Benjamin Netanyahu’s government loves Africa
A big reason for this is to counter the growing success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves Africa. He says so himself, at every opportunity and to whoever will listen. But his love for Africa and Africans isn’t just talk, it’s backed up by all the hallmarks of mutually respectful, and mutually beneficial relationships between nations: weapons exports, detention centers, systematic discrimination, offers of financial compensation to get rid of asylum-seekers or “infiltrators,” as Netanyahu refers to them. (For example, Israel will offer Rwanda $5,000 for every refugee in Israel they take)
Love without frequent, well-publicized diplomatic visits is not love at all, so Netanyahu has conducted three such visits to Africa in the last 18 months, a point he was eager to highlight at the inauguration of Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Kenyatta was undoubtedly keen to have a Western leader bless his re-election, which was won in a highly controversial re-run amidst an opposition boycott and violence that resulted in up to 70 deaths, a Supreme Court decision that declared his initial victory invalid and his only viable opponent withdrawing from the election. In the end, he seemed to have settled on Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, of course, was not bothered by the controversy or bloodshed. His remarks were brief, but worth noting here.
Addressing Israel’s “many friends” in Africa — Israel only has diplomatic relations with 11 of the 54 states on the continent — he exclaimed that “we believe in Africa… and this is something that we translate into actual projects.” One wonders if the cash-for-asylum-seeker scheme or weapons contracts were among the projects Netanyahu had in mind here.
Halfway through the address, Netanyahu got to talking about his favorite project; trying to convince world leaders that the war on terror, which for Netanyahu encompasses settler colonialism in Palestine, is a civilizational imperative:
There is a savage disease. It rampages so many countries. Boko Haram, al Shabab, the awful jihadists in the Sinai, this is a threat to all of us. And I believe that we can cooperate with other countries, between us and with others. And if we work together, we can defeat the barbarians. Our people deserve better, we can provide it for them.
This is a central goal of Netanyahu’s diplomatic overture on the continent. Though his trip lasted less than a day, he met with ten African leaders; the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Togo, Namibia, and Botswana, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and the Vice President of Nigeria.
The Israeli government is keen to shore up support for its confrontation with Iran. It is keen to recruit allies in a never ending, perpetually expanding war on terror. It is keen to achieve observer status in the African Union, and get some of Africa’s 54 votes the next time a resolution is brought before the United Nations General Assembly condemning the colonization of Palestine. Such a resolution is passed at least once a year, always by an overwhelming majority. Israeli governments have long wanted to reverse the “automatic majority” of states in that body that oppose the occupation of Palestine.
This is a difficult task, as Israel has never had strong relations with African countries. As the latter were waging wars of liberation, Zionism was keeping the dream of European settler colonialism alive. The connection between imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism was therefore widely understood among anti-colonial leaders in Africa. This wasn’t a connection formed purely in abstraction, either; Uganda, was even briefly considered as a destination for European Jews in the early days of the Zionist movement.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser led the nationalization of the Suez Canal and subsequent victory against the Tripartite Aggressors, colonized people around the world rallied behind their Egyptian comrades. The early success of Nasser’s Third Worldism won him many African and black allies in the 1950s and 1960s, including Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Patrice Lumumba, and Julius Nyerere. Pan-Africanists found common cause with the Pan-Arab project central to Nasser’s ideology, of which Palestine was paramount. Nasser’s influence in Africa helped bring the question of Palestine firmly into the African political scene, as anti-colonial struggles were achieving victory across the continent.
Just as naturally as the Israeli state found itself in alliance with Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, the anti-Apartheid and Palestinian liberation struggles found common cause with each other. Mahmoud Mamdani recounted President Julius Nyerere’s address to a Palestinian delegation in Tanzania in the early 1960s, in which he observed, “We lost our independence, you lost your country.” His words are more true now than they were then; most Palestinians today live outside of historic Palestine.
In South Africa, the African National Congress continues to support the Palestinians diplomatically. Nelson Mandela was of course, a huge supporter of the Palestinians, and of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in particular. His grandson, Mandla Mandela, a South African parliamentarian, returned from a trip to Occupied Palestine last week, concluding in a press conference that “Palestinians are being subjected to the worst version of apartheid.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu has long been a supporter of BDS as well.
BDS is also gaining support in the West. People now widely understand that an artist’s choice to perform in Israel not a politically neutral act. As a result, many have preferred to cancel gigs rather than face a justified backlash.
The Palestinians have in fact, enjoyed overwhelming support at the level of international diplomacy, not just by African leaders, but in the whole of the Third World. The Israeli government, on the other hand, has been isolated for so long and so thoroughly, that supporters of the occupation commonly argue that the UN itself is “institutionally biased.”
In 2011, a raft of states has upgraded the status of diplomatic relations with the Palestinians in contradiction to the logic of the failed Oslo Peace Process, much to the dismay of the Israelis.
But things have begun to change since 2013, the Arab regimes began their successful counter offensive against the Arab revolution that has since engulfed the entire region. These, reactionary forces are now seizing upon their moment of triumph to bury the Palestinian cause — once a galvanizing oppositional sentiment across the region — alongside the grave of Arab Spring.
Opponents of Palestinian liberation maintained from the outset that the Arab Spring Uprising was completely unconnected to the Palestinian cause, demonstrating an ignorance of both. Solidarity with the Palestinians has long been a unifying force among Arab oppositional movements, particularly in Egypt. Subservience to Washington DC and Tel Aviv in the face of ongoing Israeli colonization and war has always put the nature of the Arab regimes and the will of the mass of people in sharpest relief. In 2011, it seemed that the regional political order that had ossified over the past four decades — of which the camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt was a central pillar — was coming to an end. It wasn’t until Mohamed Morsi’s tumultuous year in power that the ancien regime in Egypt, backed by its allies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, excluding Qatar, were able to strike back.
The Egyptian regime had been deploying anti-Palestinian rhetoric since the uprising began, in an effort to portray it as a nefarious foreign conspiracy. When 20,000 people escaped from Wadi el-Natroun prison that year, state media blamed Hamas. In fact, Morsi is actually imprisoned for his alleged role in that plot, rather than anything he did when he was president.
But the connection between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is, contrary to the regime’s line, more symbolic than anything else. Hamas was until last year an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but the latter’s national branches have never been more than loosely affiliated with each other.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief tenure in power, its diplomatic support from Qatar, and loose connection with Hamas gave the Egyptian generals and other reactionaries all the raw material necessary to craft a convincing narrative which served to externalize the cause of the revolution and the deep economic crisis that came to a head under Morsi, by blaming Hamas, which they had always opposed, and Qatar, which backed anti-regime actors during the early days of the Arab Spring for its own narrow interests.
Nefarious actors across the region, from the Egyptian generals, to the Syrian regime, to the Gulf monarchies, have deployed versions of this narrative with devastating effect.
Despite the fact the Muslim Brotherhood has been badly beaten back by a resurgent authoritarianism, and that Hamas is as regionally isolated as ever, they both feature prominently in rhetoric deployed by the other Gulf states in their conflict with Qatar.
Qatar abandoned its ambition to use the Brotherhood to become a regional power years ago, and Qatari support to Hamas has never amounted to much more than diplomatic liaising, and pledges of reconstruction funding. That support has certainly not been enough to reverse Hamas’s political isolation among Arab governments or the dire humanitarian condition in the Gaza Strip.
The inclusion of the Brotherhood and Hamas in the list of grievances which justify the Gulf states’ confrontation with Qatar therefore serves no purpose other than tying Qatar and the Palestinians to the collective trauma of the Arab Spring.
With the Brotherhood vanquished, Hamas isolated, and Qatar on the defensive, the next target of the counter-revolution is the Palestinian cause at large, which has been reduced to a complication in the Saudi monarchy’s efforts to create a strong coalition with which to confront Iran. A coalition that would be incomplete without the most powerful state in the region: Israel.
While the split between the Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel on one side, and Qatar on the other is a straightforward conflict over regional influence, the split between the former and Palestinian liberation is deep and structural. As the Egyptian revolutionary Mahienour El-Massry put it in her fourth letter from the women’s prison in Al Ab’adeya, where she is held to this day, “the [Egyptian] regime that imprisons thousands of wronged citizens (be it under political or criminal charges) will surely view Palestinians as traitors; just as it views any human demanding its just rights as an agent and saboteur.”
This is just as true for the Arab regimes — all of which exist purely to perpetuate their own existence and enrich themselves at expense of the mass of people — as it is for Israel.
Against the backdrop of Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, the coming diplomatic normalization between the Gulf states, the Saudis and Israelis, and the conflict with Qatar, anti-Palestinian rhetoric has become more and more common in Arab media outlets, many of which are state-owned. In Kuwait, a writer made headlines when he echoed the right-wing Zionist talking point that “there is no Palestine, no occupation.” The Bahraini King has openly called for diplomatic ties to be established between the Arab states and Israel and later sent a delegation to Jerusalem, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
While covert normalization between Israel and the other Arab states — other than Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel — has basically been the norm for a long time, the success of the counter-revolution since 2013 is allowing these governments to be completely open about what used to be hidden for fear of public outrage.
The veneer of the Arab diplomatic and economic boycott of Israel, always thin, is finally collapsing completely.
While this may just be a formalization and acknowledgement of something that has obviously been happening for a long time anyway, the fact that these regimes are able to be so open in their betrayal is a troubling sign of growing apathy, and even outright hostility, regarding the Palestinian cause among their subjects.
For Arab monarchs and Netanyahu, this is a historic opportunity to remove the complication of the Palestinian question from their alliance against Iran. For the Israelis, this has the added benefit of further reducing a long-standing international isolation, while removing the Arab world even more completely from the question of Palestine.
This is the context for Netanyahu’s overture to African leaders. He is hoping that, with the Arab states firmly out of the way, Israel can continue its colonization of Palestine unabated, and reverse its pariah status in the international community, once and for all.