Africa and Israel: Disunity at the African Union?

By Olivier Caslin, Israël-UA : désunion à l’Union africaine

Posted on Monday, 13 February 2023 12:47
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning at Malha Mall in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. © Ziv Koren/Polaris/Starface

With Israel regaining its observer status at the AU, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to consolidate relations with the continent. This will also be one of Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s main missions.

Will 2022 be remembered as the year of Israel’s return to Africa, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often spoke about during his previous term?

For the first time in a long time, Israel recorded a significant diplomatic victory at the beginning of last year, by being again authorised, in February 2021, to sit as an observer at the summit of the African Union (AU), despite the open opposition of the continent’s heavyweights of the pan-African organisation such as Algeria or South Africa.

Exactly 20 years after having it revoked, Israel regained the status it long had until 2002. With Rwandan, Ethiopian and even Cameroonian support, the Israeli state did not even need a final confirmation from the AU Commission to have its return validated.

“It’s the end of an anomaly,” celebrated Yaïr Lapid, then-Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, prior to his becoming Prime Minister a few months later, before then leaving his post on 29 December to the one who had beaten him during the early elections of November 2022: Netanyahu.

Good news

The return of the man who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999, then from 2009 to 2021, almost looks like good news for Africa: firstly because the Likud leader seems to be particularly appreciated by some of his African peers like the Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, and because he spared no effort to see his country regain some of the influence it had on the continent until the early 1970s. In 2016, he organised a historic four-day tour of sub-Saharan Africa that took him to Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

The following year, he attended the 51st ECOWAS summit, held in Monrovia. A first for an Israeli head of government who will also mark the history of his country by receiving in 2018, a few months apart, his friend Paul Kagame, followed by his Togolese counterpart, Faure Gnassingbé and the former leader of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno.

Seen from Tel Aviv, Morocco is the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa.

It was still under his mandate that the Israeli state opened embassies in Conakry and Kigali, and started the ongoing process of normalising its diplomatic relations with Morocco and Sudan within the framework of the Abraham Accords.

It was Lapid who arrived in Casablanca for the first official visit of an Israeli official to the kingdom in August 2021, just a few weeks after the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Particular attention

During the 18 months in which Netanyahu was on political holiday, both Naftali Bennett and Lapid quickly followed in the footsteps of their predecessor and capitalised on his initial efforts to restore the Israeli state’s relations with Morocco, seen from Tel Aviv-Yafo as a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Francophone nations.

The area also seems to be the subject of particular attention, particularly from Israel’s Dakar embassy, which since the beginning of this year also manages Chad, Gambia, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea.

Without a reliable ally in the Sahel, Israel’s diplomacy seems to have set its sights on N’Djamena.

It hopes N’Djamena will eventually integrate the ‘Circle of Peace’, Israel’s terminology used to refer to the process of normalisation underway in the Middle East and by extension in Africa, within the framework of the Abraham Accords that both Bennett and Lapid validated, ensuring a continuity often undermined by unstable politics.

One budget, one result

A few significant changes are to be found internally. Netanyahu loved to put on the mantle of top diplomat, gutting a foreign ministry he deemed hostile to him. “His successors have put him back at the heart of the apparatus, granting him a budget which allows his embassies to do their job and obtain results on the ground,” observed Emmanuel Navon, a researcher at the University in Tel Aviv-Yafo.

Particularly in Chad, where in addition to opening a diplomatic representation, the Israeli state is financing one of its most important ongoing cooperation projects on the continent, with the turnkey delivery of an emergency medical unit, specialising in traumatology, to equip the N’Djamena hospital.

The same is under construction in Juba, South Sudan. In the Israeli state, the ministry used its network to initiate and support one of the many programmes launched in recent years for Africa, alongside the private sector and civil society. “Ties have strengthened and today our relations are good with a large majority of countries on the continent,” said an Israeli state diplomat.

A circle of peace

The return of “Bibi” should not fundamentally change this African deal, despite the many unknowns surrounding the government’s well-documented considerably right-wing shift. Hostage, for many observers, to the provocations of the religious parties of his coalition, the Prime Minister is also handicapped by his 2021 indictment in various corruption cases.

By the time he obtains the judicial immunity he hopes to find from his new political allies, his room for manoeuvre should be very slim on the domestic scene.

One of the Israeli state’s main goals on the mainland is to preserve its access to the Red Sea.

Externally, the appointment of his very close advisor, Ron Dermer, former Israeli ambassador to Washington, to a ministry of strategic affairs tailor-made for him, clearly indicates the Prime Minister’s desire to directly manage the most sensitive issues at the moment, from relations with the United States to the Iranian question, without forgetting, of course, the Abraham Accords, the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy for two years.

“The Prime Minister has decided to widen the circle of peace,” said Ron Dermer upon taking office. First towards Saudi Arabia, with which negotiations are the most advanced. Then to Africa, with Chad and even more so Sudan, so that a real process of normalisation can see the light of day with a country that was participating in the war effort against Israel in the early 1970s.

An ongoing dynamic

With these two new stones in its African garden, Israel may be able to fulfil one of its main objectives on the continent: to preserve its access to the Red Sea, already partly secured by the proximity that the country maintains with Eritrea.

For the second, which consists of ensuring African voices in major international bodies, Benjamin Netanyahu knows that he can count on Eli Cohen, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, to maintain the current dynamic on the continent.

Not necessarily a great connoisseur of the continent, the latter has planned to get there quickly, perhaps culminating in a trip to Addis Ababa for the AU summit scheduled for 18 February.

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