Israel has eleven embassies in Africa. Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the ambassadors in Jerusalem. He had a clear message for them: “The automatic majority against Israel at the UN is composed – first and foremost – of African countries. There are 54 countries. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them you at once bring them from one side to the other. You have changed the balance of votes against us at the UN and the day is not far off when we will have a majority there.”
Netanyahu was, of course, talking about UN resolutions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Israeli officials, followed by Israeli media, have made it a habit in the last few years to declare time after time on the flourishing relationship between Israel and Sub-Saharan African nations.
In the latest instance, in September 2016, Netanyahu met with President Macky Sall of Senegal in New York and announced: “Of course we have great relations between Senegal and Israel, and we’ll make them greater.” (At the meeting Netanyahu reminded Sall that Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first post-independence president, had once visited Israel. What he forgot to mention to Sall was that in the end Senghor felt Israel wasn’t serious about peace with the Palestinians.)
Israel’s recent rapprochement to African states is part of a coordinated effort by the government to get close to African countries. On the sidelines of that United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September, Netanyahu also met with the President of Togo, and Israel’s UN ambassador organized event with 15 African leaders for Netanyahu. A few months earlier, Netanyahu traveled to four countries in Africa and met with seven African presidents, including Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
Netanyahu’s trip to East Africa came after a 30-year hiatus in which no Israeli Prime Minister visited Africa.
During the 1950s and even well into the 1960s, Israel established relationships with at least 35 African countries. The strong ties included help with founding Nahal-like settlements, bringing about 7,000 students for training courses in Israel, sending nearly 2,000 physicians, agricultural and economic advisors, and a large diplomatic presence to these countries. The 1967 and 1973 wars brought an end to those relationships (with the exception of Apartheid South Africa) – and they never returned to what they were.
But in the last few years, there was a feeling of optimism among Israeli officials. When a reporter from the newspaper Israel Hayom, in effect Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, praised the Prime Minister’s trip to Africa back in July, he explained the diplomatic importance of the visit by saying: “Africa has 54 countries; that’s 54 votes in the UN.”
Given the early meeting between Netanyahu and Sall in September, it came as a shock to Israel that one of the sponsors of the UN Security Council resolution passed in December last year criticizing Israeli settlements, was Senegal. Another African state, Angola, voted in favor of the resolution. Israeli officials claimed it had assurances from Angolan diplomats they would oppose the resolution.
Netanyahu retaliated by canceling a visit by the Senegalese foreign minister to Israel, banned visits of the non-resident Senegalese ambassador to Israel and ordered all planned aid to the country (though it’s unclear whether such aid even exists) voided. He also ordered the Israeli ambassador in Dakar back to Jerusalem. (That ambassador has not returned since.)
The Angolan ambassador was called for a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry to reprimand him for his country’s behavior. (When he left the Prime Minister’s office, the ambassador found he had been issued a parking ticket. Jerusalem municipality said his car was simply disrupting traffic flow).
Then the Israeli government announced that the activities of Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation with Angola would be halted. But once again, that seems to be more of a symbolic act then one with significant practical meanings. But there’s a major Israeli presence in Angola, and it is important to distinguish between what official Israel does (guided by a foreign policy), and what private contractors (or mercenaries) do, even if they very often overlap.
The 1990s were characterized in Israel as the (neo) liberalizing decade its relations with Africa. Post-independence African countries were eager to do business and in the absence regulatory relationships between Israel and these countries many private Israeli companies and investors flocked to the continent. The result was unregulated, unsupervised business relationships, which often entailed direct involvement in military and governmental affairs.
Angola for example, has a significant Israeli business presence. But Israel’s government doesn’t often blend its strategy towards African countries with the business affairs of some of the country’s corporations and businesspeople. If it did, it would have to block arms deals between Israeli firms and South Sudan, (which perhaps ironically in this case included a Senegalese middleman) or agree to expose the Israeli arms shipments to the Rwanda militias in 1994, a fight that was still taking place in an Israeli court just last year. The court eventually ruled against the exposure.
So if the Israeli government hasn’t been there for Senegal, Angola, and other African nations – why would they now defend Israel?