Israel hopes to gain Africa foothold

By Olivier Caslin

Posted on Friday, 27 January 2023 16:53, updated on Sunday, 29 January 2023 22:59
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he stands next to his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed in Jerusalem September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC1B2FD64860

Israel, a key economic partner of the African continent since the 1960s, is hoping to regain its former influence there.

“For nearly 20 years, companies and various non-governmental organisations have been much more active in Africa than the Israeli public authorities,” says Galia Zabar, a specialist on Africa at Tel Aviv University. At the forefront of economic and commercial relations on the continent, business rubs shoulders with development aid.

The Israelis appear to be contributing to African countries by introducing various technological innovations – agricultural and hydraulic in the past, digital and financial in the present – which have helped the continent to develop in just a few decades. Israel’s geography and climate is quite similar to a large part of Africa.

‘Fixing the world’

“Israel has made it its mission to save the weakest,” says one of its citizens, who’s also been a consultant in Africa for over 40 years. In recent weeks, the minister of foreign affairs, Eli Cohen, proposed a policy that would form one of the pillars of Israeli diplomacy in Africa. It is inspired by the traditional Jewish concept known as tikkun olam, which translates to “repairing the world” in Hebrew.

With this philosophy in mind, Israel committed itself to the newly independent African countries in the 1960s. This was until the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the forerunner of the AU, which was then under strong Libyan influence – started boycotting Israel in 1973.

Since then, there has been no relationship between Africa and Israel “or almost [no relationship]”, says Aliza Iqbal, who worked for Mashav, the Israeli governmental agency for international cooperation, in the early 2000s before joining the private Pears Foundation to develop its support programmes for Africa. This illustrates the direction that the relationship between Israel and Africa is heading.

Mashav, which was created in 1958, continues to be active across the continent. However, given that it had a budget of less than €30m ($32.7m) in 2021, it is no longer in a position to help Israel regain the kind of influence it had on the continent over half a century ago, “when Israelis were the most welcome foreigners in Africa“, says our consultant. Aware of its limitations, the Israeli government, starting with its foreign affairs ministry, has set up financial mechanisms to support several initiatives – private, associative, even charitable – in Africa.

By joining forces with programmes like Desert Tech and Innovation Journey as well as private foundations, the government is significantly improving its impact on the continent. Israel will then be able to commit “to developing synergies with Africa’s multilateral partners, such as the World Bank or the various regional financial organisations”, in order to gain even more visibility, says Yael Ravia-Zadok, deputy director-general of the economic department at the foreign affairs ministry.

Know-how and technology

Despite efforts made in recent years, Israel exerts little economic influence on the continent as trade between the partners amounts to less than $2bn per year. Given that they have neither China’s financial means nor the support of its political leaders, Israeli entrepreneurs must rely on their know-how and technological prowess when competing on the international stage in many fields.

The objective remains, above all, “to do business”, says Sinai Gohar-Barak, head of the Desert Tech programme, “but never at Africa’s expense”. The Israelis working in Africa are keen to provide their partners with the latest technological developments available in agriculture, finance, water and energy, security and health, and adapt them, if necessary, to the continent’s specific needs.

Others see a market that is still little known in Israel despite its proximity, and whose risk perception is still too high compared to an Israeli market that may be limited in size, but is still very dynamic and more rapidly remunerative. Aware of its role as a “facilitator”, the government plans to continue to rely on the Israeli “ecosystem” – which has been set up over the years. It wants to push investors to take the plunge and thus help Israel regain the role it once played in Africa.

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