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How Israel Uses Africa to Try to Whitewash Apartheid

Yotam Girdon

In the years after its violent formation, Israel tried to position itself as a member of the rising anti-colonial world. And today, despite its obvious role as an occupier, Israel is trying the same thing: establishing ties to African countries to shield Israel from criticisms that it's an apartheid state.

Ethiopian immigrants wave Israeli flags as they step off a plane at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, east of Tel Aviv. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Sean Jacobs
William Shoki

In recent years, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aided by Donald Trump, has sought to garner legitimacy for Israel beyond Washington. In the second half of 2020, Israel partially or fully restored diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Middle East, as well as Sudan and Morocco in Africa.

Despite Trump’s exit, Israel’s campaign for normalization is not finished yet — and Africa is of particular interest. As Netanyahu told Israeli ambassadors to Africa in 2017:

The automatic majority against Israel at the UN is composed — first and foremost — of African countries. There are 54 countries. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them, you at once bring them from one side to the other. You have changed the balance of votes against us at the UN, and the day is not far off when we will have a majority there.

On a recent episode of AIAC Talk, Africa Is a Country’s weekly show, William Shoki and Sean Jacobs spoke with Yotam Gidron, author of Israel in Africa, about Israel’s scramble for Africa. As Gidron notes, Israel’s presence on the continent is not just a recent phenomenon. “Throughout history,” he writes, “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.”

In the years after the state’s creation in 1948, Israel sought to cast itself as part of the rising anti-colonial world and successfully forged ties with postcolonial leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. The realities of Israeli occupation destroyed these ties by the early 1970s, as countries across the continent — save for apartheid South Africa — cut off diplomatic relations. But today, as Gidron describes in the following interview (condensed and edited for clarity), Israel is again seeking to burnish its reputation by pivoting back to Africa.


SJ

How did you become interested in Israel’s dealings in Africa?

YG

My story is partly entangled in the broader politics that the book tells. I started working with refugees from the Horn of Africa around ten years ago. I was a law student at the time, and I worked with a few civil society organizations on refugee rights issues.

In 2012, Israel deported the South Sudanese community, right after the independence of South Sudan. Quite quickly, I abandoned my legal future and shifted to African history and African politics. I started with the migration part of the story, but then gradually began to look at the broader picture.

The reason I wanted to write the book is partly because there was no such book, and it felt like such a weird gap.

WS

People often view Africa as not central to the foreign policy maneuvers of outside countries. It’s often just a matter of concern for aid, humanitarian missions, and so on. Why is Israel interested in Africa? Why has it wanted to project its influence over the continent?

YG

There are several answers, and it depends if we look at the recent period or the longer history. But some of the overall themes are very similar. Israel, from the moment it began as a state in 1948, has had a problematic position: Is it a legitimate entity, a postcolonial state of liberated people, or a settler colonial state, an imperial outpost?

For Israel, Africa was always a mirror that allowed it to try to reshape the narrative around what was going on in Israel/Palestine. In the late fifties and early sixties, when many African countries were gaining independence, there was a very concentrated effort by Israel to mobilize as many countries as possible in the continent to fit Israel within the Afro-Asian world. Israel needed not only legitimacy, but also votes in the UN to counter pressure from our countries around issues like Palestinian refugees.

We see some of these issues coming back throughout history. One of the things that pushed Israel back to Africa around a decade ago was Palestinian attempts to mobilize the international community to recognize Palestinian statehood, which I think reminded the Israelis that they need diplomatic support from Africa.

On a more strategic level, Israel borders Africa. Israel is no longer in conflict with Egypt, but for many years Egypt was the main military power in the region threatening it. So it was always important for Israel to forge military alliances within its immediate neighborhood, including the Horn of Africa.

SJ

In the beginning of the book, you tell the story of how Israel starts to take Africa seriously. Could you say a little bit about that relationship? I think there are surprises in that story: some African leaders commonly seen as anti-imperialists, anti-Zionists, turn out to have their own peculiar history with Israel. I’m thinking about people like Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.

YG

Part of the tension between Israel and Egypt at the time was: Who is going to shape African Pan-Africanism? Were we going to mobilize African countries to support Israel in this struggle, or are they going to sign up to the Arab side? There’s this race between Israel and Egypt to mobilize whichever countries they could.

Nkrumah was one of the main figures to support Israel at the time and to support Israel’s efforts in Africa. Ghana was Israel’s main gateway to Africa. What Israel mainly did in the late fifties and early sixties is invest quite a lot in state-led initiatives and development: technical support, some arm sales (though not as significant as they became later), and cooperation between Israeli government companies and African governments in all sorts of development projects. It was a concentrated effort that Israel didn’t have the resources to maintain for a long time, but it was very important to work through figures like Nkrumah and Nyerere to mobilize support for Israel.

Israel had this double position where it wanted to maintain good ties with Western countries and [apartheid] South Africa, but at the same time, it wanted to show African countries that it had a place in this Afro-Asian solidarity movement. And that meant Israel even tried to support different liberation movements (ZANU, FRELIMO) through their offices in what was then Tanganyika (later Tanzania).

So it was really important for Israel to try to dance in these two weddings at the same time.

SJ

Can you say more about the relationship between Israel and apartheid South Africa?

YG

There was the period where Israel tried to position itself as one of these Afro-Asian countries and tried to express, even in the UN, with rhetorical statements, opposition to apartheid. But already in the mid-sixties, the money for this enterprise ran out, and it was clear that Israel was losing this game in the Arab world, with the influence of Egypt and [its president, Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser].

Then came the ’67 war, and the whole thing fell apart because Israel could no longer claim that it wasn’t an occupying force. The war of propaganda was clearly lost. Israel maintained its ties with most African countries until the ’73 war, but relations were already falling apart.

And this is when the alliance with South Africa emerged. After the ’73 war, most countries cut their ties with Israel, and Israel became an open ally of apartheid South Africa, and secretly quite a significant military ally. It just became clear, I think, that this alliance was worth much more to Israel strategically and militarily than all the African countries that may or may not support Israel in the UN.

WS

Jumping forward, you talk in the book about how previously, Israel’s activities were largely conducted at the level of the state and then from the 1990s into the 2000s, we see more private actors, like security agencies and companies playing a dominant role in Israel’s diplomacy. You describe it as a clandestine diplomacy. Could you unpack that for us?

YG

There’s a dynamic here between securitization and privatization, and, historically, they bleed into each other. Already in the sixties, you see that, increasingly, security actors have more and more power in determining Israel’s relationship with countries in Africa. You see the Mossad doing things behind the backs of other actors, the defense ministry doing things, selling arms, initiating cooperation between the back of other actors.

The clear example is Israel’s support to South Sudanese rebels in the sixties. In the early sixties, the rebels came and said they wanted support, and Israel said, “No, that’s not something we are interested in.” But by the late sixties the Mossad took over and just provided the support.

After most countries cut ties with Israel, diplomatic relations either disappeared or operated in a very quiet manner. But many of the private actors that were already operating in Africa, including security corporations, stayed and continued to do business in the continent. In places like Kenya and Ethiopia, security actors could have quite close relationships with governments that openly resisted or said they had no relationship with Israel. So there’s this intelligence security relationship that exists beneath the surface.

What you also had were actors that were part of Israel’s formal presence in Africa, either diplomatic or security, that once they finished their job, stayed around to be private contractors, advisors of all sorts, intermediaries. And you see that in many countries, increasingly throughout the eighties and nineties.

Whenever Israel tried to rebuild this relationship with African countries, these were the networks that were already there for it to do that. Rather than build again — institutionalized state-to-state relationship — you build on these privatized networks: security industries, mining, things like that. And that is something we see shaping Israel’s presence in Africa until today.

SJ

Finally, can you talk about the influence of Pentecostalism and migration issues in shaping the Israel-Africa relationship?

YG

There are different kinds of vectors that shape why African countries look at Israel as a potentially useful ally. You mentioned Pentecostalism, which is extremely influential at this phase of Israel-Africa relations because of the increasing influence of Pentecostal movements on politics in so many countries.

The important thing here is that Pentecostal movements are usually very open to endorsing Zionist theology, not necessarily because of end-time scenarios and dispensationalist world views, but because of the emphasis on divine blessing and the idea that whoever blesses Israel and does things for Israel will be blessed.

Migration also was one of the things that pushed Israel back to Africa over the last decade — the arrival of African refugees to Israel in the late 2000s. Increasingly, Israel looked for partners in Africa that would be willing to take these people back.