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Israel-Africa Relations: New Challenges and Opportunities 

​​​​​​​Three questions to Irit Back

Israel-Africa Relations: New Challenges and Opportunities 
 Irit Back
Head of the Inter-University program of African Studies at Tel Aviv University

​​Israel now maintains diplomatic relations with more than 40 sub-Saharan African states. These bilateral ties are extending to the Arab league, with the new administration of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett actively seeking to strengthen Israel’s foreign relations. What are the short and long-term drivers behind these diplomatic, economic, and political ties? Given the Jewish state’s questionable stance within the African Union, what does the future of Israel-Africa relations look like? Dr. Irit Back, Head of the Inter-University program of African Studies at Tel Aviv University, analyzes Israel’s Africa strategy.

How have Israel’s diplomatic, economic and security ties evolved with African states over time? What factors have motivated these changing relations? 

During the 1950s and the 1960s, Israel held strong agricultural, economic, and trade ties with sub-Saharan Africa, and bilateral relations with states were very warm. The newborn state of Israel and the newly independent states in Africa were looking to build on their shared experiences as developing nations, confronted with parallel economic and security challenges. However, between 1967 and 1970, these relations began to deteriorate. This culminated in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab States led by Egypt and Syria. In 1973, the majority of African states had severed their diplomatic ties with Israel. However, over time, formal and informal relations began to improve, primarily due to increased economic cooperation between Israel and Africa, resulting in the renewal of some diplomatic ties. During the term of former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, bilateral relations with countries such as Chad and Ghana were actively renewed. Yet, as the warming of Israel-Africa ties remained confidential, unknown to the general public, it was not always clear what the motive or agenda was behind restoring these relations. 

The normalization of Israel-Africa relations began with the expansion of the Abraham accords - a joint statement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - to Sudan and Morocco in October and December 2020, respectively.

While the Israel-Sudan agreement conferred that they would normalize relations, it remains unclear whether the deal established full diplomatic relations between the two nations. 

Following the fall of former president Omar al-Bashir’s regime in April 2019, Khartoum’s new rulers appeared eager to reinforce economic and security relations with both Tel Aviv and Washington. However, while the Israel-Sudan agreement conferred that they would normalize relations, it remains unclear whether the deal established full diplomatic relations between the two nations. For practical purposes, Israel prioritized normalizing relations with Sudan’s post-Bashir order as part of a quid pro quo deal. Within this context, Sudan’s military is expected to benefit from Israel’s defense network, with the latter spending an estimated USD 22 billion per year on its military. 

This agreement marked an important shift in Israel-Africa relations, particularly as Sudan used to lead a firm anti-Israeli stance (as one of the leading promoters of the Arab League resolution, known as the ‘Three Nos’: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations), and as Sudan plays an important regional role as a bridge between the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, it remains too early to tell what the long-term outcomes of the agreement will be for Sudan-Israeli relations, in particular due to Sudan’s political instability and the difficulties underlying the transition from military to civilian rule.

What does the Africa strategy of Israel’s new government consist of, particularly with regards to the Maghreb?

Israel’s new government was initiated last year, and it remains unclear what the Prime Minister’s Africa strategy will be. Naftali Bennett and Israel's latest coalition government have yet to state a firm position on Israel-Africa relations. However, evidence of renewed relations can be seen in diplomatic and trade relations more broadly. For example, there are now direct flights between Israel and Morocco, as well as African diplomatic delegations that come to visit Israel, and vice versa. Bennett’s 2021 visit to Cairo marked the first visit of an Israeli Prime Minister to Egypt in over a decade. These circumstances all suggest a warming of relations, and a desire to strengthen bilateral ties with Africa in the future. 

With regards to Israel’s relations with the Maghreb, one of the primary challenges involves Israel’s recognition of Moroccan rights in the Western Sahara, in opposition to Algeria. When Algeria cut ties with "hostile" Morocco, it partly blamed Israel rapprochement and Rabat’s alleged use of Israeli pegasus spyware against Algerians. This relates to the issue of Israel’s status as an "observer" in the African Union (AU), a decision which was postponed to next year, allegedly instigated by Algeria.  

It is important to note that the government’s foreign policy strategies are not transparent for external sources, making it difficult to determine how Israel-Africa relations are evolving. 

On a broader level, it is important to note that the government’s foreign policy strategies are not transparent for external sources, making it difficult to determine how Israel-Africa relations are evolving. Generally, Israel tends to avoid declaring a clear stance over intrastate and interstate conflict, and maintains a non-interference policy. Yet, there have recently been exceptions to the non-interference rule, with the war in Ethiopia, for example, since the new government is providing humanitarian assistance. Within the context of intrastate conflicts, Israel could use its supportive stance to develop its voice within the AU. However, it will likely avoid expressing a direct response to Africa’s domestic affairs, preferring to maintain a more neutral status. 

Israel’s observer status within the African Union was canceled following heavy disagreements between member states, which were manifested once again during the last summit of the pan-African organization. Could these disagreements get in the way of developing a solid political relationship between the Jewish state and the African continent? What is Israel doing to remedy this?

The issue of whether or not Israel should be granted observer status in the African Union has been subject to heated debate. These disagreements were fueled by approaches led by South Africa and Algeria in particular. The granting and subsequent removal of Israel’s observer status highlights the level of uncertainty underlying the state’s bilateral relations. Simultaneously, this status is important for Israel - not only due to its geographical proximity to Africa, but also because of Israel's extensive economic, trade, and even cultural relations with the continent: South Africa and Nigeria are two of Israel’s major trade partners, representing half of Israel’s total exports to the continent. Trade between Israel and these nations totalled $173 million for South Africa, and $21 million for Nigeria. It is important to note that in comparison to other Western countries or China, for example, Israel’s foreign policy initiatives remain marginal. For Israel, African states therefore represent a vital opportunity to establish diplomatic relations on an international stage. 

Africa is a rising continent and there are significant grounds for Israel to increase its trade relations with African states. Over the last decade, Israeli exports of goods to Sub Saharan Africa declined from USD 1.1 million to USD 0.6 million. While this has largely been due to the combination of a pandemic and global economic crises, there is undoubtedly potential for substantial trade growth between Israel and Africa. As many countries in the region are experiencing economic growth, Israel is being presented with trade opportunities, particularly in the areas of agriculture, security, and counter-terrorism. Indeed, Israel is one of the world leaders in agricultural technologies, largely due to domestic scarcity of water and arable land, which has led to the development of methods, technologies and products to address these challenges. A significant part of Israel’s scientific research is dedicated to agricultural technologies, providing the basis for the development of start-ups in this field, such as irrigation technologies in arid and semi-arid lands. Most of Israel’s exports are in the chemicals industry (23%), machinery equipment, rubber, and metal, all related to the Agritech industry (28%). This know-how attracts many African students and experts, who are invited to Israel both by the Foreign Ministry and academic institutes, in order to gain new skills and professional degrees. Regarding security and counter-terrorism issues, they offer significant grounds for technological and security cooperation with many African states.



Copyright: BRAHIM ADJI / AFP

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