Israel’s recent expulsion from the African Union Summit could potentially harm its efforts to improve relations with Africa. But is this dilemma a blessing in disguise? The African Union summit was held in Ethiopia and Israel had hoped to use the summit as an opportunity to improve its relations with Africa. However, the expulsion from the summit could harm these efforts.
This expulsion could be a blessing in disguise, however. It could force Israel to re-evaluate its approach to Africa and find a better way to improve relations. The African Union Summit was a missed opportunity, but it does not have to be the end of Israel’s efforts to improve relations with Africa.
Eli Cohen, Israeli Foreign Minister, announced on Feb. 2 that they had agreed on aspects of the peace agreement to be signed between Sudan and Israel. The agreement will be signed in Washington after the interim government in Sudan hands over its powers to a civilian government. Thus, Sudan will become the fourth country, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, to sign a normalisation agreement with Tel Aviv.
On Oct. 23, 2020, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced the normalisation between Sudan and Israel. This decision came shortly after Sudan was removed from the list of “countries that support terrorism” by the United States. As Cohen stated, the implementation of this agreement with Sudan is of critical importance for Israel. Melting ice with Khartoum will also break the historical decision of the Arab League known as the “Three Nos” (no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel), and will contribute to the normalisation of Israel with more Arab and African countries.
Since the African continent is of great importance in terms of Israeli foreign policy, the issue of developing relations with the continental countries has been one of the priority agendas of the Tel Aviv Administration for a long time. In recent years, Israel has been working to normalise its relations with many countries, with the great support of the United States in the international arena.
The Abraham Accords, in effect since Sept. 15, 2020, include normalisation declarations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. They also gave a great impetus to Tel Aviv’s normalisation efforts with African countries. Israel has already signed similar deals with Sudan and Morocco, and is in talks with several other nations.
Although Israel’s effort to normalise its relations with Africa is not recent, it is a topic of increasing importance. David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of the State of Israel, which was established in 1948, paid attention to developing relations with African countries to get rid of diplomatic isolation at that time. Therefore, the 1950s and 1960s were a period in which Israeli-African relations developed rapidly. In this period, Israel’s cooperation demands were also welcomed by the newly independent African states. However, after the war with Palestine – notably the 1973 Yom Kippur War – and the oil embargo declared by the Gulf Arab states, most African states broke off diplomatic relations with Israel.
After the Oslo Accords were signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in 1990, the Tel Aviv administration turned its attention to establishing relations with Africa again. However, initiatives for the African continent gained momentum mainly during the Benjamin Netanyahu era. At that time, many high-level official visits were made to continental countries.
As a result of these Netanyahu’s efforts, relations with Chad, with which diplomatic relations were cut in 1972, were reestablished. Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was influenced by Netanyahu’s active African policy, also made efforts to increase his influence in the region. However, Hassan Rouhani, who was Ahmadinejad’s successor, kept the African agenda in second place in foreign policy.
Why Israel should improve its relations with African nations
It is no secret that Israel has had strained relations with many of its African neighbours in the past.However, in recent years, Israel has been working to improve its relationship with countries on the African continent. There are a number of reasons why Israel is seeking to improve its relations with Africa.
First of all, Israel is a country that stands out in the global agricultural market by adopting advanced technologies and efficient agricultural practices. The Israeli agricultural sector is known for innovations in areas such as agricultural technologies, irrigation systems and agricultural tools suitable for hot and dry climates. Therefore, the African continent has huge market potential for both the agricultural products and agricultural technologies produced by Israel.
Issue of security tech exports
Israeli security technologies are some of the most advanced in the world, and the country exports a wide variety of security-related products to countries all over Africa. These products include surveillance systems, perimeter protection systems, cyber security solutions, and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). African countries that are struggling with internal and external security issues are seen as an important market for Israel’s defence and security sector. Exports of security-related products and technologies from Israel to Africa totaled approximately $11.3 billion in 2021.
African countries are important to Israel not only because they make up a significant portion of the UN, but also because they have the potential to be powerful allies in the unresolved Palestinian question. By building stronger relationships with African countries, Israel hopes to gain support for its own position in future UN votes on the matter. This strategy has already begun to pay off, as Israel has recently secured the support of several key African countries on this issue.
Israel aims to have strong relations with the African Union (AU) as well as solid bilateral ties with African nations. Historically, Israel was part of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union. However, when the African Union was established in 2002, Israel lost its observer status in the organisation due to the pressures of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In 2003 and 2016, the Tel Aviv administration made an official application to the African Union for observer status. However, these applications were rejected due to the Palestine question. Aiming to benefit from the mild atmosphere after the Abraham Accords in 2020, the Tel Aviv administration has applied to the African Union for observer status for the third time. On July 22, 2021, African Union Commission President Chadli Moussa Faki Mahamat announced the decision on granting observer status to Israel. However, 13 African states led by South Africa and Algeria, opposed this decision. Because of the reactions, the African Union suspended the decision.
While Israel was waiting for “the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union” held on Feb. 18-19, when the final decision would be made, an unexpected development occurred. This summit was marked by the expulsion of Sharon Bar-Li, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, by security personnel at the opening ceremony, on the grounds that she did not fulfil the accreditation requirements.
“Israel has been vigorously monitoring the removal of Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li from the African Union hall despite having an accredited observer status with entry badges,” the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement after the incident.
Subsequently, Israel claimed that this incident was carried out by South Africa and Algeria, which did not want Israel to have observer status in the African Union, and announced that the South African ambassador could be summoned to the ministry. South Africa and Algeria, on the other hand, denied Israel’s claims and stated that the union had not yet reached a decision on Israel’s observer status, so their participation in the meeting was not on their own initiative, but within the scope of community rules.
Israel’s African policy is influenced by interaction with some global and regional actors. For example, the U.S. support for normalisation with Israel has had an impact on African countries such as Morocco and Sudan. On the other hand, the reduction of tension between the Gulf Arab States and Tel Aviv through the Abraham Accords also allows the African member states, freed from the pressure of the Arab League, to normalise with Israel. On the other hand, the Palestine question prevents Israel from developing relations with many African countries with a Muslim majority. Finally, Iran, which has very tense relations with Israel, is able to affect relations with Africa. So much so that although there was a decline in policies toward the continent during the Rouhani period, Tehran is still an actor trying to improve its relations with Africa. It is possible to interpret the call for support to Palestine by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who visited Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, at the beginning of February, as a move against Israel’s policy toward the region.
As a result, Israel, encouraged by the 2020 Abraham Accords, will follow a more active policy to improve its relations with African states in the coming period. On the other hand, intensive efforts are being made to gain the observer status of the African Union to improve its multilateral relations with the continent. It is possible to say that the crisis experienced at the African Union summit has the potential to negatively affect Israel’s efforts to improve its relations with African states and the African Union in the short and medium term. Besides, upon the trigger of the Russia-Ukraine war, the competition of many global and regional powers has increased in Africa. In particular, there is intense competition between Russia, France, the U.S. and China.
On the other hand, actors such as Türkiye, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, India and Brazil are making important moves to increase their presence in the continent. In this environment, Israel should try to create its own space on the continent without directly competing with other actors, as the ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Senegal, Ben Bourgel, said.
Israel has been trying to increase its engagement with the African continent in recent years, and these plans seem to be bearing fruit. In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Africa, during which he met with a number of leaders and signed a number of agreements.