The long short history of Angola-Israel relations

Hostile at first, in the wake of the Cold War, Israel-Angolan relations have morphed into a friendly and lucrative bond.

The UN Security Council in action. Image: US Department of State Flickr.

Following the vote in favor of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 (2016) condemning illegal Israeli settlements of Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, Israel cut diplomatic ties with 10 of the 15 member states that compose the UNSC. Israel reserved a specific retaliation for the UNSC’s two African member states: no more international development aid for Senegal and Angola. Interpreted as a largely symbolic move, Israel’s reaction to Angola is, however, in sync with the longer trajectory of Israeli/Angolan foreign relations.

These relations have been both material and symbolic. The relationship has two distinct phases. Hostile at first, it began with Angola’s independence and emplotment in the global Cold War. In the wake of the Cold War, Israeli-Angolan relations morphed into a friendly and lucrative bond. Yet, some of the discourses and commitments of the first phase are cross-hatched into the second phase. Angola’s vote on UNSC resolution 2334 is the most recent example, although Israel’s public outrage is new.

First, a thumbnail sketch of Angola’s decolonization. The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) declared Angola’s independence on November 11, 1975. Cuban troops and Soviet military hardware allowed them to hold off FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) forces bolstered by Zairean troops (and CIA funding) to the capital’s north. The MPLA had secured the city’s southern rim against a South African military invasion accompanied by a clutch of UNITA (National Union for the Independence of Angola) soldiers. In brief, independence, civil war and foreign intervention blossomed simultaneously.

The sociologist Jan Nederveen Pieterse noted that Israeli army brass helped plan the 1975 South African invasion of Angola. The strategy echoed that used by the Israelis to drive the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) out of Lebanon and the US strategy against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas (blamed for fomenting insurgency in El Salvador). In other words, this constituted part of a pattern of white settler states not only red-baiting but actively attacking liberation movements. The South African invasion of Angola further drew on Israeli counterterrorism strategies developed in the West Bank and Gaza. Counterinsurgency cooperation in Southern Africa thus lit up a network of politics that spanned the Middle East, Central America and Southern Africa.

International revolutionary movements built their own networks of solidarity, military support, and educational training. Southern African liberation movements (the MPLA, Mozambique’s FRELIMO, South Africa’s ANC, and Namibia’s SWAPO), for their turn, struggled to protect or achieve their sovereignty in the face of obstructionist white settler states and Apartheid policies. Various observers have reminded us of the similarities between Apartheid South Africa and Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands: population control, non-contiguous land areas, passbooks and special IDs, archipelagos of ethnicity, militarized states, torture, and terror. (Also not too distant, by the way, is the US history of Native American reservations.)

These white settler states acted in their own interests in the name of the Cold War. Israel, like South Africa, did not act as a proxy for US interests any more than Cuba acted at the behest of the Soviet Union (as Piero Gleijeses and others have demonstrated). When Angola’s civil war shed its Cold War allies after 1988 – the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale proved key to negotiating Namibia’s independence and the withdrawal of Cuban troops – it did not take long for Israel and the Angola’s MPLA-ruled state, once on opposite sides of the Cold War, to enter a warm embrace. Interest superseded ideology.

But first, Angola’s civil war had to incarnate another continental stereotype: resource war (a key step in the shift from Israel-South Africa-UNITA relations to Israel-MPLA relations).

In the early 1990s, UNITA controlled the diamond-producing regions of northeastern Angola, allowing it to purchase weapons on the international market. In 1993, a former South African Apartheid army officer, Fred Rindel, helped UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi establish diamond sales to a DeBeers subsidiary with offices in Antwerp and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile the Angolan state fattened the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) on a rising tide of oil production. Between 1994-1999 – a period Angolans refer to as “neither peace nor war” – FAA and UNITA generals exchanged fuel for diamonds in a strange state of peaceable co-exploitation of the diamond rich Lundas region.

By 1999, the FAA drove UNITA troops from the region and the Angolan state began to take over the diamond trade. In 2000 the state offered Ascorp (Angola Selling Corporation)  a legal monopoly on diamond marketing. Aside from the Angolan state, Ascorp’s main stakeholders were TAIS of Belgium (first held by Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the country’s President, then transferred to her mother) and Welox of Israel (part of the Leviev group).

Lev Leviev is an Israeli businessman. Born in Uzbekistan he resides in London. He is the world’s largest cutter and polisher of diamonds. He is Vladimir Putin’s friend. He owns key New York City properties. Among his holdings is Africa-Israel, a company with an investment profile in other mining ventures on the continent and in settlements on the West Bank (and a Times Square property apparently sold to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and confidant).

More official, less problematic relations pertain too. In late 2001 and early 2002, Israeli intelligence lent assistance to the FAA (then in hot pursuit of Savimbi). While official and public relations focused on greenhouse vegetables and the transfer of agricultural expertise, an Israeli drone cruised the skies of eastern Angola tracking UNITA troop movements and attempting to pinpoint Savimbi’s whereabouts. They eventually killed Savimbi in February 2002, ending 27 years of civil war by April of that year.

Meanwhile, in the Lundas, Ascorp tried to create a single buyer and seller for Angolan diamonds and thus abolish “blood diamonds.” In fact, it created a new kind of war. According to journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Law 17/94 has turned the Lundas into a kind of reservation where the state confiscates anything from anyone or any enterprise, in the name of the public good, and delivers it to the mining companies. The local population is forced into mining and denied the possibility of producing a livelihood by agricultural means. Security services, owned and run by FAA generals, act with impunity. The terror in the area, as recounted in Morais’s book, Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, is reminiscent of King Leopold’s red rubber regime in the Congo. Diamonds support a regime worse than that in Gaza, in an area larger than Portugal. Angolan generals profit. Israeli businessman Lev Leviev profits. And with profits from the alluvial miners of Lunda North and the industrialized mine at Catoca in Lunda Sul, together with companies like Alrosa, they’ve broken the DeBeers monopoly.

This is why, until recently, Israel has countenanced Angolan support for Palestine at the UN. Israeli prosperity matters more. But what work has that done for Angola? And what has changed with the recent vote? Angola recognized Palestine as a state and Yasser Arafat visited Angola regularly. In the 1980s, Angola’s radio jingle “From Luanda, Angola: the firm trench of the revolution in Africa!” keened a rallying cry to fight imperialism around the globe. Those connections weren’t just official. Angola’s ruling party, the MPLA, maintains a cog and machete on the nation’s flag (despite calls for change) and party protocol still finds cadres referring to one another as “comrade.” At the same time, ordinary Angolans strategically employ socialist rhetoric on their uber-capitalist rulers.

The connections between Israel and Angola operate in ambiguous historical terrain, no matter how glaring the profit of their current bond and its bind with justice. Subtending the new, friendly, lucrative relation is Angola’s socialist international and anti-imperialist past. Today the MPLA-ruled state cultivates symbols from that past to produce a sense of continuity and historical legacy. Some powerfully placed old-school cadres still believe in the right to self-determination and sovereignty. Political rhetoric and international relations mobilize this tension between old and new values. That’s what happened in the UN vote. This time Israel reacted, because it was the Security Council.

Angola got a slap on the hand. The Angolan ambassador to Israel got a parking ticket for parking illegally when he went to justify the vote to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. And the Israeli press played up the charge of Angola as “occupying” the province of Cabinda; the latter “fighting for a sovereign independent state since 1960.”  But it is hard to believe that this schoolyard, tit-for-tatting will bruise the moneyed networks that keep Angolan and Israeli elites unconcerned with righteousness.

*This post is adapted from Chapter 9, “Along the Edges of Comparison,” by Marissa Moorman in Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs (editors), Apartheid/Israel: The Politics of an Analogy (Haymarket 2015).

Further Reading

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