Israel Returns to Africa

Published at The Arab Weekly

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 27 January 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chadian President Idriss Deby meeting in N’Djamena, 20 January 2019 [AFP]

Diplomatic relations between Israel and Chad have been restored after a half century of separation. This was a symbolic breakthrough with a Muslim-majority African country, albeit one in the works for some time. It is an illumination of Israel’s changed geopolitical circumstances, some aspects sustainable, some more wishful and illusory.

In the early days after the founding of Israel, Arab countries refused all recognition and contact, looking to suffocate the new state. To counter this, Israel pursued the “doctrine of the periphery,” aligning with countries on the edges of the region to counterbalance the Arab positions.

The most important of these was Iran under the Shah. Then there was Turkey, when it was controlled by its secular military caste. Ethiopia, under its monarchy, was another important pillar of this strategy, providing Israel with sea access to prevent being blockaded, as happened at Suez in 1956.

As part of this strategy, Africa became a competing ground for diplomatic influence. Israel tried to demonstrate its benevolence via aid efforts in hope it would increase its political favourability and not leave the votes so lopsided against it in forums such as the United Nations. Arab countries tried to prevent this by warning African nations against what they saw as Israel’s ulterior motives in reaching out to countries in the continent.

Israel’s strategy was severely shaken in the 1970s, ironically at the time there was the first defection from the united Arab front, with Egypt turning to Israel after it was being colonised by the Soviet Union and found the Americans unwilling to help. The shah fell to a radical Islamist revolution that had hostility to Israel as a central tenet of its ideology. Addis Ababa fell to the communists, though the Israelis retained some ties.

The discovery of the oil weapon in 1972 led to a campaign, spearheaded by Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and the Saudi monarchy, to have African states dissociate from Israel. It was working and, after the October 1973 war, virtually all sub-Saharan Africa severed relations with Israel.

Adapting to this environment, Israel made inroads with near Arab neighbours, notably Jordan. The Khomeini regime in Iran created dynamics that have become more pronounced recently, namely a common interest among the Gulf states in containing the revolutionary theocracy. Israel became closer to the National Party government in South Africa, which had previously been kept at arm’s length.

By the present, with the military domesticated in Turkey and a populist-Islamist government at the helm, Israel’s doctrine has virtually been reversed on its near-abroad, finding common cause with Arab states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Iran and Turkey.

In Africa, the situation is changing as the Arab pressure to stick to an anti-Israel position wanes and governments—35 of them—find mutual interests with Israel.

In the case of Chad, one Israeli interest is reducing the cost and length of air travel to Latin America by opening central Africa’s airspace. For Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in the midst of a tough election campaign facing multiple challengers and various legal investigations, a diplomatic victory does him no harm.

The outreach to Chad conforms with a politico-strategic notion, popular on the Israeli right, that Israel can invert the assumption that state-to-state normalisation follows a final accord with the Palestinians. In this scenario, Israel achieves normalisation first, which deprioritises the Palestinian matter in the short term and increases Israeli leverage if or when negotiations recommence. The premise is likely mistaken, especially in the Arab world, but it will not stop Israel trying.

Towards this end, it is hoped in Israel that progress with Chad will unlock relations with Mali, Niger and Sudan. Despite Sudan having undergone something of a favourable political reorientation and also being important to Israel’s air-travel plans, the political cost of association is high since its ruler, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted for genocide.

Chadian President Idriss Deby issued a “very extensive” list of demands to get to normalisation, among which two were key: arms sales and security cooperation. Israel met both.

Israel’s economic ties to Africa are growing with the provision of technologies to bring affordable electricity and clean water to rural areas. The defence component, everything from small arms to radar, cybersecurity, satellites and air defence, is expanding, increasing 40% overall since 2016 and 70% in Africa.

Again, Deby’s Chad is following a trend, not making one, in expanding economic ties with Israel. This is even more true on security.

Israel’s assistance to Egypt against the Islamic State insurgency in Sinai, providing intelligence and even air strikes, is the Jewish state’s most overt counterterrorism role in Africa. Israel is involved to varying degrees against Sunni jihadism and the support bases for Hezbollah’s Shia variant in West Africa and increasingly in East Africa. It seems Israel’s capacities will soon be brought to bear in Central Africa as well.

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