An Israeli Pivot to Africa

With increased partnership at the top of the agenda, a September meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and over fifteen African heads of state at the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) marks a critical point in Israel’s recent refocus on Africa. Conventional analysis on recent Israel-Africa relations suggests that Israel’s primary goal is to break up a traditionally anti-Israel voting bloc within the United Nations. However, current Israeli engagement with Africa goes beyond Israel’s short-term strategic interests. Deeper Israel-Africa ties are potentially a win-win situation, offering economic advancement and increased security cooperation for Israel and the continent alike.

In the meeting, Netanyahu focused on common interests between Israel and the continent and proclaimed that “Africa is our top priority.” The meeting follows his July trip to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia and the February launch of the Knesset Caucus for Israel-Africa Relations, an initiative focused on improving relations with the continent. These are just two events within the Netanyahu administration that mark a broader Israeli pivot to Africa, with the meeting further solidifying this trajectory.

Current Israel-Africa cooperation operates in three distinct ways:

1. Israel’s experience in counter-terrorism offers a unique opportunity to build capacity for militaries across Africa. Several African countries, including Kenya, already receive Israeli military training and equipment, and existing weapon transfer agreements offer a precedent for other countries looking to enter arms deals.


2. Israeli and African businesses are shaping economic engagement. Energiya Global Capital, an Israeli firm, recently launched East Africa’s first solar field in Rwanda, signing deals worth $250 million in commercial solar fields to Africa in the next year. The CEO of Energiya has stated that the company is prepared to invest $2 billion over the next four years, and the firm is now leading a crowdfunding campaign to provide a solar power generator to a women and children’s hospital in South Sudan. Over eighty Israeli businesspeople joined Netanyahu on his East Africa trip, including executives from defense contractors and fertilizer and drip irrigation producers. Additionally, the July Israel-Ethiopia business summit hosted almost 300 Israeli and Ethiopian businesspeople and represented current bilateral cooperation in trade and technology, which boasts twenty-five-year investment flows of $330 million.

3. In terms of development, Israel’s expertise in improving agricultural productivity has the potential to aid countries in Africa experiencing drought and food scarcity. Israeli know-how in desalination, wastewater recycling, and drip irrigation can come to the aid of countries with large agricultural sectors struggling with minimal rainfalls. Through an exchange program with Rwanda, over 120 Rwandan agronomists are receiving training in agricultural mechanization and irrigation at a university in Israel. HomeBioGas, an Israeli company that manufactures clean-energy biogas generators, has said that its system will be available to everyone that needs it in the developing world. This has the possibility to greatly improve health outcomes of people living in off-grid communities. Israel has also been active in fights against epidemics across the continent. Israel’s Agency for International Development sent experts to train personnel in Cameroon and shipped tons of supplies, accompanied by medical personnel, to countries affected by Ebola. These events have occurred within a broader context of increased Israeli aid to the continent, with a new $13 million aid package recently announced by MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.

These initiatives, many of them occurring within the past five years, signal Israel’s existing interest in the continent and show the benefits that increased cooperation can bring, especially to regions grappling with slowing economies, public health challenges, and the effects of climate change.

While not definitive of its pivot, Israel also has self-interested reasons for forming new relationships with African countries. The government’s refusal to adequately address the needs and legal status of over forty-five thousand African asylum seekers in the country, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, stands in contrast to its attempts at friendship on the continent. One of Israel’s likely goals in this pivot is to create agreements, on top of its existing two, with African countries to host its unwanted migrants. Additionally, the country is seeking observer status within the African Union (AU) in order to cement its increased involvement in African affairs. It held observer status in the AU’s predecessor Organization of African Unity, but lost the position at the request of the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Both Israel and Africa stand to gain if the former regains observer status with the AU: the AU provides an important forum for discussion, as well as an avenue for Israel to further engage with African countries and gain allies in international organizations.

A major road block to Israel’s expanding engagement with the continent and the question of observer status are the eleven African countries that do not recognize Israel. These are mostly Muslim-majority countries that either never had diplomatic relations with Israel or suspended them at various points. This, however, does not have to be the end-game to this development. Israel has made huge strides in the last thirty-five years in warming relations with Muslim-majority countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. Meetings between Netanyahu, foreign ministry officials, and leaders from Somalia, Guinea, and Chad, for example, show that dialogue is possible and that every country in Africa, regardless of its religious makeup, can stand to benefit from a relationship with Israel.

In the future, it is likely that Israel-Africa cooperation will continue, not only in terms of agriculture and water issues, but also within the private sector and military support. Dialogue between Israeli leaders and leaders of different African countries should continue, and future trips by Israeli officials to Africa will open up conversation where it does not exist already. Sustained Israel-Africa engagement can lead to development on the continent and new cross-country learning initiatives, harnessing power in technology and startups, medicine, green energy, and counter-terror to generate cultural exchange and new sources of information for young African and Israeli experts alike. This has the possibility to create real, long-lasting friendships between African countries and Israel that go beyond single administrations and become engrained in national cultures.

Liviya David is an intern in the Africa Center.

Image: Israeli Prime MInister Netanyahu departs from Kenya en route to Rwanda in July, 2016 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO)