Prime Minister Netanyahu stopped by Kenya on a tour of four African countries this week, which Bloomberg reports is the first visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to sub-Saharan Africa in 29 years:
Israel has a long history of ties with Africa built on exports of arms and agricultural products, and imports of oil, diamonds and other natural resources.
Alliances unraveled after many African states severed ties to avoid entanglement in the Arab oil embargo following the 1973 Middle East war. Ties have begun to deepen again over the threat of radical Islam and Israel’s outreach beyond its traditional Western allies.
As he builds diplomatic bonds, Netanyahu is more immediately trying to drum up business for Israeli companies during a visit that also takes him to Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. With a delegation of 70 business executives, the African excursion is part of Netanyahu’s effort to cultivate new growth markets while economies languish in the country’s biggest trade partners, the U.S. and European Union.
Netanyahu wasn’t coy about his lofty long-term ambitions for Israel-Africa relations: “It might take a decade, but we will change the automatic majority [in the UNGA] against Israel.”
Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta was pretty clear about his feeling on the matter too: Failing to engage with Israel “would be like an ostrich burying its head in the sand”, he said, “and we don’t want to be that way.”
Much has been made of Israel’s pivot to Asia, but Africa is an under-appreciated new frontier for Israeli diplomacy. This is so for several reasons:
- Many African countries want security cooperation given their problems with radical jihadis.
- Israeli technology in agriculture and water management have huge potential in arid sub-Saharan climates.
- Arab countries, worried about Iran and less willing to throw money around, are less powerful and less opposed to Israeli diplomacy than they used to be.
- The explosive growth of Christianity since the 1960s in sub-Saharan Africa has created a mass constituency for pro-Israel policy (and pro-U.S. as well).
- For Israel, there are good reasons to find new friends in international forums and to break its isolation.
With the Arab world in turmoil, the power of the EU declining, and American grand strategy in disarray, there are many opportunities for diplomatic realignments. Netanyahu is smart to take advantage of them.