Yossi Melman / Why did Lieberman really go to Africa?
FM's delegation includes representatives from Israeli firms and the intelligence community.
The journey of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to five African states in nine days is taking place under a hidden cloud of domestic tension. The obvious aspect of the visit, which is stressed by the minister and his entourage, is Israel's willingness to assist countries in the continent to find solutions to their problems: hunger, insufficient clean water, epidemics. The less-publicized aspect is that quite a few Israelis are hoping that the visit will open the way for more defense exports.
On a level that is even more secretive, there is the hope of developing intelligence ties and cooperation in the effort against international jihadist elements, and especially countering the activities of Iran in some of these African countries. This only becomes obvious when the composition of the delegation is analyzed carefully: in addition to the Foreign Ministry officials accompanying Lieberman, there is a delegation from the Defense Ministry's foreign assistance department, Sibat, and also a group of representatives of the intelligence community, including a Mossad official from the Tevel wing, which is responsible for the organization's foreign ties. Similarly, along with representatives from civilian industrial and development firms, there are agents from the country's defense firms.
The Foreign Ministry and the Israel Export Institute believe that there is at least another $1 billion worth of business potential in Africa, in addition to the $3 billion that Israeli firms already export in goods and services to the continent. Lieberman began his trip in Ethiopia, where he met with the country's prime minister and its foreign minister, putting the emphasis on the civilian assistance that Israel provides. The assistance comes in the form of biotechnology and agriculture, advanced water-purification technologies, and medical assistance in combating AIDS. The Foreign Ministry funding these projects out of its own budget, at the cost of several hundred thousand dollars a year.
But Ethiopia is also a key strategic state for Israel, with a long tradition of friendship and cooperation between the countries in military and intelligence matters. Ethiopia's importance lies in its being situated on the Horn of Africa,near a number of Arab states, and overlooking the sea routes to Eilat and the Suez Canal. Moreover, in recent years Iran has been increasingly active in the area, as have been Al-Qaida agents, particularly in nearby Somalia. Naturally these are issues that were discussed during Lieberman's meetings, even though they were not mentioned in the media briefings.
The foreign minister's visit to Kenya was similar in character. There Lieberman met with the vice president and the foreign minister. He announced Israel's intention to offer know-how in combating desertification, and he also agreed to the request of his hosts for Israel's assistance in the reopening of an agricultural training center ituated two hours from the capital, Nairobi. Israel had cooperated in the past, together with the U.S., in running the center, activity that stopped in 2002.
The Kenyan vice president, Kalonzo Musyoka, praised Israel'scontribution to agriculture and irrigation in his country, but as in Ethiopia, in Nairobi too they discussed other issues that were made less public. Kenya has cooperated with Israel in the past on counter-terrorism.
On Wednesday Lieberman travels to Nigeria, one of the largest, wealthiest and most important countries in Africa. There is a relatively large community of Israeli businessmen there, working mostly in the fields of agriculture and infrastructure, but it is also an important destination for Israeli defense exports. In recent years, Israel and Nigeria signed arms deals worth about $500 million.
"There is no doubt that the most important need of Africa is countering hunger and the shortage of water, and not arms," said Haim Dibon, deputy director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Lieberman's wish to restore the continent to a place on Israel's foreign policy horizon is also paved with benign intentions. But the experience of the past suggests that the voice of the Foreign Ministry loses ground for the most part when it comes up against the Defense Ministry and the arms industry lobby, which hijacked Israel's foreign policy in recent years in their favor. Therefore, Dibon is trying to make the point back home that military sales will also benefit if they are carried out through "the feeding of the hungry and the quenching of the parched throats of Africa."