Tel Aviv-Arab ties change for the better

Monday July 4 2016

Deputy President William Ruto (left) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, Israel. Apart from Turkey, Israel is pursuing closer ties with Russia, China, and India whose PM Narendra Modi is expected to be the first holder of his office to visit Israel. PHOTO | DPPS

Deputy President William Ruto (left) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, Israel. Apart from Turkey, Israel is pursuing closer ties with Russia, China, and India whose PM Narendra Modi is expected to be the first holder of his office to visit Israel. PHOTO | DPPS 

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In a glass case in one corner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, below a large map of most of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, lie two artefacts.

One is a black, miniature steel arrow, a brown string coiled around its stem. Next to it is a white model of Arrow 3, also known as Hetz 3, the anti-ballistic missile developed by Israel and the United States and capable of shooting down satellites and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles more than 100 kilometres in space.

The symbolism is important. The Middle East has, for civilisations, been a theatre of war. For most of its existence, Israel has been at war, with neighbours, the world and sometimes with itself.

Mr Netanyahu is no stranger to war. He rose to the rank of captain in the Sarayet Matkal, the Israeli special forces, and was injured in battle twice.

He has written three books on combating terrorism. He rose to power by opposing PM Yitzhak Rabin’s peace deal with Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat and has kept it (he is serving his fourth term and will be Israel’s longest serving PM if he sees it out) by beating back the Palestinians, building walls, allowing Jewish settlers to expand territory and standing up to everyone — from Iran to Russia and even the US.

But Mr Netanyahu is also pragmatic: “I see the world the way it is, not the way I want it to be,” he said in a recent CNN interview.

And his visit to Africa is part of a charm offensive that seeks to take advantage of the spoils of war elsewhere to give Israel greater leverage in the Middle East and in the global system.

“The Arab world has changed,” Mr Netanyahu says, leaning forward, putting on his sales-pitch performance. “Many Arab countries realise that Israel is not their enemy.”

And he knows something about selling. In the early 2000s he worked in marketing for a private firm. He is wearing a blue suit with a blue tie — a sign of peace in the colour schematics of political power play — but he can be hawkish.

This time Mr Netanyahu is selling his trip to Africa and aides have offered the Nation a short interview.

For long, the Middle East conflict could be described as pitting Israel, backed by the US and a few other allies, against the Palestinians, backed by the Arab world, the Persian peninsular, Africa and most of the world.

The Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria, which temporarily put Egypt in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, and gave rise to the Islamic State as well as the Houthi uprising in Yemen, have changed the political dynamic.

“The Arab world has not merely changed,” Caroline Glick, the deputy editor of the Jerusalem Post newspaper and former foreign policy aide to Netanyahu wrote on June 30.

“Large portions of it have collapsed and regimes that have survived are beating a path to Israel’s door.”

The resultant Sunni–Shi’ite rivalry, which has intensified an internecine conflict in the region parallel to the Israel-Palestinian row, has presented Netanyahu with a chance to create new allies and forge alliances.

A few days before the interview, Mr Netanyahu convinced his Cabinet to approve a rapprochement deal with Turkey, a long-time rival.

“For a long time, we thought the key to peace in the Middle East was to resolve the Palestinian question,” he says. “It now looks like the key to the question is to resolve issues with the Arab world.”

Underlying this policy shift is the collapse in relations between Mr Netanyahu’s government and the Obama administration, driven in part by the White House’s decision to push for a nuclear deal with Iran, despite protests from Jerusalem and America’s intention to withdraw from the Middle East, at least militarily, which has created a power vacuum that major players now wish to occupy.

Apart from Turkey, Israel is pursuing closer ties with Russia, China, and India whose PM Narendra Modi is expected to be the first holder of his office to visit Israel.

“This has triggered a three-pronged response from the Israeli Government,” says a diplomat who asked not to be named.

“First, build an anti-Iran coalition. Two, demand for an increase in military aid from the US from $3 billion to $5 billion a year in response to the relaxing of sanctions against Iran; and three, wait out the Obama administration and build bridges with whoever takes over. The Africa initiative is part of the first response.”

Watching over the occupant of the PM’s office is a bust of Theodor Herzl, the Hungarian journalist, playwright and Zionist leader regarded as the father of modern Israel.

In 1903, Herzl and Joseph Chamberlain, the British liberal statesman, considered the “Uganda Programme”, to carve out 5,000 square miles in the Mau, in present-day Kenya, to create a Jewish state.

Herzl backed the plan despite resistance but visits to the area by a committee considered it not viable.

“I don’t think it was a practical proposal,” Netanyahu says. “My grandfather was opposed to the idea.”

Relations between country and continent have been mixed. In the early days of the state of Israel, many African countries, still under colonial rule, looked at it as a model of how to overcome oppression.

Herzl, who died in 1904, had vowed solidarity between Zionists and Africa in the fight against colonialism.


Then came the wars with Arabs, who were with the rest of Africa in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Pan African Movement; Entebbe; and the ties with apartheid South Africa.

The lines were drawn; Africa would back the Palestinian cause, whether it meant giving sanctuary to hostage takers, as Idi Amin did in June 1976, supporting groups opposed to Israel as Libya and Sudan did, or simply voting against Israel at the UN General Assembly.

So widely accepted was this understanding that soon after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela declared: “The freedom of Africans is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”

The close ties between the Organisation of African Unity (precursor to the AU and which has the largest voting bloc), the Arab League and PLO meant that anti-Israeli resolutions always passed.

“Can you imagine the UN Human Rights Council passes more resolutions against Israel every year, more than against North Korea, Iran, Syria?” he asks. “Why not correct this absurdity? We need to have fairness.”

Mr Netanyahu admits that his aim is to get more African countries to vote with Israel, or at least not against it, in the UN.

With 53 votes in the 193-member General Assembly, diplomatic gains on the continent can pay off.

The charm offensive and the air miles by Avigdor Lieberman, who made trips to the continent as foreign minister between 2009 and 2016, are beginning to bear fruits.

In 2014, Rwanda and Nigeria stopped a UN resolution that would have forced Israel out of the West Bank by 2017.

In another vote Rwanda, Kenya, Togo and Burundi stunned the assembly when they voted with Israel to defeat a resolution that would have allowed officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the country’s nuclear facilities.

In the absence of leading pan-African lights like Thabo Mbeki or Arab league heavyweights like Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, Israeli officials believe they can make more in-roads into the African voting bloc.

“The most practical lesson from power politics in Africa,” Ms Glick argued in her column, which is believed to reflect the thinking in the Netanyahu administration, “is that for Africans, nothing is a done deal”.

The PM is more nuanced. “Many African countries want Africa to come back to Israel,” he says, reeling off the areas of possible cooperation — agriculture, irrigation, energy and counter-terrorism.

Under Netanyahu, Israel’s GDP has almost doubled from $154 billion in 2006 to $299 billion but only two per cent of its trade is with Africa.

President Uhuru Kenyatta visited the country early in the year to lobby for support against Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorists.

An Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa was bombed several years ago while an Israeli aircraft was shot at as it took off from Mombasa.

Israeli owned Westgate Mall in Nairobi was attacked by terrorists in September 2013.

Israel, which provides training and weapons to security agencies in the region, is willing to expand ties and ship material from an industry which had sales of $5.7 billion in 2015, most of which went to Asia and the Pacific.

Israel, which Mr Netanyahu describes as a “world power” is a key player in the design and manufacture of drones, as well as cyber security — areas that catch the attention of counter-terrorism operatives.

Israeli diplomats and Africa watchers recently came across data that gave the project added impetus. In a 1980 survey, Pew Research Centre found hardly any Shi’ite Muslims in Africa.

However, a recent survey by the same think-tank found that 12 per cent of Nigeria’s 90 million Muslims identified themselves as Shi’ite – the sect aligned with Iran.

In Chad, the figure was 21 per cent, 20 per cent in Tanzania and eight per cent in Ghana, evidence of Iran making in-roads in Africa.

The ongoing realignments in the Middle East have seen some of Iran’s influence rolled back.

After the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was torched in January, Sudan, Comoros, Somalia and Djibouti cut or downgraded ties with Iran.

For Mr Netanyahu, the visit is poignant because of the death of his brother, Yonatan, in the 1976 raid at Entebbe. He visited in the early 1990s when out of office but did not bring his father.

“I thought he might not survive the emotions,” he says. Still, this visit is significant, he says. His brother was “cut down and died at only 30” fighting terrorists in Entebbe at night.

“Now I return, in broad daylight, as Prime Minister, to help fight terrorists.”