Israel seeks strategic change with East African partners

With 54 countries and thus a large representation at the United Nations (UN), Africa has real diplomatic relevance for a country like Israel whose Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that “the possibility of changing (its) direction and attitude toward Israel would be a strategic change” – possibly including Israel’s return as an observer to the African Union (AU). On July 4-7, 2016, Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and attended an East African Community (EAC) – a market size of 146 million people – and a Regional Counter-Terrorism summit in Kampala with 7 African leaders including South Sudan’s, Tanzania’s and Zambia’s.

The unprecedented trip took place, after then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited 5 African countries in 2014, within the framework of an effort aimed at convincing Africa that renewed cooperation with Israel – the “startup nation” – can bring profitable business opportunities too. While attending bilateral business forums in Kenya and Ethiopia with an Israeli delegation composed of around 80 entrepreneurs from over 50 companies mainly in the agriculture, water, communications and homeland security sectors, Netanyahu urged Israelis to invest in Africa, hoping a boost in Israeli exports as a result.

In Nairobi, around 100 Kenyan companies and officials held “fruitful meetings” with their Israeli counterparts and welcomed the opening soon of an Israeli commercial attaché’s office. Also, the Israeli government announced an initiative worth USD 13 million to promote Israel-Africa trade. Netanyahu’s diplomatic move came after a visit in March 2016 by Israeli MFA Director Dore Gold to South Africa, the country that with Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped deprive Israel of its AU observer status in 2002.

More globally, Netanyahu seeks to improve Israel’s international standing despite an ongoing stalemate with the Palestinian Authority and to shift some Israeli interests toward Africa considering that Europe’s becoming a more difficult and a less friendly environment. In February 2016, the Israeli parliament – Knesset – launched a caucus for Israel-Africa relations and Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) reaffirmed Africa as a priority continent with a special focus on the Horn of Africa. In absence of any official figure, Cyceon has valued Israel-Africa trade at a total between USD 855 million and USD 1.22 billion with South Africa as largest customer.