Reenergizing the Israel-Africa strategic partnership

With Israel’s help, the Horn of Africa can become the Horn of Plenty.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and His Excellency, the honourable Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israeli Ambassador to South Africa. Credit: Presidency of South Africa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and His Excellency, the honourable Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israeli Ambassador to South Africa. Credit: Presidency of South Africa.
Yechiel M. Leiter
Yechiel M. Leiter
Dr. Yechiel M. Leiter is director-general of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has served in senior government positions in education, finance, and transportation. He received his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Haifa. His post-doctorate study of John Locke and the Hebrew Bible was published by Cambridge University Press.

On November 23, 2022, Dr. Yechiel M. Leiter, Director General of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, addressed a regional conference at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia on national security challenges in the Horn of Africa.

The conference was attended by diplomats and senior academics from Ethiopia, Egypt, Djibouti, Morocco, Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda.

In introducing me, the moderator mentioned that he hopes that additional countries from the Middle East will be represented at the conference next year. Let me begin by saying that, as an Israeli, I share his wish. I would like nothing more than to share this platform with Egyptian, Jordanian, UAE, Bahraini and, yes, Saudi representatives. Our incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has gone on record that the number one goal of his administration’s foreign policy will be to conclude a formal peace treaty with Saudi Arabia. Inshallah.

One might be wondering, though, what a Jerusalem-based think tank is doing at a regional conference on peace and security in the Horn of Africa. My remarks, which will focus on how to reenergize the Israel-Africa strategic partnership and why we should do so, will answer that question.

Since the advent of Zionism and the birth of modern Israel, there has been a strong ideological connection between Israel and the African continent. With regard to Ethiopia this fact has particular resonance, as both countries share long and rich histories rooted in Biblical narrative. The fruitful existence of a strategic partnership between our two countries goes back at least as far as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But our connection does not, must not, stop in history.

For decades, the notion that the absence of peace in the Middle East was due the absence of Palestinian statehood prevented a full and strategic partnership with African countries as well.

The Abraham Accords, which included two Arab countries, Bahrain and the UAE, and two African countries, Sudan and Morocco, didn’t change that, but reflected rather a change that had already materialized. All countries involved understood that their national interests no longer tolerated adherence to an antiquated and untenable doctrine.

The visits to Africa by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2016 to East Africa and in 2017 to West Africa, reenergized the natural partnership that was initiated by Israel’s Foreign Minister Golda Meir in the 1960s.

The Prime Minister was accompanied by his chief foreign policy advisor, Dr. Dore Gold, who also happens to be the former president of our think tank, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The timing of these visits could not have been more important and prescient, as a growing sense of international disorder requires greater regional cohesion and cooperation between responsible sovereign actors.

The second half of the 20th century was symbolized by world order. For most of that period, it was a bipolar order, a world clearly divided along ideological fault lines that translated into rigid geographical borders among superpower satellite states.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, we entered a unipolar period, a new world order, with U.S. predominance and leadership.

But clearly that did not last long. With the U.S. stepping back from that role (and then, at times, interfering with hubris and misdirection), along with Russian assertiveness abroad and the determined rise of China, American hegemony turned into a fleeting “unipolar moment.”

The result? In many parts of the world, it is looking more and more like chaos rather than order.

This is what makes regionalism so very important. And when I use the term “regionalism,” I use it in the broadest sense.

Israel is not only the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions, it also sits at the crossroads, literally, of three continents. That is why mapmakers of old put it, specifically Jerusalem, at the center of the world. It was a statement of geographic truth as much as a theological one.

Israel contributes to “world order” not as a policeman or a superpower keeping tabs on freedom of waterways. Rather, Israel mitigates chaos by a) opposing hostile states and their proxies with intelligence gathering and sharing, military knowhow and, when necessary, military action, and b) by contributing to economic growth and human development through advanced technologies in agriculture, medicine, R&D, and—very importantly, albeit most often overlooked—social and cultural cohesiveness.

Israel is a country of immigrants from over one hundred countries, with different languages and cultures. And yet, it has one of the fastest rates of economic development; the only country in the OECD with replacement fertility; the lowest rate of national debt per capita of OECD countries; and is a world leader in technological advancement. Israel has had more technology patents traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange than China, India and Russia combined.

So, we have successfully channeled potential social schisms, cultural tensions and even religious hatreds into productive social development and economic growth that has benefitted all citizens of the country, not just the elites.

I know that one often hears these days charges of “racism” and even the ugly term “apartheid” being lobbed at Israel in some of the media and in international forums. It is such a ridiculous and mendacious charge that it amounts to a new form of blood libel, one that doesn’t deserve attention.

But nevertheless, a word or two is in order. In “apartheid” Israel, an Arab justice on the Supreme Court sent the Jewish president of the country to jail for seven years for sexual indiscretions. When he appealed the verdict, before a second Arab judge, it was denied.

Forty percent of our pharmacists are from the Arab sector, Christian and Muslim, as are 25% of our medical doctors. All trained as equals in our government-funded universities.

Every year, the number of Arab enlistees in the Israel Defense Forces increases.

Israel is so “racist” that tens of thousands of families from several countries in the Horn literally walked across the Sinai desert, braving unimaginable hardship, to get into Israel in order to start a new life.

I could go on and on, but I’ll just mention the last clincher: Our last coalition government hinged on an Arab party whose allegiance belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.

So much for the ludicrous accusations that are meant only to delegitimize, discredit and demonize Israel. They intend to drive a wedge between you and us.

But that was meant as parentheses, I want to get back to you and us, to the larger questions of the region.

There is much we share, many places where our interests converge. And I don’t mean another military base in Djibouti. I don’t mean military real estate.

One such area involves the safety of waterways in and around the Red Sea. Curtailing contraband, drugs, arms smuggling and other forms of serious corruption are all vital for us.

A peaceful resolution to the crisis over the waters of the Nile is also of paramount importance. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with us, a treaty that has weathered the test of challenging times for over 40 years. Our national colors, by the way, are blue and white, like your Nile.

We can assist in these areas as well as many others. But the one critical area of cooperation I’d like to put the spotlight on is in the realm of food security, or rather food Insecurity.

It is a sad commentary on the human race, really hard to grasp, that nearly a billion people go to sleep hungry every night. Authorities estimate that just over the past year, over 150 million have entered the cycle of malnutrition, dubbing 2022 “the year of unprecedented hunger.” And I don’t have to tell you that so much of that unprecedented hunger takes place on the African continent.

The literature says that hunger is the result of conflict, but we also know that hunger, water scarcity and control of arable land are also the causes of conflict. They certainly prolong conflict.

The steps being taken to deal with climate change will not change the situation for the foreseeable future. The Russia-Ukraine war that has created a desperate shortage of wheat was not the result of car emissions or cow flatulence.

Man-made problems need man-made solutions; help from heaven comes only when we fulfill our responsibilities as human beings. The great psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankel wrote that next to every statue of liberty we must build a statue of responsibility.

Academia and think tanks can, indeed must, play a key role in fostering responsibility. We are unencumbered by politics and political interests like government, so we can think and plan with wholesomeness and integrity. Nor do we have private interests at our core like the private sector.

But both government and the private sector are imperative to bring about change; we exist to bridge the two. It’s in that sense that we view the agenda of our think tank, the Jerusalem Center, as one of “applied diplomacy.” Our good friend, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Israel, the honorable Reta Alemu Nega, calls it “do tank.”

I remember my time in government. I had two piles of papers on my desk: one, the important; the other, the immediate. I never had time to get to the first pile.

The very first thing we should do is conceptually move food security from the social and economic realm to the realm of national security. National security is not just a matter of tanks and planes and soldiers. It is bread. It is the ability to feed the people of one’s sovereign territory.

Imagine Ethiopia’s cows producing 30 or 40 liters of milk a day instead of the two or three that they produce today.

Imagine an exponential rise in meat exports (organic) to Middle Eastern and even European countries, the result of increased processing, storage and transportation possibilities. Cows today can have a microscopic chip behind their ears that sends messages to the farmer’s computer or mobile phone that tracks what the cow ate, what its temperature is and what care it might need.

Imagine a dramatic expansion of the wheat yield that can make Ethiopia a net exporter of wheat—to Egypt, perhaps in the context of negotiations over the waters of the Nile?

Imagine the establishment of an agriculture industry that grows alternatives to wheat, currently in very high and growing demand around the world.

Imagine a fish industry based on fish pond production, rather than reliance on the import of ocean fish.

Imagine a poultry industry that has the technology to determine the sex of the chicken before the egg is hatched, raising quality and cutting waste.

We need to produce more high protein foods to contend with hunger and malnutrition. And we can.

Israel has proven technology in all of these agro-areas and we’re here, we’re neighbors. We are linked to Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa, in so many ways.

Now imagine we bring together a think tank plan that’s a collaborative effort. We bring together the financial resources of the Gulf states, the technological resources of Israel and the human resources of Africa (with the youngest and fastest-growing population in the world). The future is here: Europe and the U.S. are not having children. Remember the Asian tigers? Well not any more. In Japan and South Korea, children are treated as an endangered species. China is now paying its population to have a second child.

The future is here, on this continent, but we must prepare for it.

Imagine the jobs we can create, imagine mouths we can feed (that can feed themselves!), imagine the economic growth and development, imagine the contribution to social cohesion, civil society and the rule of law. Imagine the contribution to regional and domestic peace and stability.

This vision is more than the Abraham Accords, it’s Abraham’s Covenant.

The Hebrew Bible tells us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all forced to leave the promised land and sojourn to Egypt because of famine, because of food insecurity. It was Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, who on the African continent ended hunger and brought food security not only to his family but to the entire region.

So, it’s been done before, right here in this region, and together, we can do it again.

The Horn of Africa can become the Horn of Plenty, a cornucopia of blessing that can feed itself, the region and beyond.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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