“WE want to help your soil become more fertile, your water reusable, your cities safer,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised 15 West African leaders at a summit of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on June 4.
Publicly, Netanyahu - the first non-African head of state to address Ecowas - portrayed Israel’s generosity as tikkun olam: acts of kindness performed to repair the world.
Privately, he made it clear that Israel wanted something in return.
In meetings on the sidelines of the summit, he warned Ecowas leaders that Israeli technology would solve their nations’ most urgent issues - as long as they opposed UN resolutions critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, termed this a “diplomatic repayment”. Netanyahu’s aim is to “dissolve” the pro-Palestine bloc of African countries critical of Israeli policies at the UN. The African members on the UN Security Council are Egypt, Senegal and Ethiopia. On June 2, Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea were voted in to serve in 2018-2019.
Netanyahu met with the Côite d’Ivoire president in Liberia. Israel already trains and arms the security forces protecting Equatorial Guinea’s oil fields, and the presidential guard of the country’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang.
Apart from UN votes, Netanyahu is seeking partners to lobby the AU to grant Israel observer status. Gaining observer status will enhance Israel’s relationship with African states and allow it to influence their voting at multilateral institutions such as the UN, according to Matshidiso Motsoeneng of the Afro Middle-East Centre.
So, what happens when African countries fail to repay Israel at the UN? Just ask Senegal and Angola. Both experienced swift and harsh retribution for defaulting on their Israeli debt.
In December, Senegal co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Angola endorsed the resolution.
Netanyahu immediately cancelled the Mashav drip-irrigation projects that were helping farmers increase yields in 12 rural areas in Senegal. Israel’s foreign ministry promoted Mashav’s Tipa (drop) project as a major part of Israel’s contribution to the “fight against poverty in Africa”. Israel also recalled its ambassador from Dakar.
Israeli aid to Angola was stopped. Israel also shut down an international aid agency that it operated within Angola that brought locals to Israel to gain exposure to advanced agricultural technology.
By cancelling the Senegalese and Angolan aid projects, the Israeli government was saying it would battle poverty in Africa only if it suited Israel’s propaganda interests.
After a meeting with Senegalese President Macky Sall, at the Ecowas summit, Israel has reconciled with Senegal. Israel’s ambassador will return to Dakar, aid will be restored, and Senegal will back Israel’s candidacy for AU observer status.
Reviving ties with Africa is an essential part of Israel’s global survival strategy in the wake of growing condemnation of its 50-year illegal occupation of Palestinian land; its denial of Palestinian self-determination; and its practice of, what has been termed, apartheid policies against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel’s African charm offensive began last July when Netanyahu led a delegation of business executives on a tour of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. During that visit, business executives flogged everything from Israeli-made plastic wrap, seeds and irrigation pipes to software, CCTV cameras and military equipment.
At the UN General Assembly in September, Netanyahu referred to Africa as a “potent partner”. Days later, he attended an Israeli tech conference, where entrepreneurs detailed how their inventions could help Africa. He is expected to return to Africa in October when 25 African nations are due to take part in an Israel-Africa summit in Togo.
This vision of Israel as a positive country, happy to share its technological advancements with African friends, is the image Netanyahu and his Africa-based diplomats want to offer. The aim is to redefine ties with African nations which fell into a diplomatic deep-freeze after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when a coalition of Arab states tried to fight Israel’s occupation of Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian land.
Israel reached its lowest point with Africa in 1975 when the Organisation for African Unity adopted Resolution 77, declaring that Palestine’s occupiers (Israel) shared the same racist, imperial policies as regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Referencing the resolution two months later, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379 that declared Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination”.
In an attempt to buy support for its apartheid policies, the South African regime developed a policy of “helpfulness” towards poorer African nations, offering to share its agricultural and mining know-how. Most refused, and ultimately formed the frontline of resistance against South African apartheid.
Like South Africa’s “neighbourliness”, Israel’s “aid” to African states is not philanthropic but simply a matter of opportunistic leverage. Its purpose is to muscle recipient states to support Israel at the UN and AU, and smacks of a patronising, transactional relationship that Africa is trying to escape.
The diplomatic repayment that Israel demands is too high, and African states must resist the lure of technology and aid designed to whitewash colonialism, occupation and apartheid.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo