While South Africa is considering a downgrade of its relations with Israel, many other African countries are upgrading their relationships with it. On this, as on the Morocco-Western Sahara issue, the ANC is diverging from the continental trend. By PETER FABRICIUS.
At its ongoing elective and policy conference in Johannesburg, the ruling ANC is considering, among many other policy proposals, a recommendation from its national policy conference in July to downgrade relations with Israel, possibly by withdrawing South Africa’s ambassador from Tel Aviv.
If the delegates do decide to downgrade relations, it won’t happen immediately, as the decision would still be subject to an assessment of the impact of a downgrade, as Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba, a member of the ANC’s International Relations sub-committee (and, incidentally, Deputy Minister of Public Service and Administration) pointed out in a briefing at Luthuli House last week.
The ANC would no doubt have access to recent research commissioned by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies which shows that the economic and other impacts would be considerable.
But in any case the Department of International Relations would have the final say. On several issues in the past, it has diluted ANC decisions in what it regards as the greater national interest.
Still, the direction of South African-Israeli relations is clearly down while that between Israel and several other African states is just as clearly up – as Gideon Behar, African director in Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, pointed out on a recent visit to South Africa.
He noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had visited Africa three times in just the last one and a half years and had met many African leaders.
The most recent trip was to Nairobi for the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta late last month. Behar boasted that Netanhayu had been the only one to address a luncheon which Kenyatta had hosted on the day of his inauguration.
On that visit he had met, besides Kenyatta, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Botswana President Ian Khama, Zambian President Edgar Lungu, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, Namibian President Hage Geingob, Gabonese President Ali Bongo and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The purpose of his one-day trip to Nairobi, Netanyahu said before boarding the plane, “is to deepen (Israel’s) ties with Africa, including by establishing connections with nations with which we do not have diplomatic relations.”
Netanyahu recalled that Israel had opened four diplomatic offices in Africa over the past two years, and while in Nairobi he announced his country would open another embassy in Rwanda. That would bring the total number of embassies in Africa to ten, Behar said, adding that Israel would open a trade office in Ghana next year.
Before Nairobi, Netanyahu visited Liberia in June this year to attend the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) He was the first non-member leader to address the body, Behar said.
That gave him an opportunity to meet not only the host, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf but 14 other West African leaders including Gambia’s President Adama Barrow, Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kabore and Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
In July 2016, Netanyahu had become the first Israeli premier in decades to travel to the continent, when he visited four East African nations; Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia and met seven African leaders, Behar said, several of them at a summit in Kampala.
It was reported at the time that Kenyatta had told Netanyahu that several African leaders would work to restore Israel as an observer at the African Union. (AU)
Behar added that over the last 18 months several African leaders had also visited Israel while others had opened embassies in his country.
Behar remarks that “if you look at the map, Israel is the only country in the world to share a terrestrial border with Africa.”(that of course refers to its boundary with Egypt). “ That puts us in a very significant geo-political relationship. Africa is important to us and we’d like to develop our relationship as well as possible.”
And he said there was a very strong demand in African countries for development ties with Israel, mainly because of its technologies for squeezing the most out of scarce water resources, for its agricultural expertise and also for its advanced health care, innovation, cyber-security and counter-terrorism skills.
Israel is a dry country and the expertise it has thus developed over the decades in making a little water go a long way is its main selling point to Africa. Behar notes that much of the world is facing water shortages and this includes Africa. South Africa also faces a severe water deficit he notes, pointing to the water crisis in the Western Cape in particular. He hints that this would not be a good time for this country to diminish relations with Israel. “Israel has a lot to offer in desalination, in treatment of sewage and of mine acid drainage and industrial effluent,” he says. All of these technologies could be very useful to South Africa. Israel extracts every drop of water for use somewhere and somehow. The desalinated water is used in households and the sewage from homes is used for agriculture. Most of the water which irrigates crops is treated. Overall he says that 90% of the water used in Israel is treated. This is by far the highest percentage in the world; Spain comes a distant second, with 25%.
Africa as a whole has a huge need for such efficient use of water, says Behar, as 95% of agricultural crops on this continent are watered by rain. Meanwhile most African workers are in agriculture so that water has a major impact on economies.
“We are now looking at climate change and desertification so agriculture in Africa has to move urgently from rain feeding to irrigation, efficiently done, for example though drip irrigation.” Israel is ready to share its expertise. This includes the generation of renewable energy through wind and the sun which can be used to power drip irrigation systems.
Behar also says that while Africa’s population is growing at the fast rate of 2.5 to 3% a year, the productivity of its soil is decreasing even faster by about 4% a year, because of erosion and lack of fertilisation among other causes. Israeli agricultural technology can also help reverse that trend.
He also notes that with growing dependency on computers, in Africa as elsewhere, for instance in banking, comes greater vulnerability to cyber-attack. Israel is a leader in cyber-security which it is ready to share.
Some reports suggest that Israel has also signed several deals to sell arms to African countries.
For Israel another payback from closer ties with Africa is clearly greater support from the continent in international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Behar acknowledges. That would offset what Israel regards as an unjustified bias against it- judging by a disproportionate number of resolutions condemning Israel (usually for its occupation of Palestine’s territory on the West Bank)
“We have become a scapegoat,” said Behar.”We think that should be balanced. We ask our friends not to support those decisions.”
Netanyahu’s aggressive drive into Africa has produced mixed results and has been quite polarising. On the one hand, the enthusiasm for Israel was vividly demonstrated earlier this month when parliamentary Speakers from Tanzania and Ghana, visiting Israel, even endorsed US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Previous the US, like most if not all other countries had withheld such recognition, on the grounds that the Palestinian government claimed East Jerusalem as its capital.
Tanzania’s Speaker Job Ndugai went as far as telling Israeli media he believed his country would follow America’s example by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Rwanda appears to have a special relationship with Israel, in part because of the emotional bond they share as victims of immense genocides. Plus Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a ruthless pragmatist who puts his country’s development way ahead of any matters of principle in distant lands.
Israel also seems to have established a special relationship with Africa’s newest state South Sudan, possibly with the strategic objective of countering the influence of its historic enemy, the Islamic state of Sudan.
Israel and South Sudan signed agreements in 2012 on co-operation on oil- South Sudan’s predominant economic mainstay- and on the Nile waters. The latter evidently rattled Egypt which is very sensitive on any matters involving the Nile, on which it depends heavily for its water supply.
So by no means all African states are delighted at Israel’s growing presence on the continent.
Netanyahu’s attendance at the Ecowas summit this year certainly provoked Moroccan King Mohammad VI to boycott the event – somewhat ironically, since his own expected presence, to support his country’s bid to join Ecowas, had also been controversial.(since Morocco is not, geographically a West African country at all).
According to some reports Nigeria’s leadership also boycotted the summit because Netanyahu would be there. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari perhaps would have missed the summit anyway because of the illness which had dogged him for many months. But the absence also of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo signalled Nigeria’s displeasure with Netanyahu’s presence according to some Nigerian commentators.
And Israel’s Africa policy suffered a major setback in September this year when the planned first Israel-Africa summit due to be held in Togo the next month, was cancelled. Israel insisted that this was only because of political instability in Togo, with rising protests against the rule of President Faure Gnassingbe. But the Palestinian Authority claimed it was because of the threat to boycott the summit by many African countries.
The Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg had estimated that only 48% of African countries would attend. Zeenat Adam, an independent South African analyst on Middle East affairs told Al Jazeera that he believed the summit had been cancelled both because of the internal unrest in Togo and a boycott campaign lead by South Africa and Morocco.
Behar said he could not say for sure why the summit didn’t go ahead but insisted it would still happen some time “because of a mutual desire for it. Both sides see enormous advantage in it.” He added that 20 African heads of state would have attended. South Africa would be invited to the summit, he said.
Behar said he hoped the ANC would not resolve to downgrade relations and if it did, that Pretoria would not implement the decision. Despite the downgrade threats, there was “lots of love” between the two countries, he insisted,and this should be translated into greater, not less, political, diplomatic and economic ties.
“There is a huge potential,” he said, to increase the R11 billion a year two-way trade and the 50 000 to 60 000 total number of annual tourist visits, especially because Israel’s national carrier El Al was already flying three times a week between the two countries and was planning to increase this to daily flights.
Behar said that for South Africa to diminish its relations with Israel would contradict the ethos and even the constitution of South Africa which upheld the value of engagement with all states.
The Jewish community in South Africa believes that downgrading South Africa’s embassy in Israel would probably seriously undermine important trade, tourist and especially scientific-technological ties between the two countries, while doing little, if anything, to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood.
This view emerged from a recent seminar in Johannesburg organised by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. (SAJBD)
Peter Draper, MD of Tutwa Consulting, presented a report, commissioned by the SAJBD, which concluded that if diplomatic relations were downgraded, South Africa could lose “substantial” economic benefits, especially from valued-added trade and investment and tourism from Israel.
It could also miss out on the large future potential of acquiring more of Israel’s advanced commercial technologies. Marc Lubner, chairman of the SA – Israel Chamber of Commerce, said downgrading diplomatic relations would cut South Africa off from one of its “most important partners in the field of intellectual capital and technological capacity.”
He said Israel was a world leader especially in high-tech, water conservation and recycling, agriculture, renewable energy, telecommunications and medical technology.
Many parts of the South African economy were already dependent upon this technical expertise. They were already starting to lose it because of the souring of relations and losing it altogether because of an embassy downgrade would be “a bigger blow than the simple loss of current trade that might result…”
He noted that South Africa’s other BRICS partners were pragmatically deepening their bilateral relations with Israel, largely because of such technologies, even though they were also mostly critical of the policies of the Israeli government. Bilateral trade between Israel and Brazil, for instance, now amounted to R16-billion.
The Tutwa report said that overall trade, investment and tourism between South Africa and Israel were small, “relative to South Africa’s global footprint”.
Since 2000, South Africa’s exports to Israel had ranged between a high of 2,21% of its total exports, in 2002, to a low of only 0.44% in 2016.
And in 2015 Israeli investment stock in South Africa reached R2,93 billion, just 0,15% of the total foreign investment stock in South Africa of R1,9 trillion.
Nevertheless the absolute amounts of trade and investment were substantial, the report said, including R8.5-billion of total trade last year. The meeting also heard that South Africa enjoyed a trade surplus with Israel.
And Investec chairman Fani Titi said that given the space in which the country currently found itself, losing any amount of foreign trade would be “a disaster”.
A downgrade would also have serious implications for tourism. Israel, with an average of 2,500 visitors a month, accounted for the highest number of tourists and business travellers from the Middle East. Large numbers of South Africans, from both the Jewish and Christian communities, likewise visited Israel on a regular basis. A break-down in the existing diplomatic relationship might well jeopardise these visits, for example through South Africans wishing to travel to Israel having to travel to another country to make the necessary visa arrangements.
Draper also thought that a downgrade would be more likely if Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had been elected ANC leader rather than Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa’s election on Monday was therefore potentially good news for Israel and the Jewish community though the impact of new top six office bearers in the ANC, who are evenly balanced between Ramaphosa and Dlamini Zuma supporters, is uncertain. DM
Photo: A tourist poses as she views Jerusalem’s walled Old City and the Temple Mount area, known to Muslims as Haram el-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) with its distinctive golden Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites, as seen from the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, 18 December 2017. US Vice President Mike Pence on 20 December is due to arrive in Israel following US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition on 06 December of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. EPA-EFE/JIM HOLLANDER