“Whoop-de-doo,” one may think, seeing the list of African leaders Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Liberia, Africa, on Sunday: Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and five others. “Wake me up when he meets the heads of some real countries, like a Switzerland, Belgium or South Korea.”
Netanyahu’s meetings Sunday were significant, as is his meeting Tuesday in Jerusalem with visiting Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Those meetings reflect a tremendous improvement in Israel’s ties with Africa, and here are five reasons why that is important.
1. Breaking the anti-Israel majority
Anyway you look at it, the cards are stacked against Israel in international forums, or – as the old saying goes – the Palestinians could get a UN majority to vote on a resolution declaring that the world is flat.
Why? Because the one-country, one-vote rule in the UN does not play to Israel’s strengths. Cape Verde, for instance, has the same voting power in the UN and other international organizations as, say, Australia.
The UN is made up of 193 states, and 120 are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which traditionally, reflexively, has always voted against Israel. And the 49 sub-Saharan African states make up 41% of NAM. If you can switch the voting patterns of those countries, getting them to abstain or vote for Israel – rather than against – then you can chip away at that automatic majority.
And that is what Netanyahu is doing. Is it working? It is still a work in progress, but the dial is starting to move. For instance, in last month’s UNESCO vote denying Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, eight Sub-Saharan states either voted for Israel or abstained, while six voted against Israel. This is in sharp contrast to the situation last year, when nine of theses states voted against Israel, and only four abstained, with one absent.
And that was before Netanyahu met with nearly one-fifth of all Africa’s leaders in one afternoon. Yes, it matters.
2. The Security Council
Whether Israelis like it or not, the Security Council is an important body, and its decisions have an impact on our lives. Africa generally has three seats on the Security Council, and this has proven important to Israel in the past.
For instance, a 2014 Security Council resolution vote on setting a deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state failed because Rwanda and Nigeria abstained, denying the Palestinians the nine necessary votes for the measure to pass.
Currently the African members on the Security Council are Egypt, Senegal and Ethiopia – one of the reasons why the visit of Hailemariam is significant. Good ties with Ethiopia can redound very much to Israel’s favor in votes on the Security Council. Last week two other African countries were voted in to serve on the council in 2018-2019: Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea. That fact itself explains why Netanyahu’s meeting with the Coite d’Ivoire president in Liberia was significant. Also, expect now to see increased Israeli outreach to Equatorial Guinea in the near future.
If you still doubt the importance of Africa to Israel, consider that Iran, China and Turkey are all falling over themselves to establish a presence on the continent. This most definitely has to do with Africa’s rich natural resources, but not only. Africa’s strategic importance cannot be overstated. For years the Iranians armed Hamas and Hizbullah through smuggling routes that wound through Africa. One such channel — through Sudan, Egypt and into Gaza — has since been closed, but that does not mean the Iranians have given up looking for other routes.
In addition, they are throwing around their “soft power” in Africa in search of both resources and allies. To counter Iranian designs, Israel has a real interest in security cooperation with African states. Jerusalem wants to see stable regimes in Africa, since instability – failed African states – is an invitation for Iran or radical Islamist organizations to gain a foothold.
The business potential for Israeli firms in Africa is endless.
The continent needs everything: electricity, roads, communications infrastructure, water, health care, and the know-how and training to protect ports, cities and strategic computer sites. It is not an easy place to do business – lots of bureaucracy and no small degree of corruption – but the possibilities are as vast as they are lucrative.
Good ties with various countries opens the doors for Israeli businesses, and that – ultimately – is very good for Israel’s economy.
5. Doing Good
Many countries in Africa look at Israel as a model, an example, of how a nation can suffer unspeakable calamities, throw off the yoke of a colonial power, and thrive. In the golden age of Israeli-African ties – the late 1950s until 1967 – then foreign minister Golda Meir pushed for Israeli involvement in Africa not only because it was good for Israel, but also because it was the right thing to do: to help fledgling African countries feed, educate, and heal their own people. For this reason Israel sent thousands of advisors to Africa, and trained even more Africans in Israel.
While Israel benefited enormously in gaining the friendship and fraternity of a number of African states, what was equally important was that this fit into the Zionist ethos of becoming a “light unto the nations.”
Theodor Herzl, according to Meir, said that once he has “witnessed the redemption of the Jewish, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of Africans.”
Netanyahu, in his speech to the leaders of 15 states at a summit in Liberia, said Israeli technology could provide solutions to some of Africa’s most pressing problems: “We want to help your soil become more fertile, your water reusable, your cities safer, your air cleaner.” Will Israel benefit from this relationship diplomatically and financially? Certainly. Will this help Israel combat the slander that it is an apartheid country built on a racist ideology? Hopefully. But Africa will also benefit tremendously. And wanting to make life better for 1.2 billion Africans is simply the right thing to do.
Tikun olam, anyone?