Who is Israel in Africa?

A new book explores the rationale of Israel’s efforts to expand its influence on the African continent.

Netanyahu on a call with President Trump. Public Domain photo by Ron Przysucha for the US State Department via Flickr CC.

Given the controversies surrounding Israel’s relationships and efforts in Africa, it is striking how little attention is paid to it in both academic and policy circles. There is a considerable body of literature that explores Israeli activities on the continent in the 1960s, and in recent years several Israeli scholars have revisited this period and produced new and innovative work on its dynamics and ethos. There is also a growing body of literature (partly developed through this website) that draws on the histories, experiences and theoretical frameworks of settler colonialism and apartheid to explain and analyze the conditions in Israel/Palestine. Nonetheless, discussions of what Israel does or hopes to achieve in Africa since the end of the Cold War have been largely limited to op-eds and often sharply biased journalistic accounts.

This is problematic for several reasons. One is that Israeli-African engagements—whether they relate to arms exports, political support, lobbying in the US, propaganda, migration management, mining or agricultural development—impact political dynamics and societies in both Israel/Palestine and Africa. Another is that controlling the narrative around Israel’s activities in Africa has always been important for Israeli hasbara. Throughout history, Israeli politicians and pro-Israel organizations and actors saw Israel’s involvement in Africa as a means for reshaping the international narrative around the situation in Israel/Palestine and countering criticism of Israel as a settler-colonial, discriminatory state.

Partly accounting for the lack of scholarly discussion on Israel’s activities in Africa is the artificial separation between the Area Studies of Africa and of the Middle East. My forthcoming book, Israel in Africa: Security, Migration, Interstate Politics (Zed Books), attempts to bring these fields into a meaningful conversation with each other. It explores Israel’s growing interest in Africa over the past decade, and the multiple actors and forces shaping its relationships on the continent. It attempts to explain how contemporary Israeli-African engagements work, and to place them within the broader contexts of both Israeli and African politics and history. As such, the book can be said to narrate three interlinked stories about the longstanding interdependency between political developments in Israel/Palestine, the wider Middle East and Africa.

The first is the story of Israel’s repeated efforts to forge political and military alliances in Africa in order to pressure, weaken and undermine its rivals in the Middle East. In the early post-independence period, this meant curbing Arab influence, primarily Egyptian. Since the 1980s, the Israeli—Arab rivalry in Africa has gradually been replaced with the much less militarized Israeli—Palestinian one. Today, the ultimate purpose of Israel’s efforts to expand its influence in Africa is sustaining and legitimizing the occupation—preventing Palestinian statehood and maintaining control over an undemocratic apartheid-like greater Israel. These efforts are increasingly embedded, however, within the wider competition taking place between Middle Eastern powers—Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—in Africa.

At the same time, Israel in Africa tells the story of the securitisation and privatization of Israel’s foreign strategy in Africa, and arguably of its political establishment and state institutions as a whole. Who is Israel in Africa? In the 1960s, Israel’s engagement with African countries was both state-led and underpinned by a distinctly “statist” vision of modernization and state-building. But since then, private actors—many of whom are former security personnel—became increasingly dominant players.

Rarely emphasized in discussions of Israel’s contemporary efforts in Africa is the extent to which politicians and leaders rely on private actors—security firms, individual businessmen and entrepreneurs, Zionist humanitarian NGOs and donors—to infuse with meaning their grand statements about Israel’s “return” to Africa. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is underfunded to an extent that diplomats hardly have money for activities, while the country’s investment in development aid is almost non-existent. Privately, some Israeli officials refer to it as a farce, and complain that they are expected to “beg” for donations from other countries and private individuals to fund programs and events.

Finally, although its prime focus is Israel, Israel in Africa also explores how and why African leaders sought Israel’s political assistance and material support. It emphasizes how the changing characteristics of African statehood, politics, and international relations influenced what Israel was able to offer and achieve on the continent. It is impossible to fully understand Israel’s position in Africa today, for instance, without taking into account processes such as the rise of illiberal developmentalism, the growing influence of born-again Christianity on public life and electoral politics in multiple African countries, or the securitization of governance under the influence of the global “war on terror.”

Such processes influence Israel’s image and status in Africa just as much as the situation in Israel/Palestine does. Taking them into account helps us think critically about Israel’s accomplishments and challenges in Africa, and to analyze African responses to Israel’s appeals beyond the narrower prism of solidarity with Zionism or the Palestinian cause, which often takes center stage in popular discussions of this topic.

Taken together, these interwoven stories help explain how Israel managed to extend its influence into the continent even though its leaders have been willing to invest very little money in foreign aid and diplomacy in Africa. They also illuminate, however, the limits of Israel’s reach and capacities, and the extent to which its leverage in Africa has been shaped by various factors that are outside its immediate control.

More broadly, Israel in Africa aims to contribute to the emerging body of literature that critically examines the growing interconnecting of Middle Eastern and African politics and will hopefully inspire further inquiries into underexplored layers of Middle Eastern—African engagements. There is much we can learn, I believe, not only about the relationship between the two regions, but also about the nature of contemporary politics in each of them.

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