The presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at last month’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Liberia was a clear sign of strengthened ties between Israel and the African organisation.
The Israeli prime minister became the first ever non-African head of state to address the ECOWAS summit.
“I believe in Africa, I believe in its potential – present and future. It is a continent on the rise,” Netanyahu said during his speech in Monrovia, adding that he had made strengthening Israel’s ties with the continent a top priority.
But Netanyahu’s presence at the summit, coupled with the absence of any Arab leaders, sent a clear diplomatic message.
Traditionally, Israeli leaders have not been well-received in Africa. North African states have Muslim majorities, close ties with the Middle East, and are supportive of the Palestinian cause.
Sub-Saharan African states fell out with Israel in the wake of the 1973 October War, referred to by Israelis as the Yom Kippur War.
But since 2016, Netanyahu has pursued a campaign of rapprochement with African nations, in the hopes of strengthening ties and winning African support for Israel.
Before his visit to Liberia, he said that his goal was to “dissolve this majority, this giant bloc of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and international bodies”.
He is scheduled to return to the region in October to attend an Africa-Israel summit in Togo, where he is set to meet with leaders of 25 African countries to discuss cooperation in the areas of technology, development and security.
There are several main motivators behind Israel’s interest in West Africa.
These objectives can be summarised as follows:
First: Strategic and political objectives
For Israel, East African countries play a crucially important role, as the region possesses vital sea lanes overlooking the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, which are essential to Israel’s commercial and strategic interests.
Indeed, 20 per cent of Israeli trade passes the Horn of Africa and travels through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, upon which Israel depends for its trade with Africa, Asia, and Australia.
As an entry point for its other activities, such as those related to economic and security issues, Israel has established diplomatic relations with the largest possible number of African countries.
It has aimed to weaken African support for Arab issues and win the support of African public opinion.
These efforts may cause Arabs to lose an important asset in political support by virtue of shifting the votes of the continent’s countries in international organisations.
Second: Economic objectives
During Netanyahu’s recent visit, Ethiopia and Israel signed cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding on capacity-building in the fields of agriculture, tourism and investment.
Kenya and Israel also concluded agreements in the fields of health and immigration, in addition to a February 2016 agreement signed between the two nations in the field of agriculture and irrigation.
In conjunction with the latest visit, the Israeli cabinet approved a proposal to open offices of Israel’s Agency for Development Cooperation (MASHAV) in all four countries during Netanyahu’s tour, and announced the allocation of $13 million to promote economic relations and cooperation in the region.
This coincides with a period of rapid growth in Israeli investments in the Ethiopian market, especially in the areas of floriculture and agricultural processing.
According to the staff of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, the number of Israeli projects in Ethiopia has now reached 187, with a combined value of 1.3 billion Ethiopian birr (equivalent to 58.4 million US dollars).
Similarly, the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture contracted the Israeli firm Ebony Enterprises Limited to carry out a major irrigation project in Rwanda, with the two sides signing a memorandum of understanding at the ministry’s headquarters in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on 22 January 2007.
Israel is also involved in a massive joint project with Germany and Kenya to clean up the waters of Kenya’s Lake Victoria, which covers an area of nearly 69,000 square kilometres and is the main upstream source of the Nile River.
On 17 August 2012, representatives of the three countries met in Nairobi to sign an agreement for the major project, which aims to restore the lake’s rich variety of fish and eradicate the invasive aquatic plants which have spread out of control in much of the lake.
Once again, Israel appears to be incorporating a humanitarian dimension in its relations with African nations through this massive project, which is projected to provide employment opportunities to about five million people in countries bordering the lake, such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Bearing all this in mind, Netanyahu’s recent visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia reveals Israel’s broad economic ambitions to further strengthen trade and investment relations with African countries, which may explain the large delegation that accompanied Netanyahu on his visit.
The delegation of 80 people, including senior Israeli business leaders representing more than 50 Israeli firms, accompanied Netanyahu, in order to boost economic relations.
In addition, Israel also wishes to diversify its economic partnerships, ending what’s viewed as their current over-reliance on the European and US markets.
In the past few years, Israel has formed active relations with East African countries in the fields of trade and investment.
Joint cooperation in trade is shown by the presence of Israeli offices and commercial companies in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, which serve to reinforce trade between Israel and those countries, given the increase in Israeli exports to countries in the region over the past five years.
In 2008, for instance, Israeli exports to Ethiopia amounted to $18 million, while its imports from Ethiopia reached $46 million.
Israel exports chemicals, industrial machinery and software to Ethiopia, and imports agricultural products and tobacco from the country, with the levels of both exports and imports rising steadily; between the 1990s and 2008, the value of Israel’s annual exports to Ethiopia more than tripled, going from $1.9 to $5.8 million a year.
Meanwhile, in 2007, the value of Israeli exports to Kenya amounted to $97 million, while it imported $22 million worth of goods from the country.
Third: Security and military objectives
Another priority of Netanyahu’s recent tour was to address the rising Israeli concern about the threats posed by jihadist movements to its interests in the region, a subject which has become a major focus in Israeli relations with East African countries.
Israel’s objectives in this regard are to confront the jihadist movements and prevent any threats to its interests, such as the operations against Israeli and US targets over the last two decades e.g. the aforementioned attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which is owned by a Jewish businessman.
Addressing the threats posed by Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab, of carrying out operations in Kenya against Israeli interests remains crucial to Israel.
In recent years, East African countries, especially Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, have become bases for Israeli intelligence services, provided with the latest monitoring devices, in order to try to understand what is going on in the Horn of Africa.
This shift aims to reduce the spread of Islamic extremist groups in East Africa, which are considered to be a direct threat to Israel’s security.
Consequently, the security pressures faced by regional countries, such as exposure to the threat of Al-Shabab, provides a fertile environment for coordination between Israel and East African countries and the strengthening of security efforts aimed at curbing extremist movements.
In this context, during his recent visit, Netanyahu indicated that Israel and the region’s countries would work together to counter terrorism.
Netanyahu’s talks with African leaders also focused on security issues and the promotion of security cooperation between Israel and the region’s nations.
This indicates that the terrorism factor is a significant Israeli motive with regard to consolidating relations with countries in the region.
Fourth: The impact on the Nile Basin countries
The four countries visited by Netanyahu – Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda – include Nile Basin countries that are in favour of Egypt and Sudan sharing the Nile River’s water resources.
Thus, Netanyahu’s visit to these countries corresponds with Israel’s relentless efforts to turn upstream countries against downstream countries, especially the republics of Egypt and Sudan.
Israel can achieve this by feeding and fuelling disputes with the Nile Basin countries in an attempt to increase its influence among the states governing the Nile’s source, with a focus on establishing agricultural projects designed to draw water from Lake Victoria, which is co-owned by several East African countries. Moreover, Israel seeks to portray Egypt and Sudan as the only countries benefiting from the Nile’s waters.
Five: Encouraging the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The immense significance of Netanyahu’s visit to Ethiopia surpassed the importance of his visits to the other states included on his tour, despite the fact that Israel’s relationship with Kenya is older than its relationship with Ethiopia. Indeed, Kenya is considered a main base through which Israel monitors what is going on in the African region.
It’s possible that Netanyahu’s visit to Ethiopia indicates Israel’s covert support for Addis Ababa at a time when the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has begun to store water – without Egypt’s approval and following the failure of recent negotiations; this emphasises the seriousness of the challenge facing Egypt, demonstrating that its argument with Ethiopia over the dam is not technical but rather related to significant regional political goals.
At the same time, Israel is attempting to guarantee its own future water security and acquire a guaranteed share of the Nile River water through its support for the dam project.
Netanyahu’s promises during the recent tour to help Ethiopia benefit from its water resources in developing agriculture and supply the country with Israeli technology raise several questions about the visit’s implications and objectives, not to mention its timing a few days before the signing of contracts concerning technical studies on the Renaissance Dam.
Egyptian media reports have minimised any mention of possible negative effects of Israel’s role in Egyptian interests in the Nile Basin.
Egypt maintains eight embassies in all of the Basin countries, while the Israeli diplomatic presence in the same countries is limited in comparison with embassies in only three of the nations, namely Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Behind the scenes in Egypt, however, there will be many negative reflections on the Israeli prime minister’s visit with regard to Egypt’s own water security, especially in light of Netanyahu’s promises to the Ethiopian Representatives Council to support Ethiopia in taking advantage of its water resources. Gradually easing the potential negative impact requires Egyptian intervention against the convergence of interests between diverse Israeli, Egyptian and African parties.
– Tying resistance to ‘terrorism’
Israel has seized on the appearance of “jihadi groups” in West Africa over the past few years as a golden opportunity.
The threat has provided a convenient opening to brand Palestinian resistance movements as “terrorists”, and to paint them in a similar light to violent West African movements.
In doing so, Tel Aviv has taken advantage of the fact that Africa’s political elite, swayed by Western media advancing an Israeli agenda, may not possess a deep knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israeli officials who have visited Africa in recent years have focused on equating resistance with “terrorism”. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Palestinian resistance movements, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as “terrorists” during a 2010 visit to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, when he was Israel’s foreign minister.
This was done to rein in sympathy for the Palestinian cause among the majority-Muslim ECOWAS economic bloc, which represents a quarter of Africa’s inhabitants.
West Africa is also seen as a hub for the Lebanese community accused of financing Hezbollah, whose foreign funding has been a long-standing point of concern for Israel. Israeli intelligence and economic influencers have focused on the countries most prone to this Lebanese influence, such as Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, establishing a number of investment institutions and encouraging Israeli businessmen to invest.
It has also set up security companies that collect intelligence on the presence of Hezbollah supporters in the country, while an Israeli-Canadian company, Visual Defence, handles security at Abidjan’s international airport and port, making the flow of individuals and goods through the country subject to Israeli monitoring.
Increasing trade with West Africa
Israeli trade with West Africa is still weak, as it has relations with only a few countries in the region. A 2015 report by the Israeli Export Institute found that Israeli exports to Africa represented only 1.6 percent, while imports from Africa were 0.5 percent.
This means that Israel has yet to take significant advantage of the 340 million-strong consumer base of the ECOWAS bloc, as well as its economic potential and varied natural resources.
But Israeli diplomacy over the past few years has paved the way for further progress.
On a visit to Africa seven years ago, Lieberman said that Israel was intending to enter the ECOWAS region in a strong and active manner, noting that friendly African nations, such as Nigeria and Ghana, would play a large role in facilitating the building of ties between Israel and ECOWAS.
Israel’s presence in West Africa is neither deep nor historical. However, Israel does have good relations with influential countries such as Nigeria, having formed a relationship after its independence from Britain in 1960.
Israel was a generous supporter of Nigerian separatists in the Biafran War of 1967 and has a large and economically influential community there. Tel Aviv has established important economic installations in the country, such as the huge construction firm Nigersal, and the electrical and mechanical engineering firm Etco Limited.
Israel also has strong relations with Ghana, cemented by then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s attendance at Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957. The founding father of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was raised in Protestant missions that believe in the return of the Jews to Palestine, was also influenced by the thinking of pro-Israel Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.
The influence wielded by these two countries on decision-making in ECOWAS, as well as the strong relationship between Tel Aviv and President Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire, doubtless contributed to the warm welcome Netanyahu received at the recent summit.
After a period of neglect, Israel wants its return to Africa to be built on solid foundations.
It has limited its focus to security, military and economic aspects, with a special emphasis on the economy in countries where it will not be able to achieve much popularity among the mostly Muslim populations.
For example, agriculture is a key aspect of the relationship between Israel and Senegal. By focusing on agriculture, Israel not only hopes to penetrate an economy that relies heavily on farming, but also to gain a foothold in the more conservative rural areas of Senegal, where 95 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim and 70 percent rely on agriculture or herding.
The upcoming Africa-Israel summit in Togo this October represents an advanced stage of normalisation between Israel and West African countries, in a vein similar to previous French-African, Indian-African, Chinese-African and Turkish-African summits, all aiming to establish economic influence.
Africa’s level of acceptance of Israel will depend on the size of its economic investments, the money it will be able to pump into regional infrastructure projects, and whether Netanyahu will fulfill his promise to spend $1bn in the region to improve green energy projects over the next four years.
An absence of Arab policies to contain Israeli influence in this region may allow Israel to expand its African footprint to other countries, such as Mali, Niger and Guinea.
North African nations such as Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia and Algeria have failed to capitalise on the common historical, cultural and social ties that bind them with the West African region, which may contribute further to Israel’s rise in the region.
Still, Israeli penetration of the region will not come without challenges: West African regimes may worry that a close relationship with Israel could make them a target for armed Islamist groups, whose attacks have become a major source of concern for ECOWAS leaders.