Will South Africa push back Israel’s charm offensive in Africa?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the ECOWAS summit in Liberia in June, part of a charm offensive in Africa. (via Facebook)

South Africa will boycott an Africa-Israel summit planned for the Togolese capital Lomé in October.

Pretoria’s ambassador in Beirut reportedly said that the summit was aimed at normalizing relations between African countries and what he termed an “occupation state.”

He also pledged support for efforts to urge other African states to do the same.

If South Africa follows through, it may indicate that it is ready to exert more diplomatic muscle to counter Israel’s influence.

Togo is inviting the governments of all 54 African states to the summit, but Palestinians, Morocco and South Africa are working to oppose it, Israeli sources told The Times of Israel.

In June, Morocco’s King Muhammad VI boycotted a summit in Liberia of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited.

Netanyahu has described Togo’s willingness to host the upcoming summit as “the best testimony to the success of our policy, of Israel’s presence in Africa.”

Supporting Africa’s “most brutal regimes”

Israel has a long and sordid history of involvement on the continent. Once maintaining ties with several dozen countries, its relations with African states cooled significantly after the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars.

But Israel maintained extremely close ties with apartheid South Africa. Tel Aviv was the white supremacist regime’s main weapons supplier when Pretoria was under a tightening international embargo.

Israel now markets itself to African countries as a purveyor of development technologies such as drip-irrigation – assistance it withdrew from Senegal in revenge for that country’s December vote for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

But Israel has continued to fuel violence and atrocities in Africa by supplying arms used in conflicts in South Sudan and Burundi and sending weapons to Rwanda before the 1994 genocide – a role Israel has sought to cover up.

According to the New African magazine, most trade between Israel and Africa has been “in the defense and military sector, exporting Israeli arms, experts and techniques to some of Africa’s most brutal regimes.”

Summit host Togo is reportedly one country where Israel provides military training.

But now in addition to military exports, the New African reports, many Israeli firms are “looking to Africa as a business playground.”

Israel also sees better relations with African states as a way of reducing the huge majorities that usually vote to condemn its violations of international law at the UN.

Secret deal

Netanyahu’s charm offensive in Africa has included some memorable moments. In a barely coherent speech during the Israeli leader’s visit to Uganda last year, President Yoweri Museveni repeatedly referred to Israel as “Palestine” and the Star of David as the “Star of Joseph.”

Museveni also referred to the fact that early Zionists had considered Uganda, instead of Palestine, as a target for their colonization. “Fortunately, the Jewish leaders rejected that nonsense,” the president said. “Those Jewish leaders were very, very clever, otherwise we would be fighting you now.”

But instead of fighting, Museveni and Netanyahu have reportedly made secret deals in which Uganda takes in African refugees and migrants expelled by Israel in exchange for favorable terms on arms deals.

The cynicism of Israel’s wooing of African states is highlighted by the unchecked racism, incitement and abuses against African migrants and refugees, led by Netanyahu and senior members of his government.

South Africa stepping up?

While there’s no doubt that there is strong and broad popular support for the Palestinian cause in South Africa, there are indications that the country’s ruling African National Congress is getting more determined about giving this solidarity real effect through the country’s policies.

Official South African policy still supports a two-state solution.

Last month, the ANC’s policy conference adopted a resolution urging the government to sharply downgrade Pretoria’s diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.

And this month, the South African parliament rejected an audience with counterparts from Israel’s Knesset that had been proposed by the Israeli ambassador. The move by South African lawmakers has drawn strong support from local grassroots groups and Palestinian parties.

Veteran South African freedom fighter and former government minister Ronnie Kasrils is also warning lawmakers that Israel lobby groups are trying to undermine their stance by inviting them to events with the Israeli officials under the umbrella of Jewish community organizations.

The ANC’s parliamentary caucus said the refusal to meet the Israeli delegation stems from “disquiet” about the Knesset’s recent law retrospectively “legalizing” settler grabs of Palestinian land.

It adds that: “The continuous killings of Palestinians by the Israeli security forces, administrative detentions, deportations and many other human rights violations also form part of the reasons why the ANC cannot allow itself to be co-opted into this charm offensive by Israel through this parliamentary visit.”

The question is how hard South Africa will push and how successful it will be in convincing other African states not to be co-opted either.

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Israel to attend an African summit in Togo? There's really nothing surprising or incongruous in this when you consider that as a country without defined borders and one which has permanently deferred the task of drafting a legal constitution, Israel is already treated as a de facto member of the European Union, with special trade privileges, participation in European cultural festivals, and numerous other signs of special status. Israel also takes pride of place in U.S. election campaigns, its surrogates funding candidacies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Israel's Prime Minister has been greeted with adulation before joint sessions of Congress when he spoke in opposition to administration initiatives. The old joke that Israel rejected incorporation into the U.S. as the 51st state because it would leave them with only two Senators is as true today as in the past.

Europe. America. Africa. There really isn't a region where Israel doesn't claim a stake in the outcome. There's a line in Robert Lowell's play "Benito Cereno", spoken by a complacent New England merchant sea captain- "America is wherever her flag flies." And for Israel, the land without borders or laws, this appears to be doubly the case. There's an Israel that is African- even as Israel persecutes African asylum seekers. And an Israel that's European- though Israeli politicians and media castigate Europeans as anti-Semites. There's certainly an Israel in America- where college campuses are policed by donors and politicians bought by the busload.

And so, ironically, we find that there's nothing exclusive about the Zionist project. You can find it all over the world.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.