We are living at a time when preconceived notions are crashing down one on top of the other.
We thought that nothing would ever change in the Arab world. But the Arab world hasn’t merely changed, large portions of it have collapsed. And regimes that have so far survived are beating a path to Israel’s door.
We thought that American dominance in the Middle East would last forever. And today the US is withdrawing. Its withdrawal may be short-lived, or it may stay out for the foreseeable future. Whatever the case, Russia is already picking up the pieces.
That would be shocking enough. But even worse, as it has withdrawn, the US has turned a cold shoulder on Israel and its Sunni allies in a bid to build an alliance with Iran.
We thought that the European Union was the rising world power. We thought the euro was the currency of tomorrow.
Instead, Britain decided to bolt the EU and the Eurozone is a disaster zone. European economic growth is sclerotic. European societies are coming apart at the seams under the crushing weight of failed monetary policies, overregulation and mass immigration from the ruins of the Arab world.
Now we are witnessing the collapse of yet another preconceived notion.
For more than twenty years – indeed, since the initiation of the phony peace process with the PLO in 1993 – the who’s who of Israel’s chattering classes have told us that our growing diplomatic isolation is the result of our failure to make peace with the PLO. Everything will change for the better, immediately, they tell us, the minute we give up Jerusalem, expel hundreds of thousands of Israelis from their homes in Judea and Samaria, and hand security control of the Jordan Valley over to someone else.
But amazingly, despite the fact that there is no peace process, rather than suffering from diplomatic collapse, it is springtime for Israeli diplomacy as governments around the world seek out closer ties with Israel.
And they aren’t coming to us, despite our supposed moral failings. They are coming to us because they admire us.
Exhibit A: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last week Putin delivered an address before the All Russian Historical Assembly about the importance of teaching Russian history to Russia’s citizens. Putin used Israel as a model for how historical knowledge empowers a nation.
Putin said, “Israel…relies and develops its identity and brings up its citizens with reliance on historical examples.”
Putin’s use of Israel as a positive role model showed that Putin’s sudden courtship of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not solely the product of strategic and economic interests.
He happens to admire Israel.
Next week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will embark on a five day visit to Africa. During the trip he will visit Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. He may meet with additional heads of state during one of his stops. Netanyahu’s visit marks the first prime ministerial trip to Africa since the late Yitzhak Rabin visited in the early 1990s.
Africa isn’t Russia. But it is an important arena.
For nearly a century and a half, Africa has been the playing ground of world powers. In the 19th century, the European powers divided it up among themselves. In the Cold War, the newly independent states of Africa were sucked into the superpower competition as the US and the Soviet Union competed for turf through their African proxies.
Since the end of the Cold War, both world powers and regional ones have been drawn to Africa who view it as a convenient economic and strategic stomping ground.
Over the past decade and a half, China has emerged as the dominant economic player in Africa. The Chinese move from state to state building infrastructures in exchange for mining and petroleum contracts.
The US, for its part, has opted not to challenge China’s economic dominance in Africa. The US’s nonchalance is either a function of indifference or ignorance of the toll that China’s economic behavior will eventually take on US companies in Africa.
Case in point is Gabon. The West African nation is an oil power. According to business sources in Gabon, President Ali Bongo Ondimba is a pro-Western Muslim. He is interested in expanded trade ties to the US.
Ondimba’s electoral opponent, Jean Ping, a former senior UN official and former foreign minister, is oriented towards China. Yet, the US is allegedly supporting Ping over Ondimba due to dissatisfaction with the latter’s human rights record. If Ping is elected in August, US oil companies in Gabon are liable to see their contracts challenged.
Human rights and democracy promotion are major themes of US policy in Africa. Since the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, counterterrorism has also been a major concern. During his presidency, George W. Bush established the US military’s Africa Command to run US operations in Africa.
However, as part of Obama’s policy of winding down the US’s war against terrorism, and following the US’s contribution to the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the US has constrained its operations. Its minimalistic approach to fighting Boko Haram in West Africa and al Qaeda offshoots in East Africa makes clear that the US’s strategic disarray, after 7 and a half years of the Obama presidency, has not left Africa unaffected.
World powers are not the only players in Africa. Regional powers are also on the scene. Iran, for instance, views Africa as a theater for expanding its influence over the Middle East. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported on Iran’s growing missionary presence in in West Africa.
Iran and Hezbollah are running Islamic centers in Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and Cameroon, and they’re getting results. Whereas in 1980, a Pew Survey showed no adherents to Shiite Islam in Africa, today, 12 percent of Nigeria’s 90 million Muslims are Shiites. So are 21 percent of Muslims in Chad, 20 percent in Tanzania, and eight percent in Ghana.
Much of the missionary work is being handled by Lebanese expatriates in West Africa. Many of these former Lebanese are suspected of having close ties with Hezbollah. Indeed, earlier this year, the US Treasury Department named three Lebanese nationals living in Nigeria as Hezbollah operatives.
During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as Iranian president, Teheran expended enormous resources expanding and deepening its presence in Africa. Among the fruits of his efforts was the Eritrean regime’s agreement to allow Iran to operate a naval base in the Horn of Africa. Iran’s cooperation with Sudan, and its use of Sudanese territory to ship advanced weapons to Gaza reached new heights.
Iran’s Africa strategy took a major hit earlier this year, however. Owing to massive Saudi pressure, and, in all likelihood, massive payoffs, Sudan, Comoros, Somalia and Djibouti cut their diplomatic ties with Iran in January. Sudan even joined Saudi Arabia in its campaign against Iran in Yemen. Eritrea reportedly permitted the Saudis to launch operations in Yemen from its territory.
This then brings us back to Israel, and Netanyahu’s visit to Africa.
In recent years, Israel has also been expanding its relations with African nations. Even South Africa, Israel’s greatest antagonist in Africa indicated earlier this year that its hostility isn’t all-consuming. In March, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold had a prolonged visit to South Africa where he was the guest of his South African counterpart.
South Africa aside, African nations from all over the continent view Israel as a rich source of technology and security expertise they are keen to tap. They also view Israel as a rising economic power. With an average economic growth rate of 6 percent, Africa is also an attractive market for Israeli companies across a swathe of industries.
The most practical lesson from power politics in Africa is that for Africans, nothing is a done deal. African states can cooperate simultaneously with competing outside powers and everyone benefits. For instance, according to reports, Eritrea allows Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia to operate on its territory simultaneously. In other words, there is no reason to ever consider anyone in anyone’s pocket, and no reason not to ask for what we want. We may get it.
In recent years, Israel has done this to our advantage in the diplomatic realm, long thought to be a lost cause.
Last September, a draft resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency calling for Israel to open its nuclear sites to UN inspectors came up for a vote. It was defeated due to opposition from African states.
So too, in late 2000, a draft UN Security Council resolution recognizing “Palestine” was defeated because Nigeria and Rwanda chose to abstain from voting. The African representatives’ action caught supporters of the resolution by surprise.
The Israeli leader most responsible for those successes was then foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. During his tenure at the Foreign Ministry, Liberman conducted two prolonged visits to Africa during which he visited seven countries, including Nigeria and Rwanda.
There is every reason to expect that during Netanyahu’s visit to Africa, Israel will expand and deepen its ties with Africa still further. And at some point, those deepened ties will result in further African support for Israel at the UN.
This returns us to our shattered accepted wisdom about Israel’s diplomatic isolation.
The view that Israel’s diplomatic fate is directly tied to its willingness to give up Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem is based on the Eurocentric view that the EU is the most important player in the diplomatic arena and that Israel cannot be successful unless Brussels supports us. For Israel’s elites, the fact that the EU is hostile to Israel is taken as proof that we are morally compromised and don’t deserve their support.
But as Israel’s diplomatic rise in Africa, Asia, Russia and beyond makes clear, the Eurocentric view is wrong. Israel needn’t waste its time and energy trying to appease the Europeans. Not only is it an exercise in futility, given Europe’s boundless and unhinged hostility. It is also unnecessary, given Europe’s economic weakness and political decay.
Due to our elite’s continued allegiance to the Eurocentric view, scant media attention has been paid to Israel’s diplomatic blossoming. Much of the public is unaware that far from being isolated, Israel is enjoying a diplomatic rise unseen since the end of the Cold War.
The time however, has come for us to recognize the change. For the faster we come to terms with our new position, the faster we will maximize its potential.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.