Evelyn Gordon

Analysis from Israel

Wednesday’s announcement that Guinea is resuming ties with Israel almost half a century after severing them is a nontrivial piece of good news. Granted, Guinea is a poor and relatively unimportant African country. But it’s 85 percent Muslim, and few Muslim-majority countries have yet been willing to forge open relations with Israel; consequently, its decision could encourage others to follow suit. Guinea was also the first country in Africa to sever relations with Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War. For both those reasons, its renewal of ties underscores the degree to which a new Israeli strategy aimed at improving relations with the non-Western world has begun bearing fruit.

The Guinea announcement comes on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful trip to Africa earlier this month. Highlights of that trip included announcements by both Kenya and Ethiopia–two of Israel’s closest African allies–that they would push for Israel to receive observer status at the African Union, as well as Tanzania’s announcement that it planned to open an embassy in Israel, 21 years after renewing relations.

Israeli media outlets have also reported that officials from three other Muslim-majority African countries that don’t have relations with Israel–Mali, Chad, and Somalia–recently paid secret visits, indicating that the prospect of other Muslim countries following Guinea’s lead is far from inconceivable. Indeed, just last week, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold visited Chad for a meeting with its president. This prospect is made more plausible by the warming of Israel’s relations with key Arab states. As several African leaders noted during Netanyahu’s trip, there’s little point in African countries continuing to give Israel the cold shoulder when some of the very Arab countries that originally pushed them to do so now have either overt or covert relations with it.

There are two reasons why Israel ascribes such importance to its warming ties with Africa, and both have more to do with the long term than the short term. The first is the need to diversify its trading partners. Currently, about a third of Israel’s exports go to Europe. But the combination of Europe’s slowing economy and its growing hostility to Israel make this heavy reliance on Europe a potential threat to Israel’s economic future. Africa is the world’s poorest continent, but it’s experiencing rapid economic growth, and many of Israel’s fields of expertise fit well with Africa’s needs, including agricultural technology, water conservation, and counterterrorism. Thus by expanding and improving its diplomatic relations with African countries, Israel hopes to eventually expand its trade relations as well.

The second, as Netanyahu said during his Africa trip, is the hope of ending the automatic majority against Israel in international forums. As he readily acknowledged, this could well take decades; long-entrenched voting patterns don’t change overnight. Nevertheless, change is far from impossible: See, for instance, the 2014 Security Council vote on setting a deadline for Palestinian statehood, which was defeated because the Palestinians failed to muster the requisite nine votes. Two of the five crucial abstentions came from Africa (Rwanda and Nigeria).

Even if African countries can’t yet be flipped into the minuscule camp of pro-Israel voters, just moving them from the anti-Israel bloc to the abstention column could ease Israel’s dependence on America’s Security Council veto. Since Security Council resolutions need a minimum of nine “yes” votes to pass, an abstention has the same effect as a “no” for countries without veto power. It should also be noted that reliably abstaining would suffice to make African countries better voting allies than about half the European Union and of equal value to most of the rest: EU countries almost never vote with Israel, and some regularly vote against it.

Israel’s burgeoning relations with Africa obviously stem partly from something beyond its control: the rise of Islamist terror. As several African leaders openly acknowledged during Netanyahu’s trip, counterterrorism assistance is currently the thing they most want from Israel. And if reports of the visits by officials from Mali, Chad, and Somalia are true, it’s a safe bet they were also seeking counterterrorism help; all three have serious problems with Islamist terror.

The improvement also stems partly from Israel’s longstanding policy of proffering aid even to countries it has no relations with, which sometimes bears belated fruit. For instance, Israeli officials said one factor in Guinea’s decision to renew relations was the medical aid Israel gave it during the Ebola crisis two years ago. A salient example from Asia, another continent with which Israel’s ties have recently blossomed, is Singapore. Singapore asked Israel to train its army in the mid-1960s, before the two countries even established relations, and then concealed that fact for decades. But last month, as Elliott Abrams noted, Singapore joined forces with India and Rwanda–the third country in the club of Israel’s closest African allies–to help Israel gain the Non-Aligned votes it needed to win the chairmanship of a key UN committee.

The third reason for Israel’s declining isolation, however, is a deliberate decision by successive Netanyahu governments that the country could not afford, either economically or diplomatically, to keep focusing almost exclusively on the West while largely ignoring the rest of the world. Avigdor Lieberman, now the defense minister, made a major push to improve Israel’s ties with Africa and Asia during his term as foreign minister, and since his departure, the ministry has continued this drive under the de facto leadership of Gold (Netanyahu is the nominal foreign minister).

This constituted a major shift in Israel’s strategy, and it stemmed from a simple realization: Relations with Europe are inevitably being frayed by the fact that what the EU seems to want most from Israel is something beyond Israel’s power to provide. Namely, a peace deal with people who have consistently refused every Israeli offer and are currently refusing even to negotiate with it. Europe’s attitude could change someday, but Israel can’t count on that. Hence it must develop alternative sources of trade and diplomatic support as an insurance policy.

The restoration of relations with Guinea is yet another sign that this strategy is starting to pay off. And that’s very good news for Israel.

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A Deadly EU Blind Spot on Israel

Following last week’s terror attack in Nice, a Belgian Jewish organization issued a highly unusual statement charging that, had European media not spent months “ignoring” Palestinian terror against Israel out of “political correctness,” the idea of a truck being used as a weapon wouldn’t have come as such a shock. But it now turns out that European officials did something much worse than merely ignoring Palestinian attacks: They issued a 39-page report, signed by almost every EU country, blaming these attacks on “the occupation” rather than the terrorists. The obvious corollary was that European countries had no reason to fear similar attacks and, therefore, they didn’t bother taking precautions that could have greatly reduced the casualties.

The most shocking part of the Nice attack was how high those casualties were: The truck driver managed to kill 84 people before he was stopped. By comparison, as the New York Times reported on Monday, Israel has suffered at least 32 car-ramming attacks since last October, yet all these attacks combined have killed exactly two people (shootings and stabbings are much deadlier). Granted, most involved private cars, but even attacks using buses or heavy construction vehicles never approached the scale of Nice’s casualties. The deadliest ramming attack in Israel’s history, in 2001, killed eight.

Firstly, this is because Israel deploys massive security for mass gatherings like Nice’s Bastille Day celebrations, forcing Palestinian assailants to make do with less densely-populated targets, like bus stops or light rail stops, which greatly lowers the death toll. As an Israeli police spokesman told the New York Times, an Israeli event comparable to the one in Nice would entail “a 360-degree enclosure of the area, with layers of security around the perimeter,” including major roads “blocked off with rows of buses, and smaller side streets with patrol cars,” plus a massive police presence reinforced by counterterrorism units “strategically placed to provide a rapid response, if needed.”

Secondly, Israeli security personnel have no qualms about using deadly force against terrorists in mid-rampage if less lethal means would take longer to succeed because they understand that the best way to save innocent lives is to stop the attack as quickly as possible. This lesson was driven home by a 2008 attack in which a Palestinian plowed a heavy construction vehicle into a crowded Jerusalem street. A policewoman tried to stop him without killing him; she wounded him and then climbed into the cab to handcuff him. But while she was trying to cuff him, he managed to restart the vehicle and kill another person before he was shot dead.

Now consider the abovementioned EU document, first reported in the EUobserver last Friday, and its implications for both those counterterrorism techniques. The document is an internal assessment of the wave of Palestinian terror that began last October, written by EU diplomats in the region and endorsed in December 2015 by all EU countries with “embassies in Jerusalem and Ramallah,” the EUobserver said.

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