Don’t Let Palestinian Recalcitrance Hold Israeli-African Relations Hostage
Palestinian advocacy groups and certain countries are pressuring the African Union (AU) to rescind Israel’s observer status, when the AU executive council meets this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But Israel’s expertise in health, agriculture, defense, and other fields should convince the AU to prioritize its partnership with the Jewish state over Palestinian grievances.
In July, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid welcomed Israel’s readmission as an observer at the AU, calling it “a day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations.” It “corrects the anomaly” that has existed since Israel lost its observer status when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) reorganized as the African Union in 2002.
Opponents of Israel’s upgraded status have lobbed tenuous arguments against the partnership. To tarnish Israel’s image in Africa, activists have portrayed the Jewish state as a racist colonizer. However, Israel’s restrictions on Palestinians are related to security issues, not race. And Israel is the product of a post-colonial national liberation movement, a trait it shares with many African countries.
Some have argued that African countries should not improve relations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. But it is unclear why Palestinian recalcitrance should hold Israeli-African relations hostage, especially in light of Israel’s numerous attempts to solve the conflict.
Shortly after its founding, Israel began its outreach to Africa. Their shared post-colonial legacy — and Israel’s desire to overcome isolation caused by the Arab League boycott — spurred this partnership. In the process, Israel shared agricultural and technological advancements crucial for countries breaking away from the yoke of colonialism. However, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab and Muslim countries coaxed African nations to cut ties with Israel. Most nations complied with a 1973 OAU resolution calling on members to do just that.
Israel has renewed its ties with African countries in recent years, maintaining relations with 46 out of 54 African countries. In 2009, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman embarked on a five-country tour of Africa. In 2016, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set out on his own four-country tour. In 2017, Netanyahu became the first non-African leader to address the Economic Community of West African States. And in January 2021, Sudan — the site of Arab countries’ post-Six-Day War rejection of normalization with Israel — signed the Abraham Accords peace deal with the Jewish state.
In a July press release, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed cooperation with African nations in “the fight against Corona.” Israel has been a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus, and the AU stands to benefit tremendously from Israel’s expertise. Israel’s many other contributions to public health in Africa include combating malaria, providing neonatal care, and building health facilities. And an Israeli-designed method for protecting harvests is helping feed Africa.
MASHAV, Israel’s agency for international development cooperation, has provided Liberia with COVID-19 relief items such as face masks, thermometers, and medical gowns. MASHAV has also helped African countries improve their agricultural capacity. In 2016, the chairperson of the African Union Commission presented Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the deputy head of MASHAV with a plaque recognizing Israel’s work to combat the spread of Ebola in 2014; Israel set up field hospitals and became the largest donor per capita in that health crisis. In 2017, Sierra Leone named the Israeli non-governmental organization (NGO) IsraAid as its outstanding international NGO of the year, due in large part to the group’s contributions to the fight against Ebola.
Israeli water technology can also be a boon for the AU. Israel has been a pioneer in water technology since it popularized drip irrigation and desalination. Watergen, an Israeli company, has deployed machinery in Africa that literally creates water out of thin air. This can help the continent overcome lack of access to clean water, one of its greatest causes of poverty. Yet in 2018, anti-Israel hostility led Cape Town, South Africa, to reject Israeli assistance as it nearly became the first major city in the world to run out of water.
The Israeli press release heralding its renewed observer status also mentioned defense cooperation as a key arena for collaboration. Israel has provided several African countries with military advisers and weapons for decades. Since 2000, Israel has dramatically increased military collaboration with the Horn of Africa countries, particularly Kenya. Al-Qaeda operatives in the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa bombed an Israeli-owned hotel and attempted to down an Israeli plane in 2002. Continued threats of terrorism led Israel and Kenya to conclude a public security agreement in 2011 to increase cooperation. Israel has complemented its recent diplomatic outreach to several African countries with military training. And Israel has much to offer African countries in the defense sector, particularly in cybersecurity.
Increased Israeli-African cooperation will help both parties thrive. The AU should not allow its health and prosperity to become another casualty of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.