Arab countries should be made aware that the rug is being swept from under their feet as Israel makes new thrusts into Africa, as underlined by the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the eastern part of that continent earlier this month. Arab leaders, from the east to the west, north to south, should realise this is not only a diplomatic charm offensive, but carries real meanings made by the top seat of the Israeli government in more than 30 years.
Israel has been eyeing the African continent for quite some time, as much-to-be-gained capital for its markets and potential political and diplomatic clout vis-a-vis the Palestinians and support from global organisations like the United Nations. Israeli politicians had long sought to extend their hand to African countries, at least since the 1960s when Israel’s relations with them was mischaracterised as the “golden age” that supposedly came to an end after the 1973 October War. Thereafter, it was argued that Arabs sought to “woe back” the Africans as a result of the oil price hikes experienced after 1973.
But today, that era appears to have passed as Netanyahu, through his entourage carrying 80 Israeli businessmen, a $13 million (Dh47.81 million) package — a mere pittance by present standards — touched down at airports in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia for Africa’s breathing heart. All this took place despite the domestic criticism over Netanyahu’s four-day sojourn, dubbed the most expensive foreign visit at a whopping $7 million despite the vociferous denials by the Israeli prime minister. Israeli opposition politicians were up in arms, arguing — as usual, and in line with Netanyahu’s flamboyant and discursive style — that the prime minister was ignoring domestic troubles for a free ride on foreign-policy adventures.
The visit was not really so much about foreign-policy directives and derivatives, for the only external policy mark Israel is keen on judiciously following is glue-sticking its relationship with the United States and possibly Europe while other relations are relegated to the backseat. That’s why the argument that Israel is going back to Africa to counterweigh Europe — and France in particular, which is becoming more pro-Arab and Palestinian — is somewhat naive and doesn’t take into account the complexity of foreign-policy issues.
No matter what Israel does and how it acts, it knows that it can’t get enough and sustainable African support at the UN General Assembly for pro-Israeli stances. Definitely, there are African countries, like those Netanyahu went to, and some of whose leaders visited Israel, in favour of hyped-up relations with Tel Aviv, but the Likud-led Israeli government also secretly believes that no matter what it does, it will continue to fail to drum-up support at the UN except in isolated cases. For most African nations, and because of their colonial experiences, their “pro-Palestinian mindset” had already been set through decades of resolutions against Israel and these are not going to change regardless of Tel Aviv’s overtures. For instance, one of the reasons behind Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda was to take part in the 40th anniversary of the raid on Entebbe by Israeli Air Force officers to rescue Israeli hostages. The anniversary was a Ugandan government-staged public relations exercise, which was turned into a series of gaffes as President Yoweri Museveni repeatedly kept referring to Israel as Palestine and as though the rescue mission was an Israeli failure and a Palestinian success!
Despite this, however, Arabs and Palestinians must not rest on their laurels and should be better prepared for the kind of diplomatic punches that began flashing in June 2014, when Avigdor Lieberman, the current Defence Minister of Israel, made a visit to the dark continent. Also, last January, the Knesset established an Israel-Africa caucus. Israel is already present in the African continent through its aid, cooperation in agriculture, extended experts, long-standing cryptic activities and the military supplies that the Jewish army is known for providing to various regimes there, and as buttressed by the stream of African dignitaries’ visits to Tel Aviv, topped by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The chummy relations have flowered so high that Kenyatta is reported to have said “in the future”, he might ask Israel “to upgrade his Air Force”.
It is quite clear that Israel is making these overtures, quite like a Frankenstein’s bride, for ulterior motives and haggling in the higher echelons of diplomatic relations. Israel is now seeking to gain observer status in the 54-member regional organisation of the African Union (AU), alongside other parties like Palestine, Turkey, Haiti, Serbia and Ukraine. Its entry is currently being blocked by Libya and South Africa, but such opposition may not hold out for long because of the eagerness of Kenya and Ethiopia to see an Israeli hurrah — more so since Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the AU and therefore has much clout.
All this is being helped by the rising tide of terrorism in certain parts of Africa, from which Israel is trying to earn political capital. Netanyahu’s presence at a conference on terrorism, at the start of his tour of Uganda, was designed to project an upbeat image to countries suffering from bouts of terrorism through Somalia’s Al Shabab, an Al Qaida affiliate, or Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Netanyahu’s trip and Israel’s approach to Africa must be understood through carefully-orchestrated sound bytes made by the Israeli premier and his advisers, with emphasis on expressions such as “Israel returning to Africa” and “Africa returning to Israel”, “I am in Africa because it’s a continent on the move”, “I believe in the past; it [Africa] was not given the place it deserves”, “Africa for us is a major strategic effort”, with the mantra being to “fight terror and help in development”.
The bigger picture emerging through all this was indeed about Israel being rehabilitated at the UN. In a not-so-surprising move, the so-called Jewish state made its first major success at the world body when it recently got its envoy Danny Danon elected to head one of the General Assembly’s six permanent committees — the prestigious Legal Committee. At the same time, it got one of its legal academics, professor Yuval Shany, re-elected on the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which is an irony in itself. With these two developments, Israel appears to be vying to bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2019-2020 and it is likely to be supported by the UN West European Group and others. In this, it may just have an extra free lobbying hand from Ethiopia, which starts its two-year stint at the UN Security Council in 2017.
Is this a farce or plain, real politics? It may indeed be taken as the climax to Israel’s East Africa visit, a cool, calculated set of foreign-policy objectives starting from one continent and cynically ending up in another. Israel wants to reach the heights of diplomatic respectability and if Africa could be the springboard, why not?
Marwan Asmar is a political commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.