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Op-eds

Bibi’s Africa strategy picks up steam

  • Steven Gruzd
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to the north-central African nation of Chad. The roundtrip took 23 hours. He met Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno in the vast landlocked country’s sweltering, dusty capital, N’Djamena (Arabic for “place of rest”).
by STEVEN GRUZD | Jan 31, 2019

The next day, Chad restored diplomatic relations with Israel, severed in 1972. Netanyahu called his fourth visit to Africa since 2016 “a breakthrough into the heart of the Muslim world”. Two more Muslim-majority states – Mali and Morocco – might be next.

While Israel is chipping away at Africa’s automatic support for the Arab world, it needs patience and a strong, sharp chisel.

Meanwhile, things seem back on track for Israel’s Africa outreach, even though a planned high-level leaders’ meeting in Lomé, Togo, in October 2017 collapsed precipitously. Domestic unrest in the Togolese streets plus pressure from pro-Palestinian quarters (including, it is said, South Africa and Morocco) scuppered the summit. Plans to relocate the meeting to Israel never materialised.

But what, exactly, does Israel want from Chad, ranked 186th (out of 190) on the United Nation’s Human Development Index? Israel’s per capita GDP is more than $42 000 (R572 884); Chad’s is about $900 (R12 276). Déby’s rule since 1990 has been despotic, and denigrates human rights.

“Chad is the most climate-fragile nation on earth,” says Ross Harvey, senior researcher in resource governance at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change are especially severe, not only because of the risk of both droughts and floods, but also because of extreme poverty and frequent conflict.” Chad’s fragility is compounded by massive migrant flows in its neighbourhood.

Chad’s domestic problems aside, it might be another vote in favour of Israel (or at least an abstention) in international forums.

It may also prove that Muslim-majority states can benefit more from peace than hostility with the Jewish state. (Chad, however, has already paid a heavy price for rapprochement. Ten Chadian peacekeepers were killed and at least 25 injured in a revenge attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali.)

Finally, it could open new markets. The optics of a diplomatic triumph could also help Netanyahu as Israel heads to the polls on 9 April.

There are also potential long-term gains. Stability and prosperity in Chad will help close down terrorist activity in Africa. According to Harvey, “A presence in Chad will allow Israel to conduct on-the-ground intelligence gathering for new insight into how extremist groups like Boko Haram operate. If Chad benefits developmentally from Israel’s support, trade relations will serve the Jewish state well in the long run.”

Israeli water technologies can help Chad improve its agricultural productivity with much less water, and Israel can offer cutting-edge intelligence and military services.

Other diplomatic windfalls loom. Israeli officials say Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga of Mali is due to visit Israel before the elections. The states briefly had diplomatic ties from 1960 to 1973. Netanyahu’s 2017 meeting with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Monrovia, Liberia, apparently precipitated this thaw.

Ever the wily politician, Netanyahu is also rumoured to be visiting Morocco in late March. Apparently Rabat is seeking better ties with Washington, through Jerusalem. US support for its position on the Western Sahara (which Morocco has largely occupied since 1975) would be invaluable. Restoring relations with Morocco would bump up Netanyahu’s popularity.

Guinea renewed ties with Israel in July 2016, after 49 years.

Elsewhere, Israel plans to open its newest embassy in Africa in Kigali in April, coinciding with commemorations of 25 years since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Both small, dynamic countries share a tenacity in overcoming tragic histories and fast-tracking development. A direct Kigali-Tel Aviv flight is being planned. Israel has quietly dropped plans to repatriate African refugees from Israel to Rwanda.

“During the early 1960s, Israel was considered a friend of newly-independent Africa. This honeymoon ended with the 1967 and 1973 wars. What we are seeing now is a slow process of diplomatic rediscovery, less defined by the increasingly complex and ambiguous Arab-Israeli issue than Africa’s development needs,” says Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation, which has co-hosted the Israel-Africa Dialogue since 2017 with the University of Tel Aviv.

“Israel has a strong development and democratic record, both of which increasingly resonate with African populations. There are dangers of course,” he says, “not least that Israel has to take care to side with Africans, and not just their governments, and to steer clear of the murky world of arms deals.”

South Africa is surely shooting itself in both feet if it downgrades diplomatic relations with Israel, given how Africa moving inexorably the other way.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He recently co-published ‘Israel’s ties with Africa: A focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa’.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Steven Gruzd 31 Jan
    Here is the link to the paper mentioned above
    https://saiia.org.za/research/israels-ties-with-africa-focus-on-ethiopia-kenya-nigeria-and-south-africa/

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