PARIS — “Israel is back in Africa” was the unmistakable message of this week’s conference on the Jewish state’s ties with the continent in the years ahead.
Organized by Israel’s embassy in France (which paid for this reporter’s flight) and the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, the one-day event brought together French and African journalists, diplomats, entrepreneurs and artists to examine the future of Israeli cooperation with African countries and businesses.
“The main message is that Israel has many assets to share with Africa, and it can create a win-win partnership,” AJC Paris director Anne-Sophie Sebban-Bécache told The Times of Israel. “The idea is to focus on those new areas where the relationship can thrive and to get the different actors to invest more in these relations.”
Among those attending the conference at the 150-year-old town hall of Paris’s 16th arrondissement, this message seems to be gaining purchase, even in some places where Israel has no overt diplomatic presence. The former defense and foreign minister of Mali — a country that does not recognize Israel — addressed the conference and the autonomous Somaliland region of Somalia, which also has no formal relations with Jerusalem, was represented by its defense minister.
Several African countries that have ties with Israel were represented at the conference. Senegal’s envoy to France spoke at the event, while Ghana and Madagascar sent officials.
Arab countries also showed up. Morocco’s political attaché in Paris and the Egyptian diplomat in charge of African affairs at the embassy listened intently and networked cheerily, but opted not to speak to the press on record.
The event was the brainchild of Sebban-Bécache, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Africa-Israel relations, as well as Simon Seroussi, the embassy’s spokesman who previously served as Israel’s deputy ambassador in Cameroon. They chose Paris because the city serves as a hub for Africa experts, African-focused media outlets and mainstream French publications that cover the continent.
They succeeded in attracting significant coverage from those outlets. Paris-based Africa Intelligence wrote about the conference earlier in May and journalists from France24, RFI, TV5Monde, Journal De Dimanche and Jeune Afrique attended the event and interviewed Israeli officials.
Speaking by videolink, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid outlined Israel’s goals for the relationship in the future.
“We will cooperate to deliver food security for millions,” said Lapid. “We will coordinate in the fight against terrorism to ensure peace and stability. We will collaborate in high-tech to create opportunities for millions of Israelis and Africans alike. We will cultivate deeper diplomatic ties to cement our historic and deeply-rooted partnership.”
Despite the interest and the clear trend of expanding bilateral and multilateral ties between Israel and countries in Africa, there is still a long way to go before the Jewish state reaches its potential as a player there
“There is still no consistent, coherent strategy,” lamented Sebban-Bécache.
The long road back
The conference title, “Israel Back in Africa? Challenges and Opportunities,” alludes to the heyday of Israeli ties with sub-Saharan African countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Israeli agricultural expertise — and in many cases, defense know-how — was welcomed in newly independent African nations, which also saw some kinship with an Israel that was building itself up after throwing off colonial rule.
For Israel, an initial focus on West Africa slowly shifted east. Ties with states on the periphery of the hostile Arab world were central to its security doctrine in the 1960s, and Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda fit the bill.
Israel’s presence on the continent collapsed in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War and especially the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when almost all of its erstwhile allies severed ties. Arab countries and the Soviet Union moved in, with the continent becoming fertile ground for pro-Palestinian and anti-Western sympathies.
Israel was able to slowly rebuild its ties on the continent in the wake of the Oslo peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s.
“We finally started to take an interest in Africa,” recalled Yehuda Lancry, the Moroccan-born Israeli ambassador to France in the 1990s and to the UN from 1999 to 2002. “Knesset members, ministers, didn’t like to go to the continent much, with all the preconceptions that exist about Africa.”
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a revival during the latter half of his 12 years in office, including with several Muslim-majority countries on the continent.
In addition to seeking new markets for Israeli agriculture, technology and security know-how, Netanyahu was eager to improve African nations’ voting record on Israel-related matters in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council and UNESCO.
In July 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier in decades to travel to the continent when he visited four East African nations: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
In December of that year, Jerusalem hosted seven ministers and many other top officials from over a dozen Western African countries at an agricultural conference in Israel, which was co-sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States and Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation.
In June 2017, Netanyahu attended the annual conference by ECOWAS, an organization that includes 15 nations with a combined population of some 320 million. The prime minister was invited to the 51st Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Community in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.
“Israel is returning to Africa in a big way,” he said before the trip.
Lancry said that there were other reasons for the timing of Netanyahu’s trip. Israel was strongly considering pushing for a seat on the powerful UN Security Council and wanted to drum up support ahead of the 2018 election process, Lancry explained.
Israel’s added value
The momentum of recent years has continued to build steam. As part of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Morocco normalized relations with Israel and Sudan declared its intention to do so before crippling political unrest in the country.
Only two weeks before the Paris conference, Ben Bourgel, Israel’s ambassador in Senegal, became the first Israeli diplomat to present his credentials to Chad’s president in half a century.
“It was something very special,” recalled the Paris-born Bourgel, who also serves as Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau.
Israel and Chad announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in January 2019, after Chad severed ties with Israel in 1972 due to pressure from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Bourgel explained that many countries and organizations are now influential players in West Africa, including the EU, France, Turkey, the UAE and China. But Israel has to find its own niche instead of competing directly.
“The idea is to bring the special Israeli added value,” he said. “Our partners know exactly what we can deliver.”
“The first thing they would say really would be agriculture, drip irrigation, technological solutions,” he continued. “They know what cooperation can actually foster.”
They also see Israel as a conduit to the halls of power in Washington, according to Sharon Bar-li, head of the Africa Division at the Foreign Ministry.
“The fact of the matter is that most of the African Union countries are using Israel when they need to convey messages to the United States,” she told The Times of Israel. “They also use Israel when they need advice on the health of their leaders, when they need advice on security.”
Lancry said that the deeply held Christian beliefs among many Africans is also an important factor in their receptiveness to Israel. He said that an African leader told him during one of his trips to the continent in the 2000s, “Don’t return Jerusalem ever. It’s yours. God gave it to you, it is written.”
Disagreements over the Palestinian issue no longer get in the way of cooperation elsewhere, said Bourgel, including with Senegal. After Dakar cosponsored a Security Council Resolution blasting Israeli settlement activity in December 2016, Israel recalled its ambassador and canceled its foreign aid programs in Senegal as part of a rash of retaliatory steps against countries that backed the measure.
The two countries resolved the spat the next year and Senegal’s president helped protect Israel’s newly-won observer status at the African Union in February.
“I think that today what is perceived a bit as a renewal of the relations is in fact the continuity,” Senegal’s envoy to France, Magatte Seye, told The Times of Israel in French. “We need to keep pursuing the dialogue between Israel and Senegal in particular, and between Israel and Africa in general, so we can understand each other better and find together solutions to some issues which might sometimes create difficulties between our countries.”
“They consider the Palestinian issue a non-issue,” said Bourgel. “They say, okay, we have our opinion when it comes to the situation in the Middle East, but since the Palestinians are there, there is no reason the Israelis won’t be there, it will be a good venue for everyone.”
“There is a realization that countries do not need to agree on the full spectrum of political issues in order to cooperate and work together on issues of mutual interest, on issues that will benefit their populations,” explained Bar-li.
Israel has clear interests in the partnership, she said. “From Israel’s point of view, Africa’s stability, Africa’s security, Africa’s prosperity is essential to our stability and to our security.”
At the same time, Israel has expectations from its partners on the continent, especially in their voting patterns at UN institutions.
“Definitely there is such an expectation,” said Bar-li, who served as Israel’s envoy to Ghana and Liberia. “We already see the beginning of change.”
“More African countries are taking sovereign positions, not automatically voting as part of the Non-Aligned Movement bloc.”
“We ask for support in multilateral institutions from all our partners,” Bourgel emphasized.
Partnerships, not power
Not surprisingly, Israel’s reputation as a startup powerhouse featured prominently at the Paris conference.
Nigerian entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Eboyeji, who built the first two African unicorn startups, spoke at the conference, as did Steve Tchomba, CEO of ActiveSpace, Cameroon’s largest startup incubator.
At the close of the conference, Uzoma Ayogu, cofounder of Releaf, signed a Letter of Intent with Volcani International Partnerships, an NGO that works to share Israel’s agricultural expertise with the world.
Releaf is a five-year-old Nigerian company with 150 employees that brings state-of-the-art food processing technology to small palm oil farms in Africa. Volcani and Releaf will begin working together to extend the shelf life of cassava, an important root vegetable in Africa.
Israel is relatively unique for an advanced economy because agriculture has been a driver of its economic success, said Danielle Abraham, Volcani’s executive director.
”The question is how you take that experience, that innovation capacity, not just technologies, and share it In an effective manner,” said Abraham. “And I think the best way to do it is to find local partners like Releaf, and then work together.”
Two days after the conference, Ayogu took off for his first visit to Israel. He believes Nigeria has a lot to learn from Israel’s model.
“It’s been amazing to see how Israel has gone from a new nation to one that’s highly developed, and strong globally,” he said “So I think there’s a lot of lessons we can take in building Nigeria. All the building blocks are there, we have highly industrious people, have a great global reputation in terms of people, but we don’t collaborate well together.”
He argued that Israel’s approach to Africa is different than other countries.
“Some of the Western partners say, I’m coming in to save the day, but in this partnership, Israel is saying we’re complementary, we’ve been able to develop XYZ technology, and we don’t understand how to do the best implementation on the ground and how to refine it. They come to the table with that perspective.”
“Israel is not part of this great power competition,” said Bar-li. “Israel is not looking for power in Africa. Israel is looking for partnerships, to cooperate on issues of mutual interests.”