By Shannon Ebrahim
When did East Africa lose its moral compass? We have just watched Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda court Israelâs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with almost as much fervor as that of the US Congress. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to âchampionâ Israelâs rehabilitation in Africa. There is even talk of Israel, which has built a gigantic wall along the West Bank, helping Kenya to build a wall along the Kenya-Somalia border.
The only African states who ever embraced Israel to this extent following its illegal occupation of Palestinian land were Vorster, Verwoerd, Botha, Ian Smith, and Haile Selassie. Not exactly the most progressive group of African leaders.
The last time an Israeli Prime Minister even visited Africa was in 1987 when Yitzhak Shamir went only to West Africa on a whistle stop tour to Togo, Cameroon, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
Africa has never been a strategic priority for Israel until now â and the reason is that Israel is increasingly isolated globally. This is due to its continued illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, continued settlement building in violation of international law, and well documented human rights abuses.
Israel has just approved the construction of another 800 housing units in illegal settlements in and around Occupied East Jerusalem, and according to the recent Quartet report, has expropriated 60% of West Bank land exclusively for Israeli use.
Israel is concerned about the expanding Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign globally, and the Israeli government has even set up a department dubbed the âdirty tricks unitâ to smear BDS activists and other critics of Israel, according to Israelâs Haaretz newspaper.
But what is of greatest concern to Israel is its isolation within the United Nations. On most UN resolutions to do with Israel in recent years, the only countries to vote with Israel were the US and Canada under former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The new liberal Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau has now said that Canada will be a frank voice in the Middle East, even if that means criticizing a friend and ally in Israel.
So reinvigorating ties with Africa seems to be part of a global Israeli survival strategy, as Israel seeks to court votes in its favour at the UN. On his recent African tour, Netanyahu said, âThey (African countries) vote at international forums, and I know people donât believe this, but I think we can change the automatic majorities in the U.N. and so on if you begin to shift this.
But even more important for Israel is to introduce new voices in the UN Security Council which will refrain from supporting calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, or condemn its human rights violations.
What stands as an important precedent for Israel is that in 2014, the UN Security Council rejected a Palestinian resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The countries which abstained were Rwanda and Nigeria, âthese abstentions helped tip the balance,â Netanyahu acknowledged. The lesson Israel has drawn from this is that the more African countries it can court as allies, the more it will be able to overturn criticism of its actions at the UN.
Israel has been attempting to get observer status at the African Union (AU), but its direct approach did not work, partly as a result of obstacles placed by South Africa and other states friendly to the Palestinians.
The strategy which Israel is now pursuing is to court individual states and create a dependency of those states on Israel through security, agriculture, and other such tools. Africa has become one of the biggest growth markets for Israelâs arms industry, and Netanyahu used his Africa tour to convince East African governments to spend their tax revenue on Israeli arms.
Israel plans to lobby these states to support its bid for AU observer status so that it can address the AU as a whole. This will also serve as a counter to the Palestinians which were given AU observer status in 2013.
Netanyahu exposed his agenda on his Africa visit when he said, âEthiopia and Kenya are particularly useful allies for Israel to have in the region. Ethiopia holds a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, while Kenya is the biggest East African economy.â Ethiopia begins its two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2017.
The implications of these pledges are extremely serious – for the AU and the African continent. It is unclear which other states have already quietly agreed to support Israelâs bid. If the AU ultimately does give in – as a result of Israel winning over other states through its bribery, and through American pressure, it will lose whatever moral standing it currently possesses.
Africa must never lose sight of the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle.
Shannon Ebrahim is Foreign Editor of The Global Eye Column in the Cape Times of South Africa. Reprinted with permission.