Israel’s ‘return to Africa’ policy faces setback

September 17, 2017
Process interrupted. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) looks on as Liberia’s President and Chairwoman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (R) speaks during the ECOWAS summit, last June. (AFP)

London - The cancellation of the first Africa-Israel sum­mit, scheduled to be held in Togo on October 23-27, sparked speculations as to why the event was put off and signalled a setback in Tel Aviv’s ef­forts to strengthen ties with the continent.
Israeli officials said the summit was postponed at the request of Togo, which needed more time to prepare for it, but Palestinian offi­cials said the move resulted from African unhappiness towards Is­rael’s policies.
“Following the request of the President of Togo and after mu­tual consultations with the (Is­raeli) Prime Minister, it has been decided to postpone the holding of the Africa-Israel summit… to a mutually agreed upon date,” read a statement by Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Israeli Foreign Ministry Direc­tor-General Yuval Rotem told the Jerusalem Post that the summit, which was supposed to host 14 African leaders, will still be held either in Africa or in Israel, with­out mentioning an approximate date. Rotem acknowledged that there was Arab pressure on Togo to scrap the summit but empha­sised that the main reason for it not being held was Togo’s internal problems.
Thousands of Togolese protest­ers turned to the streets in anti-government demonstrations de­manding a limit to presidential terms and a two-round voting sys­tem. They chanted “50 years is too long,” calling on Faure Gnassing­be, who had been in power since 2005 and whose father ruled the country for 38 years before him, to resign.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisa­tion (PLO), said the summit was cancelled due to pressure from a number of pro-Palestinian African states.
“We extend our deep gratitude to South Africa, the Arab-African nations, including Algeria, Mau­ritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and the international solidarity groups that courageously advocated for the cancellation of the Summit and refused to allow Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to gain a foothold in the African con­tinent, furthering impunity for the military occupation and Isra­el’s ongoing unlawful unilateral­ism and violations of international law,” she said in a statement.
Observers noted that the cancel­lation could be attributed to one or both factors. Nevertheless, it would still appear to be a setback for Netanyahu, who promised Is­rael’s “return to Africa” following his visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwan­da and Ethiopia last year. Netan­yahu was a guest of honour at the Economic Community of West Af­rican States (ECOWAS) Summit in Liberia in June.
“It (the summit’s cancellation) has dealt a major blow to Netan­yahu’s public position that Israel’s current foreign relations are being affected less by the Palestinian conflict than in the past,” wrote diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid in Haaretz.
In August, the Israeli prime minister boasted that pressures placed on the Togolese president to cancel the conference had failed. “These pressures are the best testimony to the success of our policy, of Israel’s presence in Africa,” said Netanyahu.
Israel has been lobbying to change the voting patterns of Af­rican countries in the United Na­tions, which tend to be in support of the Palestinians. As a gesture of public relations, some suggested that Netanyahu should appoint an African-Israeli as Israel’s foreign minister.
“Having an African-Israeli at the helm of the Foreign Ministry at a time when the prime minister is seeking enhanced relations with Africa and a seat at the table of the African Union will take back the narrative from BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] forces, who are celebrating the postpone­ment of the Africa-Israel Summit,” Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Energi­ya Global Capital, told the Jerusa­lem Post.
It remains unknown how likely or even effective such a gesture would be at a time where Israel’s image is more associated with negative treatment towards Af­rican refugees and the country’s black Jews.
The summit could have helped Israel export more of its products to Africa. “African states provide Israel with numerous critical and profitable opportunities for co­operation across a wide array of sectors including security, trade, diplomacy, development, indus­trialisation, counter-terrorism and technology,” read a statement on the summit’s website.
Israel, which is ranked among the world’s top 10 weapon export­ers, has done relatively little busi­ness in Africa. In 2015, only 3% of its arms deals were reportedly with African countries, but that could be on the way to increasing.
Such deals, however, have harmed Israel’s reputation, espe­cially with some of the weapons making their way to countries where they could be used to com­mit war crimes or other human rights abuses — specifically in Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi, Argentina, Bosnia and most re­cently Myanmar.