Israel’s African Comeback

by August 2021
The African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Photo credit: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

On July 22, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Aleligne Admasu (one of several Israeli diplomats of Ethiopian origin) was received by Moussa Faki, chair of the African Union (AU) Commission at its sprawling complex in Addis Ababa, and presented with documents accrediting him as the State of Israel’s observer to the pan-African body. Although there was little fanfare surrounding the meeting, and some African nations (notably Algeria) are pushing to have the accreditation annulled, it culminated years of quiet diplomacy and represented not only a significant “diplomatic achievement” for the State of Israel, justifying “a day of celebration” as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid noted, but it also brought Israel’s relationship with Africa full circle, amid dramatic new challenges.

A Rich History

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as most African states south of the Sahara achieved independence, Israel was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with them and to offer them assistance. Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, was founded in 1958 at the initiative of Golda Meir following a month-long tour of West Africa, the first of several extended visits during her tenure as Israel’s second foreign minister. Years later, in her autobiography, she explained her thinking:

Did we go into Africa because we wanted votes at the United Nations? Yes, of course that was one of our motives—and a perfectly honorable one—which I never, at any time, concealed either from myself or from the Africans. But it was far from being the most important motive, though it certainly wasn’t trivial. The main reason for our African “adventure” was that we had something we wanted to pass on to nations that were even younger and less experienced than ourselves.

Meir’s linkage of the fight to build Israel and Africa’s national liberation struggles was part of an intellectual tradition going back to Theodor Herzl himself. In his last literary work, The Old New Land (1902), the father of modern Zionism wrote:

There is another issue involving racial discrimination which still has to be solved. The depth of this problem which involves atrocities and sufferings can be well understood by the Jews. I mean the sufferings of the blacks. It is a very serious question. Think about the horror of the Slave Trade—Human beings are kidnapped and sold as slaves only because of the black color of their body. Their children are grown in a foreign environment, despised, and humiliated only because of the black color of their face. I am not ashamed to promise this, let people laugh at me because of that. Now that I see the revival of the Jewish nation; I would like very much to take part and assist in the process of redemption and revival of the black people.

Of course, alongside these lofty ideals were more prosaic considerations. Following a 1963 visit to Ethiopia during which he was accompanied by then-Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Deputy Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres—then Ben Gurion’s young and ambitious director general of the Ministry of Defense—reported back to the cabinet:

Ethiopia has an army, a proud military tradition, and it respects Israel and would gradually like to become allied with us. Israel should work intensively and carefully. Ethiopia is a vital element in our effort to break the Arab hostility around us with power, connections, and resourcefulness… It is our goal to reach an alliance with Ethiopia—cultural, economic, and military. We must spare no effort and resources in working towards this aim.

The Ethiopian monarchy, indeed, was at the time part of the covert “Trident” alliance, which also included Israel, republican Turkey, and the Shah’s Iran, all casting a wary eye on the Nasserist danger in the Arab world.

These were the three pillars on which the then still young Israel built its relationships with the even younger African states that were then emerging: political goals, economic and commercial interests, and strategic calculus in the context of the wider geopolitical dynamics of the period. Within a few years Israeli ambassadors were operating in 33 African countries. Even more impressive, by the mid-1960s, the ratio of development experts (engineers, agricultural experts, and so forth) deployed to Africa by Mashav as a ratio of Israel’s total population was twice that of all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries combined.

Rebuilding After a Traumatic Breakup

Almost all the relationships built, however, were unable to withstand the shock of the 1967 and 1973 conflicts fought by Israel. During and after the Yom Kippur War, in an unexpected and—for an entire generation of Israeli diplomats and development experts—severely disappointing move, almost all African countries severed their diplomatic relations with Israel: after the war, 23 African countries cut their ties, joining seven others who had done so between 1967 and 1973, leaving Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland as the only three to maintain full relations. Moreover, in 1975, 19 African countries supported the infamous United Nations General Assembly “Zionism is racism” resolution, although it was a small consolation that its backers failed to achieve an African consensus when five African countries—the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Malawi, and Swaziland—voted against the resolution and 16 other African countries abstained.

Of course, contacts were never entirely broken during this period, even with the most ostensibly hostile states. Operation Moses, the covert evacuation of the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community in the early 1980s was carried out by the IDF and other Israeli agencies not only with the assistance of US intelligence, but also the cooperation of Sudan’s state security forces (Fans of the film “The Red Sea Diving Club” need to be reminded that it is a highly stylized version of real events…). Ambassador Admasu, the envoy who presented his credentials to the AU last month, himself came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1983. Some African countries, while not having official diplomatic relations, maintained informal ties, such as in the case of Morocco, aided by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who trace their families back to the ancient Jewish communities in the kingdom and bolstered by Israel’s support for the King in his conflict with more radical forces in North Africa.

Following the 1978 Camp David Accords and the peace with Egypt, there has been a slow, but steady progress with nearly all African countries either reestablishing or establishing for the first time official relations at some level with Israel. Currently, of the 55 members of the African Union, 46 have diplomatic relations with Israel, the most recent diplomatic ties being with Sudan and Morocco, achieved in the framework of the Abraham Accords brokered by the US during the Trump administration. Today, the only holdouts are Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, and Tunisia (and even some of these countries have had fairly high-level contacts and instances of significant cooperation in recent years).

During his second stint as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu made outreach to Africa a priority. His July 2016 visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia was the first to sub-Saharan Africa by a sitting Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir traveled to West African countries nearly three decades earlier. The following year, attending the annual summit of heads of state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Netanyahu told the African leaders: “I believe in Africa, I believe in its potential—present and future. It is a continent on the rise.” There was a poignant aspect to his Ugandan visit, since it was at the old Entebbe terminal that his brother, Yoni, was killed leading the famous rescue raid on July 4, 1976: Ugandans, despite their losses at the time, now pay respects to this event as the beginning of the end of Idi Amin’s horrifying rule.

For years Netanyahu lobbied to get Israel back into the AU as an observer, although the step was only achieved after he had been replaced as prime minister by Naftali Bennett. Even with the break in bilateral relations with many African states following the Yom Kippur War, Israel had maintained its status as an observer with the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU). However, when the OAU was dissolved and replaced by the more robust AU in 2002, the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi—who was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the new organization, with the text of the Constitutive Act of the AU acknowledging its origins in a summit Gadhafi hosted in his hometown of Sirte in 1999—used his influence to prevent the status from carrying over. In contrast, “Palestine” was admitted as an observer in 2013, resulting, on occasion, in anti-Israel resolutions being introduced without Israeli representatives being able to respond.

New Horizons

Beyond the political stakes, there are also increasingly economic and commercial interests at play. Consider the impressive economic gains seen in almost every African country in recent years. In the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Monetary Fund’s calculations, seven of the 20 fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa: Ethiopia, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Djibouti, Ghana, and Guinea.  Expand the aperture to the 30 fastest-growing economies over the same period and six other African countries join the list: Niger, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo, Togo, and Kenya. In the year just before the outbreak brought global trade to a screeching halt, five of the ten fastest growing economies were in Africa: Ghana, South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Côte d’Ivoire. Gross Domestic Product in these five countries grew by an average of 8.1% in 2019 at a time when worldwide growth was 3.25%, with advanced and emerging economies averaging 1.9 and 4.1% growth, respectively.

Admittedly, the starting points of some African countries are relatively low—a good example being war-torn South Sudan whose economy whiplashed over the decade between annual growth rates as high as 30% and annual contractions of up to 60%—and, in some of them, the boom has been driven by notoriously fickle commodity prices. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the boom is due to deeper, long-term trends, including demographics (e.g., one in four workers in the world will be African by 2050, coupled with some of the world’s fastest-growing urbanization rates, means lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets) and technology (e.g., the rapid expansion of mobile telephony and the growth of internet usage at five times the global averages over the last decade).

Benjamin Netanyahu inspects a guard of honor during his visit to Addis Ababa, in 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Thus, it is not surprising that representatives of more than 50 Israeli firms accompanied Netanyahu on his 2016 African tour. In fact, in many cases, Israeli investments, especially in the water, agriculture, energy, and information technology sectors of several of Africa’s emerging economies, helped pave the way for the renewal of diplomatic cooperation. In Rwanda, for example, an Israeli-American company, Gigawatt Global, is behind East Africa’s first utility-scale photovoltaic facility, a solar power plant that boosted the country’s generation capacity by 6%, providing efficient renewable energy to some 15,000 homes.

Israeli private charities as well as the official development agency Mashav have also ramped up their activities in Africa. Since its establishment in 2008, the Israeli nonprofit Innovation: Africa has used Israeli solar and water technologies to deliver clean water to nearly three million rural villagers in 10 African countries (Cameroon, the DRC, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia). Innovation: Africa just recently completed its 500th project in Africa and aims to reach 2,000 villages and 10 million people by 2026. In 2012, building on an earlier bilateral Israeli–Ethiopian initiative, a tripartite partnership was launched between the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Mashav to promote economic growth in rural areas by strengthening smallholders’ production of fruits and vegetables with market potential. The program, renewed in 2016, represents a model of tripartite cooperation that might prove successful in other settings—an option that the Biden administration might want to explore as it looks for ways to deploy more effectively the 10% increase in funding for USAID that it has proposed for the next fiscal year.

And, of course, the burgeoning diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and its African partners open the path for cooperation in the pursuit of other common objectives—not least fighting terrorism and Islamist extremism—that are also in the strategic interests of the US to encourage, certainly in the wake of recent events in Afghanistan and the fear that they will boost the hopes of Jihadist elements elsewhere.

“A Source of Inspiration”

It is perhaps not surprising that the return of Israel to the AU comes in the midst of the term of the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, heading the African Union. Last year, addressing the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, Tshisekedi invited Israel to “raise its diplomatic and economic presence in my country as high as relations can go between our two states and peoples” and explained his deep regard for Israel: “This nation is a source of inspiration. It teaches us what man can do in such a short span of time when he has drive, resilience and, especially, divine grace and favor.” Whether such high expectations can be met in this new springtime in Israel–Africa relations remains to be seen, but it is certain that a dynamic new chapter in an old story is being written.

The DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi speaking at the AIPAC conference.
J. Peter Pham
Ambassador J. Peter Pham, currently a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, served as US Special Envoy for the Sahel Region (2020-2021) and US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa (2018-2020). @DrJPPham
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