Israel’s ‘return to Africa’ policy faces setback
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.