Strategic Assessment (102): The Israeli-African Summit and the Future of Bilateral Relations

//Strategic Assessment (102): The Israeli-African Summit and the Future of Bilateral Relations

Summary:

Although Israel since its creation has been aware of the importance of the African continent at the political, economic, security, and strategic levels, yet, the political circumstances at the time did not allow Israel to make a wide breach in terms of relations with the African nations with the notable exception of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Apparently, the political and security conditions taking place in the Arab region currently, marred by weakness and fragmentation, and the marginalization of the Palestinian issue, has made the African arena fertile ground for Israeli diplomacy. This explains the concerted Israeli movements in 2016 in East Africa, and the summit scheduled to be held in 23–27 October this year in Togo, West Africa, in culmination of the Israeli infiltration of the continent’s nations.

Several overlapping factors may contribute to the probable scenarios of this summit. The first scenario would be a full success of the summit solemnizing Israel’s penetration, whereas the second scenario would be the failure of the summit or it is not been held at all. The last and most likely scenario would be a partial success of summit.



Introduction

Israel is working relentlessly to ensure the success of the African-Israeli summit proposed by the Republic of Togo to be held in 23–27 October 2017. Despite voices coming from Africa opposing Israel’s participation in the conference, especially Arab and Muslim African nations, Israel feels relatively reassured that it will be able to attend without major hurdles. Perhaps the warm welcome Netanyahu received from some African leaders during his visits in 2016 is behind this reassurance.
On the other hand, some parties opposed to Israel’s participation have not surrendered yet, and continue to work hard to frustrate the summit or at least weaken its odds to succeed.

First: The African-Israeli Summit and Contradictory Positions

The Republic of Togo is one of the top African nations that maintain close relations to Israel. It seems that the president of Togo Faure Gnassingbé has not deviated from the line trodden by his father before him. Indeed, his predecessor Gnassingbé Eyadéma received Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1987. Interestingly, this was preceded by a secret visit by Benad Avital, director of the Africa division of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, following a failed coup against Eyadéma in December 1986, suggesting that Israel has a covert role in Togo.

In the same vein, Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé made his fourth visit to Tel Aviv this month, August 2017, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Responding to a question during a previous visit to Israel on whether he fears reprisals from North African or Arab nations, Gnassingbé said that there was low political risk because Togo is a small country that does not receive billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and because Togolese Muslims were a small inactive minority.

According to estimates by Israel and the host country, the summit is expected to attract 20 to 30 African states, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ghana, and Zambia, which are all keen for the conference to succeed.

On the other hand, Morocco, Sudan, and South Africa have expressed their objections to the summit. However, there are indications that Israel is seeking to bypass these hurdles through some steps, some of which it has already carried out including: the participation of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in June 2017, where he delivered a speech and met with a number of leaders from the continent. This is while taking into account the fact that some countries remain undecided, while others may cave to some pressures or reach agreements with parties opposed to the summit.

Second: Historic Background for Israeli-African Relations

Since the creation of the state of Israel, Israeli diplomacy pursued a policy of establishing relations with the countries surrounding the Arab world, including countries in Africa.

This has been Israel’s policy since the 1950s; from the creation of Israel in 1948 until the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel enjoyed warm and prosperous relations with a number of African nations, but after the war, relations began to deteriorate especially with Uganda, Guinea, Congo, and Chad. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War was again a turning point in Israeli-African relations, when Arab countries used their influence to curb Israeli ambitions in the continent. Most African nations with the exception of apartheid South Africa severed ties with Israel.

However, Israel did not give up on attempts to mend ties with African states. Perhaps Israel’s biggest successes in this regard came after signing the Camp David Accord with Egypt, which opened many hitherto closed doors in Africa, which had often sided with the Arab world in the conflict with Israel. Israel signed a military cooperation agreement with Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1981, paving the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations as well as military and security collaboration.

After that, African states successively restored ties to Israel. In the 1980s, diplomatic relations were resumed by Zaire (May 1982), Liberia (August 1983), Ivory Coast (February 1980), Cameroon (August 1980), and Togo (June 1987). By the 1990s, up to 40 African states had resumed diplomatic relations with Israel.

It is worth noting that in the 1980s, Israel used Sudan’s territory under President Gaafar al-Nimeiry to transfer thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Falashas), with US help and pressure.

Israel also played a key role in the Great Lakes region, for example in the civil war between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes, supplying weapons to the Burundian and Rwandan armies. In the same context, Israel supported the secessionist movement in South Sudan, which later seceded from Sudan. Israel also supported Ethiopia in its conflict with Somalia. Shortly before Eritrea’s declaration of independence in 1993, Israel opened an embassy in the capital Asmara, followed by Uganda (relations resumed in 1994) and Tanzania (1995) after more than twenty years of severed diplomatic ties.

Third: The Political and Diplomatic Dimension of Israeli-African Relations

In the next few years, Israeli diplomacy is seeking to return to the African continent and consolidate its influence. In July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a tour meeting with the leaders of Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. All of these countries with the exception of Zambia are located in the Nile Basin, the lifeline for Egypt, giving an indication of Israel’s intentions vis-à-vis this Arab nation.

Israel’s diplomacy has made clear its political objectives, with Netanyahu saying he is seeking to develop relations with the African continent’s states to mobilize African diplomatic support in international forums and institutions. And indeed, Israel has made some successes in this regard, when Nigeria and other African states voted in favor of the Israeli candidate for the UN Legal Committee chairmanship in June 2016. In 2014, Nigeria abstained from voting in favor of the Arab draft resolution at the Security Council calling for an end to Israeli occupation within three years, helping thwart the move.

In this regard, Netanyahu has explicitly stated that he has asked African ambassadors in Tel Aviv to vote collectively in favor of Israel in international forums, during a ceremony in 2016 at the Knesset celebrating the launch of the Africa Lobby in the Israeli parliament. He said: “I am aware that the representatives of your states will vote in international forums in line with Africa’s interests, but I believe that Israeli and African interests are nearly identical, which means voting for Israel is voting for Africa.”

Fourth: The Security and Military Dimension of Israeli-African Relations

Israel has sought to expand its security influence in Africa in line with its strategy of expanding its protection circle to beyond the geographical limits of its conflict. Israel thus established naval and surveillance bases, for example in Eritrea in the Dahlak Archipelago.

According to Stratfor—an American geopolitical intelligence platform—Israel has naval teams in the Dahlak Archipelago and Massawa, which have a strategic position enabling monitoring of naval movement in the Red Sea, and a listening post in Emba Soira, the highest mountain in Eritrea. Up to six Israeli outposts are thought to be present in that country. Israel’s presence there can help prevent the smuggling of weapons to Palestinian resistance movements and monitoring hostile countries’ activities, such as those of Iran.

At the military level, long years of both covert and overt relations between Israel and several African nations saw growing military collaboration. An observer may correctly sense an Israeli role in shoring up some repressive regimes in the continent, often at the expense of civilian lives. With reference to the prolongation of the civil conflict in South Sudan, a report by the UN Security Council delegation to the area in August 2015 reported finding Israeli-made weapons there. Add to this long years of cooperation between countries with internal and external conflicts in the region and Israel. In 2006, for example, Israel’s Aeronautics Ltd., a drone maker, concluded a deal with Nigeria to supply 15 unmanned aerial vehicles and train Nigerian pilots. Some suggested that this deal is being aimed at protecting West African foreign oil installations.

Fifth: Key Actors in Africa

In the Cold War, Africa was the site of fierce competition between the US and Soviet superpowers, as Washington sought to circumvent the Communist Bloc by increasing its presence in the continent. The US influence in Africa continues to rise alongside France’s, which dates back to its days as a colonial power in the continent. The US maintains military presence in several African regions that are considered as exporters of “terrorism”, such as Mali, where France is a prominent player, and energy-rich regions where Western corporations are active.

On the other hand, several other powers have sought to expand their spheres of influence to Africa, including China, which is working on establishing a military base in Djibouti, host of several other foreign military contingents. This is in addition to growing Chinese economic activity across the continent. It is worth mentioning that Western powers with close ties to Israel, especially the US and France, do not mind the success of the Israeli-African summit, but the same may not be true of their traditional rival China.

At the same time, we believe that Morocco has begun to restore its presence in Africa in recent years. Morocco has sought to resist Israel’s expansions, refusing to participate in the ECOWAS summit because of Netanyahu’s attendance. Similarly, Turkey has deployed its soft power tools to step up its economic and security presence in Africa, where Ankara now maintains 40 embassies and four consulates, compared to seven embassies in all of Africa in 2002. In 2016, Turkey inaugurated a military base in Somalia overlooking the strategic Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea strait of Bab al-Mandib, being the first Turkish base in Africa.

It is worth mentioning here that Egypt, Libya, and Maghreb nations have also played a key role in curbing Israeli infiltration over the years. However, the current reality is one marked by the absence of Arab and Islamic sponsors for African states. Many of these African states require more support to overcome rampant poverty and instability, a gap that Israel could instead fill.

Sixth: Factors Pushing in the Direction of Israeli-African Rapprochement

Many factors may push in the direction of Israeli-African rapprochement including:

• Continuation of the state of flux in the Arab region, marked by conflicts, revolutions, and counter-revolutions, especially in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

• The Gulf crisis and the additional burdens and polarization it is imposing in the Arab arena, amid an absence of a unified position on many key Arab issues.

• The absence of the Arab states from the issues of Africa, especially heavyweight Arab-African nation Egypt that was once able to influence African states’ policies on many key issues.

• The absence of a unified Arab strategy on Africa.

• The absence of a unifying Palestinian reference frame, previously represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

• Arab-Israeli rapprochement, whether through peace accords or undeclared agreements, which Israel takes advantage of to develop its relations with countries that supported the Palestinian issue.

• The convergence of Israeli and African interests on many issues, especially security and military issues, and even development issues, where Israel can make many contributions in many ways.

• Western powers’ influence, especially US influence, in Africa, which sometimes encourage a third party such as Israel to indirectly shore up or remove some regimes on their behalf.

• The powerful Zionist lobby comprised of Israeli businessmen and Jewish citizens in some African states.

Seventh: Factors That May Hinder Israeli-African Rapprochement

Several factors may hinder this rapprochement, including:

• The long history of anti-colonialism of the states and peoples of Africa.

• The image of Israel, which had supported and cooperated with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

• Israeli practices similar to the racist practices of apartheid and oppression of others, including racism against Jews of African origins and African asylum seekers.

• Active Turkish and Iranian presence in recent years in the African continent.

• The desire and action by some Arab countries to develop ties with African states, including Qatar and Morocco, in addition to heavyweight Algeria.

• Many major African Arab and non-Arab states continue to support the Palestinian issue and Arab stances, including South Africa.

• The convergence of interests between key Arab and African states.

• Islamic presence in Africa and the role it can play in rallying support for Arab issues in the continent.

Eighth: Probable Future Scenarios

In the past few weeks, Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic action has emerged in an attempt to thwart the Israeli-African Summit in Togo. By contrast, Israeli and Togolese efforts continue apace to rally support for the summit. In light of this, we attempt to chart out the probable scenarios surrounding the summit as follows:

First Scenario: Failure of the Summit

In other words, Togo and Israel would fail to secure African support for participation in the Summit; as a result, the Summit would not be held. However, some indicators and movements made by Israel could help avert this scenario, including: visits made by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2009 and 2014 to African states, in addition to Netanyahu’s tour in 2016 and participation in ECOWAS, and the participation of West African nations in an agricultural conference in Israel in December 2016. This makes the scenario of the complete failure of the summit unlikely at present, unless an unexpected strategic development takes place and changes the course of events dramatically.

Second Scenario: Full Success of the Summit

In other words, cementing Israel’s penetration of the African continent, with many African states participating and holding meetings with Israeli leaders at political, economic, security, and youth levels. However, this is inconsistent with the positions of key African states including South Africa, Morocco, and Algeria. Furthermore, non-African powers such as Turkey and Iran could collaborate to contain Israel’s overtures in the continent. Some of these countries and Arab countries have played a key role in successfully preventing Israel’s admission as an observer state in the African Union (AU).

Third Scenario: Partial Success of the Summit

This is the likely scenario according to current indications, which means that the summit will be held with reasonable attendance by states that now practically maintain direct ties with Israel. However, Israel will be unable to achieve the strategic goals of the summit, including securing African support in international forums or permanent presence in the African framework (e.g., as observer state in the AU).

To be sure, key African actors are still able to thwart Israel’s bid in this direction. The move taken by Senegal at the Security Council late last year, and re-proposing a withdrawn Egyptian draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement, is one example of the ability of diplomacy by Arab or Islamic countries to curb Israeli ambitions. The Senegalese-proposed resolution passed after receiving 14 out of 15 votes in favor, with the US abstaining.

Ninth: Recommendations

• Forming an Arab-Islamic parliamentary framework that works to secure diplomatic support within official Arab and Islamic frameworks in the direction of direct measures.

• Urging Egypt to play its role in Africa and pushing in the direction of preventing the convening of the summit given its dangers for the future of Egypt amid growing Israeli influence in the Nile Basin states.

• Arranging a Palestinian-African summit to secure African support for the Palestinian cause and expose Israeli greed in the continent.

• Moving towards countries capable of frustrating the summit’s goals, such as South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, and other countries, in order to contact with countries intending to participate to dissuade them.

• Supporting the action by anti-racism organizations in Africa to expose the nature of the Israeli occupation through awareness campaigns targeting African elites and grassroots.

• Organizing a campaign in the media in Africa against the summit.

• If the summit is held: Pushing for protests outside its venue.


* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Wael Sa‘ad authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 29/8/2017


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Overview:

Al-Zaytouna Centre conducts strategic and futuristic academic studies on the Arab and Muslim worlds. It focuses on the Palestinian issue and the conflict with Israel as well as related Palestinian, Arab, Islamic and international developments.

General Manager

Mohsen Moh’d Saleh, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Arab History, the general manager of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, editor-in-chief of the annual Palestinian Strategic Report, former head of Department of History and Civilization at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and former executive manager of Middle East Studies Centre in Amman.
He was granted the Bait al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) award for Young Muslims Scholars in 1997 and the Excellent Teaching Award (College level), given by IIUM in 2002. Dr. Mohsen is the author of 13 books and some of his books were translated into several languages. He contributed chapters to seven books. He is the editor/ co-editor of more than 30 books. Dr. Mohsen is the editor of electronic daily “Palestine Today,” which has so far published more than 3,777 issues. He has published many articles in refereed scholarly journals and magazines. He presented papers at innumerable academic local and international conferences and seminars. He is a frequent commentator on current issues on broadcasting media.