High above the African continent, I asked to see Avigdor Liberman, then in his second term as Israel’s foreign minister. He waded through the business-class section of the unmarked chartered jet past several MKs and Foreign Ministry officials, through the three dozen Israeli business executives jamming the narrow coach section aisle buzzing with deals, and to the quiet back of the plane, where I was waiting with a message.
The five-nation African tour in 2015 – to Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia – preceded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four high-profile visits in the past several years, and set the stage for the forces, often contradictory, battling for the soul of Israel’s schizophrenic Africa strategy.
Israel’s Africa strategy has been so closely associated with Netanyahu that African heads of state, ambassadors and others are beginning to wonder what a post-Netanyahu Africa strategy looks like for the Jewish state. The same is true for Israeli and Jewish development nonprofits and businesses, as well as the financially emasculated Foreign Ministry.
With the eventual formation of a new government in Jerusalem, there is a historic window of opportunity to establish some strategic sanity in the Africa policy so that Israel – and the Jewish people – can become a superpower of goodness, largely through our industries of goodness – like water, green energy, agriculture and medicine. With the engines of the Israeli economy slowing down, largely because of the economic slowdown of our major trading partners, a new report suggests that the nearby growing African market is ripe for Israel-related products, services and investment.
Yet in the past five years, Israel’s policy toward Africa has been complicated by arms sales, attempted forced deportation of African asylum seekers, racism and deceit in the aliyah policy toward the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia, select Israeli tycoons being charged with bribing African officials, and the decimation of Foreign Ministry-related budgets to nearly zero-out Israeli technical support for developing countries.
I accompanied Netanyahu on half a dozen occasions – at the UN, on Africa trips, signing the US-Power Africa MOU – when he declared, “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel.”
It’s a good line; Golda Meir, the architect of Israel’s legendary technical assistance program in Africa, would approve. But, according to one former Israeli ambassador in Africa, “It’s 100% not true.”