Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments.
The first review in a four part debate series on Yotam Gidron’s book Israel in Africa is by Alex de Waal
Israel’s role in Africa is a blind spot within a blind spot. For an academic generation, Africa’s relationship to the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula has been neglected, during which time scholarship on Africa and on the Middle East has travelled on parallel tracks, too rarely bridging the Red Sea. Policymakers too are divided by their priorities and paradigms. The gap is now acknowledged, though the status hierarchy hasn’t changed: the geo-politics, energy and arms markets, and counter-terrorism of the Middle East all count for more than Africa’s agendas of peace-building and human security. Meanwhile, attention to the relationship between Israel and Africa—and Africa and Israel—has been even more notable by its absence.
Yotam Gidron has done us all a huge service by putting Israel and Africa back on the agenda. Israel in Africa is also an excellent book.
There are many threads to Israeli-African relations over the last seven decades. There is an ambiguous shared history: the third worldism of secular Zionism in earlier years stands uncomfortably alongside the much-remarked parallels between settler occupation of Palestine and South Africa. After warm relations between Israel and newly-independent African states, there was a near-total diplomatic estrangement after 1973 when Africans shut their embassies in Tel Aviv and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was given observer status at the Organisation of African Unity. There is the complex and troubling story of the migration of Africa’s Jews to Israel, especially Ethiopia’s Beta Israel, and their treatment after their arrival, too often marked by racism.
Over recent years, one thread has come to dominate: national security. Israel’s current leadership sees itself as in an existential struggle, the goals and methods of which are determined by its security agencies. The 208 kilometres of Israel’s Sinai border with Egypt, and the fortified border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, are among the most intensively militarized borders in the world. For a state whose foundational narrative is genocidal violence inflicted on a defenceless people—a message imprinted on every visitor to the Holocaust remembrance centre at Yad Vashem—the policy of admitting zero asylum seekers over its southern border is yet another ethical irony.
Israel sees its security frontier further extending to Libya and along the Red Sea as far as the Bab al Mandab. Israeli warplanes have struck Hamas convoys (assumed to be carrying arms) near Port Sudan; Israeli brokers have helped cut the deals whereby Sudanese paramilitaries are assigned to support Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar. Its allies are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, each of which is a fellow-traveller in attempting a strategic reversal of the Arab world’s political premise, making Iran into an enemy and Israel a friend.
Outside that extended perimeter, Israel’s engagements are more diverse. Sub-Saharan Africa allows Israel to triangulate its commercial, security and longer-term political interests; it can sell its specialized security technologies and consolidate links with evangelical churches that are linked to pro-Zionist churches in the United States. African governments, meanwhile, opportunistically make use of the multiplier effect of the Israeli lobby in Washington DC as a means of increasing their political standing in a world in which power and influence are traded quite cynically.
African leaders are always on the lookout for more efficient technologies of repression, and insofar as the “war on terror” gave them a political cover story, Israel stepped in as a supplier unhindered by human rights legislation. If the U.S. is reluctant to deliver, Israeli companies and consultants, with varying degrees of state backing, provide a full spectrum of technologies. They sell hi-tech weaponry and instruments developed for intense population surveillance and control especially in the West Bank and Gaza. They sell security and intelligence expertise honed by this experience. Israeli political consultants can also advise on political business management including agenda-setting in the public sphere, of the kind made infamous by Cambridge Analytica.
Israel’s security strategy for Africa isn’t an updated version of Cold War-style ideological alignment but rather a fusion of the principles of transactional politics—the transnational political marketplace—with specialist service provision drawn from its counter-terror assemblage.
We see these strands coming together earlier this year in Sudan. Following the democratic revolution in Khartoum, Israel and the U.S. saw the country’s economic desperation as an opportunity for achieving major political wins at minimal cost. Sudan needs money, and it cannot obtain it on the scale needed while it remains on Washington DC’s “state sponsors of terror” list. Khartoum expelled Usama bin Laden in 1996 and within a few years the CIA gave it good marks for counter-terror cooperation. President Omar al-Bashir had too toxic a reputation for the removal to be politically viable in Washington DC. With his removal it should have been an elementary step. But the Trump Administration insisted that Sudan first settle damages claims from victims of Al-Qaeda attacks in East Africa in 1998 and Yemen in 2000. This is transparently a pretext: it’s an arbitrary addition and Sudan cannot pay the billions asked by the U.S. courts. This is where Israel steps in: in Washington’s eyes, a country that recognizes Israel and cooperates with it cannot be a state sponsor of terror. Hence, in Kampala on 3 February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the chief of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with this as their agenda. It was, however, too blatant an attempt at arm twisting to work.
The Netanyahu-al-Burhan meeting occurred too recently for inclusion in Gidron’s book, but Israel in Africa provides us with the necessary analytical lenses to make sense of it. Stripping away the secrecy, the lack of a publicly articulated Africa policy in Tel Aviv, and the public relations smokescreens in Washington DC, we see a consistent policy pursued without scruple. Gidron provides distressing but revealing insight into a troubling relationship.
*This is the first review in a 4 part debate series of the book Israel in Africa, preceded by a webinar stream of the book launch