Scenarios for Israel’s role in Africa

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu and in the wake of the Abraham Accords, Israel made good progress in establishing diplomatic ties with African countries. But with a fragile coalition in the Knesset and a new administration in Washington, circumstances have changed.

Prime Minister of Israel Naftali Bennett in Egypt
Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) met with the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry during a trip to Cairo in September 2021. © Getty Images
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In a nutshell

  • Israel has been expanding its relations with Africa
  • It may consolidate existing ties rather than expand
  • Recent power shifts could affect the status quo

In recent years, and especially since the Abraham Accords, Israel has made important advances in its relations with African countries. However, the Israeli strategy to engage with the continent could soon change under the new government, especially with a different administration in the United States and a new balance of power in the Middle East.

Coming back to Africa

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as a young nation, Israel conducted an intense diplomatic campaign across sub-Saharan Africa. Under the leadership of then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Africa was a top priority. Engagement was mostly based on providing technical assistance to recently independent states, also as a show of anti-colonial solidarity. By 1970, Israel had established diplomatic relations with 30 African countries.

These dynamics were interrupted by the Yom Kippur War. In compliance with a resolution by the Organization of African Unity and under pressure from the Arab League, 29 African states broke relations with Israel. In 1975, 19 African countries voted in favor of the United Nations resolution 3379 (revoked in 1991) which described Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination.

The Abraham Accords will shape attempts to engage with African countries.

Later, the Camp David agreement and the normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt paved the way for rapprochement, further reinforced by the Oslo Accords. However, Israel has not been able to obtain diplomatic support from Africa in multilateral forums.

After 2009, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Africa assumed a more prominent place in Israel’s strategy, as reflected in his statement that “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel.” This comeback, however, has been accompanied by a centralized approach to diplomacy and cooperation, and remains dependent on the interests and strategies pursued by third parties, including the Gulf countries and the U.S.

Rationale

Israel’s attempts to consolidate and expand diplomatic relations in Africa are rooted in several motives. The most urgent was to address what has been described as an anti-Israel bias in multilateral forums, specifically in the UN General Assembly, where the African group holds 54 seats. In 2018, for example, only seven African countries (Cape Verde, Eritrea, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda, and South Sudan) voted for a resolution put forward by the U.S. condemning Hamas attacks on Israeli territory.

Israel’s relations with Africa are also influenced by recent developments on the world stage. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Middle East and shifted its approach to Tehran away from maximum pressure. China has also signed a 25-year Trade and Strategic Pact with Iran. For Beijing, within the Belt and Road Initiative project, Israel plays a vital role in connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. However, the project has increased Iran’s regional leverage. Meanwhile, although support for Israel once had bipartisan consensus in the U.S., it has become a polarizing issue. Within the Democratic Party, progressives are pressuring President Joe Biden to rethink relations with the Jewish state.

The Abraham Accords, which paved the way for cooperation with Gulf Arab countries, will continue to shape attempts to engage with African countries. While Israel does not have the financial and diplomatic resources to design an ambitious strategy for Africa, it holds competitive advantages in areas like technology and defense. In Rwanda, for example, the Israel-based Gigawatt Global has developed East Africa’s first utility-scale photovoltaic facility. The company is constructing the first private grid-connected solar field in neighboring Burundi and expanding its activities in West Africa, after signing an agreement with ECOWAS to invest $1 billion in the implementation of green energy projects. The Israeli tech company NUFiltration implements water decontamination systems in Ghana and Cameroon. Given the climatic and geographic similarities between some African countries and Israel, cooperation in agrotechnology has been expanding.

Israel’s advanced defense technology makes it an attractive partner for several African governments when it comes to security. (It also helps that Israel, unlike many Western countries, was not a colonial power in Africa and does not evoke memories of a difficult past.) In many cases, the intelligence and security services play a more relevant, if discreet, role than MASHAV, the Israeli agency for cooperation and development. The expansion of terrorist threats across East Africa and the Sahel has reinforced this type of cooperation.

MASHAV aid worker Israel African countries
A MASHAV worker treating a Kenyan woman and her child. Post-Netanyahu, Israeli engagement in Africa could shift away from security and focus on boosting the country’s soft power. © Getty Images

Mediators and gateways

Recently, two important events took place in Israel-Africa relations. The first was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2016 Africa tour, the first time in decades that an Israeli prime minister visited the continent. The head of state visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. In 2017, he also attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi. Kenya, like Rwanda, has been a diplomatic ally, and played a key role in the promotion of Israel to the status of observer in the African Union.

The second milestone was the mediation efforts deployed by the Trump administration in the broader framework of the Abraham Accords. In the cases of Sudan and Morocco, Washington linked vital decisions – such as removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list or recognizing Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara – to normalization agreements with Israel.

The United Arab Emirates played an important mediation role in the rapprochement between Israel and Sudan by organizing a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan. 

Accomplishments

Israel has also normalized diplomatic ties with Guinea and Chad. It has diplomatic relations with 46 African states, and 12 embassies across the continent. At least 13 African countries have also opened embassies in Tel Aviv recently, while Malawi has announced its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

Israel attained a symbolic victory by becoming an observer state at the African Union in 2021. (Palestine has been an observer since 2013.) Several states from the Southern African Development Community protested decision, as did Arab League members Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. That the African Union and its commission are now under the leadership of two men who favor a rapprochement with Israel, DRC president Felix Tshisekedi and Chad’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, was probably the key factor behind the change.

The circumstances under which Mr. Netanyahu shaped Israel’s strategy for Africa have changed.

Israel has also slowly increased its military footprint on the continent. The Horn of Africa, gateway to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is a priority. Israel is engaging with Eritrea and Ethiopia, which it sees as strategic points along key commercial sea routes, and relevant players in the competition with Iran. 

Despite these achievements, several obstacles persist. Israel is in a disadvantageous position when compared with other states trying to expand their presence in the region like Turkey, India or Pakistan. Also, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist feelings continue to shape the political debate in several countries, especially in Southern Africa. South Africa, in particular, remains extremely critical of Israel and fiercely advocates for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

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Scenarios

The circumstances under which Mr. Netanyahu shaped and implemented Israel’s strategy for Africa have changed significantly. There is a new government in Israel and a new administration in Washington, and the Middle East is at a crossroads.

Israel is ruled by a fragile eight-party coalition, ranging from far-right to far-left. The cement of this coalition was the consensus on the need to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu. Under a rotation agreement, Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister until 2023, and then be replaced by Yair Lapid, who is now serving as minister of foreign affairs.

Relations with Washington, which play a crucial role in the Israeli foreign strategy, have also changed now that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump have been replaced by the Bennett-Biden duo. Washington is now struggling with multiple domestic challenges and with deep divisions within the Democratic Party, also regarding Israel. Given all this, two scenarios must be considered.

Strategic adjustments and consolidation

Under this first and most likely scenario, the new Israeli government would reinforce its relations with some African countries, benefiting from the strategic opportunities created by the Abraham Accords. Israel would prioritize consolidation, rather than expansion, in its approach to the African continent. There would be a greater focus on soft power and multilateralism, accompanied by depersonalization and possibly desecuritization of the strategy for Africa. MASHAV and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would play a more influential role. Israel would focus on countries with which there are already established relations: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Rwanda. It would abstain, at least for now, from engaging in more challenging regions like the Sahel. Under this scenario, engagement would intensify in areas such as technical cooperation, investment, and trade.

Under this scenario, Israel’s soft power would be boosted by a de-escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because this is one of the issues on which there is no consensus within the government, the coalition members will likely avoid it as much as possible. 

Rapprochement could be further bolstered by several recent developments. Israel’s new minister of immigration and integration, Pnina Tamano-Shata, was born in Ethiopia; Prime Minister Bennett recently made a visit to Egypt; and the Egyptian flag-carrier will soon operate a flight route from Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Setback

Under this less likely scenario, Israel-Africa relations would be compromised in the short to medium term because of regional or domestic instability. This could be the result of uncertainty in Israel followed by snap elections. Such an outcome must be considered, given the government’s weak internal cohesion and narrow parliamentary minority. It could also come about as a consequence of policy changes in Washington. Diplomatic advances were possible because the U.S. was willing to compensate countries that normalized relations with Israel. This dynamic went beyond the Abraham Accords, as seen for example in the rapprochement between Israel and the DRC. If the new administration decides to renege on the agreement – ceasing, for example, to recognize Rabat’s claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara – Israel would face setbacks.

As recent events have shown, Sudan – a country where Iran hopes to gain influence –  is going through a rocky transition process. An abrupt change in leadership would seriously challenge Israel’s strategy for Africa.

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