June 2017. At the summit Netanyahu announced the implementation of a $1 billion program to develop solar energy in Africa. An Israeli will manage this program.
These moves by Israel clearly aim to tighten political and economic links with the African continent, which hosts 12 Israeli embassies and includes countries that are friendly toward the Jewish state. All of these factors constitute what Netanyahu has called the “indispensable bridge” that the Jewish state has crossed to return to Africa and promote mutually beneficial initiatives.
Israel Expects Political Support
Israeli diplomacy in Africa has proven to be an effective means of mitigating anti-Israeli sentiment on the continent. Indeed, a change in Africa’s treatment of Israel would be a positive strategic development with regard to Israel’s international status, in addition to the esteem that many countries already have for the Jewish state. In return, Israel’s supporters gain diplomatic visibility and increase their ability to influence major political and economic decisions.
In light of its historical, political, and spiritual foundations, Israel appears to be a stable country with a positive outlook. And its pragmatic diplomacy is bearing fruit: today, well aware of the benefits to be gained, 39 Sub-Saharan African countries maintain active diplomatic relations with Israel.
The aims of Israeli diplomacy in Africa, however, are not only political. They are also, and above all, economic.
The Economic Pragmatism of African States
The Traditional Sectors
At a top-level meeting in New York in September 2016, President of Togo Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe stated that “Israel has the solutions to the problems of Africa.” He added that, while Israel is not the only country to master the technologies that the continent needs, it is the most dynamic. The prospective Africa-Israel summit in Lomé (capital of Togo), the first of its kind, focusing on “high technology, security and development,” is intended to strengthen the longstanding friendship and cooperation between Africa and Israel. This initiative is important because of the evident economic advantages for the stakeholders.
In terms of security, Israeli expertise, which is greatly appreciated around the world, would be a great asset for the continent, whose peace and security are seriously threatened by Islamist terrorism. Information-sharing offers new opportunities for African countries in their fight against terrorism. Indeed, the development of Africa depends on the preservation of peace and security.
In addition, the Israeli Agency for International Development Cooperation, known by its Hebrew logo of MASHAV and active since 1958, is involved in many fields, such as renewable energy, information technology, and telecommunications. Communication, training, mining, agriculture, and health care are all major areas in which Israeli expertise is proving helpful to the continent’s socioeconomic development.
At the commercial level, as trade relations are increasingly internationalized, Africa, which is undergoing economic expansion, is compelled to enhance its ties with Israel. According to the online edition of Jeune Afrique magazine, in 2014, for example, the Jewish state exported $1.3 billion worth of goods and services to Africa.
The Innovative Sectors
From an African approach, the preferred new fields for cooperation are technology and education. Indeed, Israel, known as the startup nation, with its robust and diversified economy and sectors of advanced scientific and technological innovation, has great potential to help African countries relying on small and medium-sized enterprises to reduce youth unemployment. Apart from the United States, Israel is the only country in the world most of whose scientific and technological companies are listed on the NASDAQ, the U.S. technology sector index. Israel can do much to help Africa develop in this vital and strategic sector. At the same time, African countries can open up markets for Israeli companies.
In the field of education, about a thousand African students come to Israel each year for training in various fields, from leadership to agriculture. Thanks to Israel’s modern infrastructure, qualified personnel, and its leaders’ strong political will, this aspect of Israeli-African cooperation is expected to advance significantly.
In addition, maintaining a strong relationship with Israel, the world leader in water technology and especially in desalination, recycling, and irrigation, is an asset for African countries whose agricultural sector is affected by the issue of water control. This fact was understood very early by African leaders who, seeking to improve models of peasant organization, visited kibbutzim well before their countries gained independence. Agricultural skills, combined with mastery of technology, are essential to African countries’ economic success.
Both partners, Israel and Africa, have much to gain from their cooperation.
Africa cannot remain indifferent to the global trend of increasing openness and reciprocal enrichment between continents, including their people and their states, thereby promoting human progress. Africa’s relations with Israel must be understood in light of the need to diversify the African economies and meet the challenges posed by the world’s new geopolitical configuration. The ideological prejudices that once characterized these relations and were linked to crises and conflicts will, in time, disappear for good. The combined strengths of Africa and Israel will facilitate greater political and developmental cooperation. This is a goal that we must actively pursue.