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February 11, 2020 10:14 am

New Realities in Africa Open Diplomatic Opportunities for Israel

avatar by Olivier Guitta


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO.

While the uproar over the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dominated attention, some key Muslim-majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman have responded in positive ways. Indeed, Israel has been able to build good relationships with numerous Muslim countries in recent years, often behind the scenes.

And this warming toward Israel also extends to Africa.

Israel has a card to play, especially in the Sahel — an arc of land immediately south of the Sahara Desert and stretching across the African continent. Terrorism from jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Boko Haram has become a top priority for countries there, such as Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.

Security needs seemed to be part of the agenda a year ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu reestablished diplomatic ties with Chad, and became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the country.

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“There is a lot that we can do together,” Netanyahu said, “and we discussed how to deepen our cooperation in every field beginning with security, but also agriculture, food, water, energy, health, and many more. And I believe that this cooperation will build a better, safer, and more prosperous future for both our peoples.”

After restoring diplomatic ties, Israel did not waste any time sending in large business delegations to capitalize on the opening to a new market for Israeli industry and services.

Israel’s most recent breakthrough came on February 3 of this year, when Netanyahu held a “secret” meeting in Uganda with Sudan’s leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Al-Burhan did not inform his own government about the meeting for fear he would have been pressured to cancel it. Sudan is trying to persuade the United States to remove it from its list of state terrorism sponsors, and al-Burhan’s restoration of ties with a key US ally might help.

The United Arab Emirates, recently the most active ally to open doors for Israel in the Muslim world, helped set up the meeting.

Uganda’s role as the meeting’s host also highlighted the close cooperation between it and Israel. As proof, a Lebanese Hezbollah agent was arrested in Entebbe last July in a joint Uganda-Israel operation. Hezbollah had instructed him to identify possible American and Israeli targets in Uganda and the region, and recruit Lebanese living in Uganda for Hezbollah operations — from terrorism to funding and intelligence gathering.

Israel has also had a long friendship with Cameroon President Paul Biya. Israel set up the Rapid Intervention Battalion that is central to Cameroon’s security, and continues to train its elite troops. Interestingly, the good relations did not prevent an antisemitic rant last year by a Cameroonian minister who declared¬† that the extermination of the Jews by Nazi Germany was due to their “arrogance.” The Cameroonian government quickly condemned the minister’s statement.

Meanwhile, Rwanda is home to a new Israeli embassy, its eleventh in Africa. The two countries cooperate on agriculture, technology, and security. For example, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, through its international development cooperation arm MASHAV, built an agricultural center of excellence in Rwanda.

Last but not least, Morocco, an Arab country, has had a close relationship with Israel because of its large Jewish community. But the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s PJD party won control of parliament in 2011, it pushed a hardcore line against Israel and made the Palestinian issue a top priority. Since then, it is difficult for any Moroccans to express any support for the Jewish state or visit it: a Moroccan journalist explained during a visit to Israel that showing any kind of support for Israel or even visiting the country can result in ostracization and even death threats.

For example, when a Moroccan radio station, Medi1, had the courage last year on its website to describe a Palestinian who killed two Israeli soldiers as a terrorist, it had to change the headline under pressure. To alleviate this Islamist aggressive behavior toward Israel, King Mohamed VI, following the tradition of his father and grandfather, has kept a friendly and amicable attitude towards Israel. Now there are reports that Morocco would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US-recognition of  Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara.

There remains a lot of bad blood towards Israel in Africa. South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018 and last year downgraded diplomatic relations further in protest of Israel’s response to violent, Hamas-orchestrated demonstrations on the Gaza border.

But the trend toward a warming relationship between some countries on the continent and the Jewish state is quite hopeful.

Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments. Olivier tweets @OlivierGuitta.

A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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