International relations are very much like a tectonic shift, with countries either moving towards or away from one another. The ancient Indian philosopher and economist, Chanakya once noted that “there is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interests.” This was true in his day and age, over 5000 years ago and it rings true today.

Naysayers are constantly looking at every diplomatic move made by Israel as having sinister and dishonest motives, and seemingly more so when it comes to the country’s relations with African states. Some have even gone as far as calling it ‘Israel’s scramble for Africa’, resembling the colonial action taken by European countries in their quest to conquer the ‘dark continent’. It is believed that Israel is only doing so to turn African countries against the Palestinian narrative, that Israel is only trying to buy votes in the various international bodies it sits on. They are quick to dismiss the many opportunities that Israel holds for the African continent and her people, more especially where it relates to their most immediate needs.

For the longest time, since the period surrounding the 1973 Yom Kippur War to be exact, Israel lost a number of allies across the continent, retaining only 4, one of which was the apartheid regime of South Africa, to which it is constantly likened. Given its close likeness to the British and the Americans, African countries saw Israel as a colonialist state that wanted to usurp and exploit the Palestinian people. Naturally, this meant that African states had a great affinity towards the Palestinian people, especially as they themselves had either just won or were fighting for their own independence from European countries. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) even went as far as adopting a resolution equating Zionism to racism in 1975, guided by the then Arab Republic of Egypt and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), as a means of cementing Arab and African relations.

Towards the end of the 20th century however, Israel started making strides in its attempts to forge relations with African states, understanding the influence that these countries have in a number of international bodies. Israel had a lot to offer that the African countries were looking for and the situation with Palestine seemed to be making a turn for the better, with the PLO recognizing Israel’s right to exist. The signing of the Oslo Accords by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat only meant that Israel was moving in the right direction and Israel used that as a catalyst to revamp its relations in Africa. Despite African countries having strong relations with the Palestinians and strongly condemning Israel on public platforms, many of them have ceased their efforts to isolate the Jewish state. Israeli organisations and businesses have found favour in a number of African countries, laying the foundation for formal diplomatic relations.

Some African countries, more so the majority Muslim nations, have opted to skip this current train of normalising relations with Israel. Some have quoted their ‘political and revolutionary dedication to the liberation of the Palestinian people’ as the driving force behind their decision, and see the normalisation of relations with Israel as a betrayal to the Palestinians. Others feel that by creating relations with Israel, they are afforded the chance to strengthen their call for a two-state solution whilst also strengthening their own chances of getting into the favourable books of the Western countries. Normalising relations with Israel has allowed these countries to bring disruptive Israeli technology to their shores to assist them with safety and security measures, weapons, agriculture, water and other issues they are facing. Much as Chanakya noted, “there is some self-interest behind every relationship.”

The East African bloc consisting of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania seems to be Israel’s greatest friend on the continent, with these nations pushing for other states to forge relations with Israel. The youngest country in the world, South Sudan, also enjoys relations with Israel and of late, Sudan has joined the fold through the Abraham Accords, leaving Somalia as the only nation in the region to continue holding out against normalisation. These relationships have seen a number of projects happening across the region, with Israeli organisations and businesses growing their reach through the promotion of Israeli medical, agricultural and water technology.

In 2017, Kenya was the first African country to be visited by a sitting Israeli leader in over 50 years when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta.  This led to the Israeli leader hosting talks with 11 African leaders at the time, working hard to ‘cement Israel’s return to Africa and Africa’s return to Israel’. A number of emerging farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda use Israeli agricultural technology in their operations and this has seen them grow their trade significantly over the years. Israeli organisation, Save A Child’s Heart (SACH), which performs paediatric cardiac care on children, for free, has hosted a number of operations in Tanzania, creating strong relationships in the health sector between the two countries. SACH has also overseen fundraising for the upskilling of cardiac surgeons and paediatric surgeons from East Africa in Israel and is working towards establishing missions in the region to increase its reach and the work it does.

In the South of the continent, Zimbabwe and South Africa have been the only countries that have been giving the Jewish state a headache, more especially on the diplomatic front. South Africa’s commitment to the Palestinian people, whom it believes it has a natural affinity towards, has seen it continue to try and downgrade its relations with Israel. The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, sees the Palestinians’ plight as resembling that of the African people’s fight against apartheid, with some senior members going as far as to say that ‘what is going on in Israel is worse than apartheid South Africa’. South Africa, however, continues to be a fertile field for Israeli technology, humanitarian efforts and private business, with many Israeli organisations finding favour amongst the South African people. The two largest and fast growing independent African churches in South Africa, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) and Ibandla lamaNazaretha (Shembe) are also great friends of Israel and have been looking at bringing Israeli agricultural technology and expertise into the different communities in which they operate.

Recently, the Zimbabwean government has ruffled a few feathers in the South by rekindling their relationship with Israel. This forging of relations with Israel is seen as a strategic move by Zimbabwe to try and appeal to western countries to lift the many sanctions against it. Zimbabwe however also sees the many different opportunities that exist for their country when creating relations with Israel. With agriculture being the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, they have seen an opportunity to access some of Israel’s world-renowned agricultural technology. Zimbabwe’s efforts to grow its agricultural output to extinguish food insecurity and increase exports could do with a technological, financial and expertise boost that Israel is only too happy to provide. Rekindling formal diplomatic relations with Israel does not mean that Zimbabwe will ignore the plight of the Palestinians nor will they be silenced, however it does mean that Israel will find more favour in strategic decisions made in international bodies such as the UN.

When looking at international relations, we tend to minimise other influential actors whilst magnifying the state as the main actor. We find ourselves blindsided by political rhetoric with the assistance of the media, whilst ignoring much of what is going on, on the ground. Israel has always had a presence in Africa through its people, businesses and organisations and will continue to have a presence across the continent for centuries to come. African nations who refuse to normalise relations with Israel are only holding themselves back from influencing important conversations that need to be had for the sake of peace in the Middle East.  As noted by former president Pohamba of Namibia when he said “African countries regard Israel as a good country with good intentions, however our history dictates that we always side with the Palestinians in the conflict, because their struggle is very much attached to our own.”   

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Mmamalema Molepo

Mmamalema Molepo is a coordinator for Africans for Peace. He is also doing his Master of Philosophy (MPhil) specialising in Development Policy and Practice.

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