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Turning the tide: Israel’s strategy in Africa

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Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign documents after their meeting at the presidential palace in N’Djamena on January 20, 2019. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ BRAHIM ADJI

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Chad in January 2019 marked a historical milestone in the relations between both countries after decades of rupture. His meeting with Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno is part of Israel’s global efforts to enhance its relations with Africa, in addition to improving its image in Muslim-majority countries. Ties between the two nations had been broken since 1972.

In recent years, Israel has shown an upsurge of interest for the African continent. Since 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a campaign aiming to strengthen relationships between his country and African states, thereby garnering support for Israel.

Historically, in the 1960s, Israel backed up newly independent African states. Yet, in the wake of the oil crisis and the 1973 war, African governments fell out with Israel to comply with a resolution of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), sponsored by Egypt and calling for members to break off ties with Israel. Another incentive for severing relations was the promise made by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Saudi King Faisal to provide cheap oil and financial aid to African countries. The African Union even granted Palestinians non-member observer status at AU summits, but Israelis did not receive the same treatment.Israel’s active support for the Apartheid’s regime in South Africa throughout the 1980s widened the rift. In the 1990s, following the end of the Apartheid, several African countries restored their relations with Israel. However, Israel’s diplomatic strategy remained everything but active.

Thus, the Israeli Prime Minister’s current involvement towards Africa should not be underestimated. He was the first Israeli leader in three decades to set a foot on the African continent for an official visit. In July 2016, he completed a tour of East Africa, which entailed visits to Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya. Whether in Rwanda, where he laid a wreath in memory of the genocide’s victims emphasizing on the existing similarities with the Holocaust, or in Kenya, where he pledged support for a wall between the country and Somalia to “keep terrorists out”, none of his gestures or speeches can be deemed innocuous.

Most importantly, in June 2017, Benjamin Netanyahu took part in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Liberia, seizing the absence of Arab states as an opportunity to advocate for Israel. The purpose of this strategy was to shift Israel’s perception on a continent where many states regard it through critical lenses. It was the first time that a non-African leader addressed the audience with one-third of the participating members being Muslim.

Prior to the summit, the Israeli Prime Minister had explained that the goal of this renewed diplomacy towards Africa was to “dissolve this giant bloc of 54 African countries” forming the ground of the automatic majority against Israel in the United Nations.

This diplomatic strategy is deployed through various means.

Economically, Israel’s policy in the region is manifesting itself through several projects. In early December 2017, the country and the United States of America signed an agreement with the objective to increase energy access in Africa and reduce the continent’s dearth in electricity through innovation. According to Quartz Africa, this partnership was included in the broader Power Africa project, a five-year-long project costing $7 billion, that had been initiated under the Obama administration. It intended to create 60 million new electricity connections in Africa by 2030.

The year before this agreement with the US, during Netanyahu’s East African tour, Ethiopia and Israel signed several cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding on agriculture, investment and tourism capacity-building. Several agreements were also signed with Kenya in the fields of health and immigration. Furthermore, the Israeli cabinet gave clearance to a proposal aiming to open offices of Israel’s Agency for Development Cooperation (MASHAV) in the four visited countries.

In addition to economy, Israel is producing a discourse that espouses the fear of terrorism in Western Africa, with growing extremism and multiple terrorist attacks claimed by Jihadi groups. By labelling the Palestinian resistance as an organization of “terrorism”, Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to draw a parallel between Israel’s fight against terror and the struggle of Western African countries. Already in 2010, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had qualified Palestinian movements as a “terrorist group” during a visit to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.

One of the reasons underlying in Israel’s interest for the continent is the existence of a significant Lebanese diaspora in Africa. Part of the latter is suspected of funding the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah, which Israel perceives as a terrorist group and a direct threat to its security. As a consequence, Israel has encouraged national businessmen to invest in countries considered as inclined to this Lebanese influence, such as Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire.

In East Africa, the threats posed by Jihadi groups also constitute a growing concern. Israel seeks to confront those movements and avert any attack against its interests. As part of its strategy, Israel has won bases for Israeli intelligence services in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. It has thereby sought to curtail the spread of Islamic groups in East Africa following increasing security pressures posed by the Al-Qaeda related group Al-Shabab. The factor of terrorism appears to be an important motive justifying the strengthening of relations between Israel and the East-Africa region.

Another reason that isn’t often brought up is Israel’s divisive strategy towards countries sharing the Nile rivers’ resources. According to Fahad Yassin, a researcher at the Al-Jazeera center for studies, Netanyahu’s visit to Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda has to also be read as part of his efforts to turn upstream and downstream countries against each other’s and present Egypt and Sudan as the only beneficiaries of the river.

More specifically, Israel seeks to exploit rivalries arising between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have failed to agree on the potential effects of this project. Egypt has raised concerns that this plan would shift away significant water supplies and damage its farmland.

Addis Ababa’s project is the first of its kind on the Blue Nile. The plan has sparked an outcry in Egypt because it is perceived as a violation of the 1929 and 1959 agreements, which gave Egypt the right to veto any projects concerning the river. Egyptians authorities are accusing Ethiopia of moving forward without consulting with them, taking advantage of Egypt’s instability following the 2011 uprising.

Those tensions are an opportunity for Israel to ensure its own future water security. By supporting the dam project, Israel seeks to ensure that it has a share on the Nile river water.

According to Fahad Yassin, this explains Netanyahu’s will to support Ethiopian agriculture, with Israel helping Ethiopia by letting the country use its own water resources and providing it with technological supplies.

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