Arab normalisation with Israel is expected to have serious consequences that go well beyond the limited and self-serving agendas of a few regional countries. Thanks to the Arab normalisers, the doors are now flung wide open for new political actors to extend or cement ties with Israel at the expense of Palestine, without fear of any repercussions.
Many African countries have worked diligently to integrate Israel into the continent's mainstream body politic. They are now seizing the opportunity to bring all states across the continent on board, including those who have historically and genuinely stood on the side of the Palestinians.
Empower Africa is an Israeli firm that is constantly seeking financial opportunities throughout Africa. It was but one of many which jumped at the opportunity to exploit Arab normalisation with Israel. The goal is to maximise profits while promoting Arab normalisation as an economic opportunity for struggling African economies. In December, Empower Africa hosted its first event in Dubai under the heading "UAE and Israel Uniting with Africa". In its press release, the Israeli company said that its guests included representatives from the UAE, Israel, Bahrain, Nigeria, Rwanda and Egypt, among others.
Such events are meant to translate normalisation with Israel into economic opportunities that will entangle not only Arab countries, but also those in Africa and Asia, as well as other traditional supporters of Palestine worldwide. The central message that the advocates of normalisation are now sending to the rest of the world is that closer ties with Tel Aviv will guarantee direct American support and innumerable economic benefits.
Those who promote solidarity with Palestine worldwide, based on moral maxims and international law, are correct to argue that solidarity and intersectionality are crucial in the fight against injustice everywhere. However, realpolitik is rarely shaped by morality and legitimacy. This is the truth that Palestinians now have to contend with, as they watch their Arab and Muslim brothers moving, one after the other, towards the Israeli camp.
Unfortunately, it was the Palestinian leadership itself that strengthened the normalisation argument many years ago, especially in the early 1990s, when it first agreed to negotiate unconditionally with Israel, under the auspices of the US rather than exclusively through the UN. The Palestinian/Arab engagement with Israel in the Madrid Talks in 1991 provided the impetus for Washington to push for the reversal of a 1975 UN Resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
Ironically, it was the African Union that first championed UN Resolution 3379, soon after it passed its own Resolution 77 (XII), earlier that year in the Kampala Assembly of Heads of State and Governments. The assembly condemned Zionism as a racist, colonial ideology.
Those days are long gone and, sadly, it was the Middle East and Africa that altered their views of Israel, without compelling the latter to abandon its racist political doctrine in return. The result is that racism and apartheid in Israel are now even more entrenched within the country's official institutions than ever before. Moreover, Israel's military occupation and siege of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are accelerating in tandem with Arab and African normalisation with the settler-colonial state.
The now dead in the water 1993 Oslo Accords served as a major pretence for many countries around the world, especially in the global South, to draw nearer to Israel. "If the Palestinians themselves have normalised with Israel, why shouldn't we?" was the knee-jerk retort from politicians in various countries when approached by the advocates of the Palestinian boycott movement. This immoral and politically selective logic has been reinforced since the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco joined the Arab normalisation camp in recent months.
While arguments that are predicated on moral values and shared history are still very much valid, making a case against normalisation cannot rest entirely on ethical reasoning or sentimentalities. True, the shared anti-colonial past of Africa and the Arab world, especially that of Palestine, is uncontested. Even so, some African countries did not side with the Arabs in their conflict with colonial Israel based on entirely moral and ideological arguments. Indeed, the Israel-Africa story has also been shaped by overtly economic and business interests.
Africa's significance for Israel has acquired various meanings throughout the years. When it was established upon the ruins of historic Palestine, diplomatic ties between the nascent colonial state and African countries soon became essential for Tel Aviv to break away from its geopolitical isolation in the region. That, in addition to the strategic importance of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait — separating Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and offering Israel breathing space through the Red Sea — gave the continent additional geostrategic significance.
In fact, on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, 33 African countries had full diplomatic ties with Israel. Immediately afterwards, and in the run-up to the 1973 October War, they abandoned Israel in large numbers, signalling the rise of an unprecedented Arab-African unity, which continued unhindered until the 1990s. It was then that Israel began, once more, to promote itself as a unique ally across Africa.
In recent years, Israel has accelerated its plans to exploit Africa's many political and economic opportunities, especially as the continent is now an open house for renewed global attention. The US, the EU, China, Russia and others are jockeying to win a piece of Africa's massive wealth of material and human resources. Israel, too, as a regional power, is part of this renewed "scramble for Africa".
In 2016, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that, "Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel." This should not be dismissed as political hyperbole by the Israeli leader. It can be argued that Israel's burgeoning political and economic ties with Africa are Netanyahu's greatest achievements in recent years. Diplomatic rapprochement with Muslim-majority African countries such as Mali and Chad, have been the back door through which Israel has approached Arab-Muslim countries in Africa, such as Sudan and Morocco.
There is more to Israel's keen interest in Africa than mere business, of course. With America's superpower status in the Middle East being challenged by other global actors, namely Russia and China, Israel is trying to diversify its options so that it is not reliant exclusively on a single benefactor.
Now that Arab and Muslim countries are normalising with Israel openly and discreetly, some African governments feel liberated from their previous commitment to Palestine; they are no longer forced to choose between their Arab allies and the occupation state.
Solidarity with Palestine, on all traditional platforms, certainly stands to lose as a result of these seismic changes. Even the UN General Assembly is no longer a safe space for Palestinian solidarity. When the UN General Assembly Resolution headed "Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine" was adopted on 3 December 2019, for example, 13 countries abstained from the vote, including Cameroon, Rwanda, South Sudan and Malawi. This was unprecedented. The trend worsened a year later, on 2 December 2020, when more African countries abstained from voting on a similar resolution, with Cameroon, Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda and even South Africa refusing to acknowledge what should have been a straightforward recognition of Palestinian rights.
Based on this disturbing trajectory, more African countries are expected either to adopt a "neutral" position on Palestine and Israel or, depending on the nature of their interests or degree of US-Israeli pressure, take Israel's side in future votes.
The Palestinian dichotomy rests on the fact that African solidarity with Palestine has historically been placed within the larger political framework of mutual African-Arab solidarity. Yet, with official Arab solidarity with Palestine now weakening, Palestinians are forced to think outside this traditional framework, so that they may build direct solidarity with African nations as Palestinians, without necessarily merging their national aspirations with the larger Arab body politic.
While such a task is daunting, it is also promising, as Palestinians now have the opportunity to build bridges of support and mutual solidarity in Africa through direct contacts, where they serve as their own ambassadors. Obviously, Palestine has much to gain, but also much to offer Africa. Palestinian doctors, engineers, civil defence and frontline workers, educationists, intellectuals and artists are some of the most highly qualified and accomplished in the Middle East; in fact, in the world.
Palestine must develop a centralised strategy to counter Israel in Africa, not just slogans. It must utilise its people's tremendous energies and expertise to win Africa back to the anti-colonial cause, not as a bargaining chip, but as an authentic attempt to reinvigorate existing solidarity between the Palestinians and the peoples of Africa.
Israel is trying to lure Africa's elites through business deals which, judging by previous experiences, could become a burden on African economies. Palestine, on the other hand, can offer Africa genuine friendship and support across many areas of meaningful cooperation which, in the long run, can turn existing historical and cultural affinities into deeper, more practical solidarity and development.