Avigdor Lieberman would perhaps not be happy to hear that he was following in Golda Meir's footsteps, but the fact is that, like Israel's foreign minister in the 1950s and 1960s, the current foreign minister is very interested in Africa and in restoring Israel's status there. "To my regret, Israel has for many years been absent from two continents - America and Africa - and does not have a sufficient presence there," he told Haaretz this week, shortly after returning from a long trip to South America during which he visited Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Colombia.
This was the first visit in 23 years by an Israeli foreign minister to Brazil, one of the largest, most developed and most important countries in the world, with impressive nuclear capabilities, and which in recent years has been working to strengthen its ties with Iran. Lieberman is planning another extensive and out-of-the-ordinary visit for next month, this time to the important African nations of Ethiopia, Angola, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.
In the 50 years since Meir established Africa as an important objective for Israeli diplomacy and culled immense sympathy on that continent for the new state, which was seen as successfully having rid itself of colonialist rule, no Israeli foreign minister has made such an extensive visit there.
In those days Israel exploited the advantages Africa offered, granting generous agricultural and technical aid to its developing nations, sending Israeli experts to them and teaching African students here. Behind the scenes, Israel also sold arms and sent military experts. Secret funding from the United States Central Intelligence Agency was channeled by American trade unions to the Histadrut labor federation, and from the Israeli union to Africa to finance various activities. Among other things the money was used to post an impressive array of Mossad agents in the African states. Many young intelligence officers, such as David Kimche, Reuven Merhav and Nahum Admoni, spent their early working years in Africa.
Of particular importance to Israel's geo-strategic posture were the countries of the Horn of Africa - Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan - which control the shipping lanes to Eilat and are close to Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. This also gave Mossad agents and Israel Defense Forces officers an excuse to be involved in the internal affairs of African regimes. According to various publications, Israelis were involved in coups d'etat in Uganda and Zanzibar, or at least had prior knowledge of them.
"The purpose of my visit is to demonstrate an Israeli presence in Africa," Lieberman stresses. "I want to tell the leaders I meet that Africa is important to Israel. We must not neglect them, especially in view of the efforts by countries like Iran to influence them and establish themselves there." He said his visit would provide a diplomatic boost to the states' existing economic and security ties with Israel. It is a sad truth that with the exception of a few civilian enterprises in agriculture, communications, infrastructure and diamonds, almost all Israeli activity on the African continent is related to weapons exports.
"The ugly Israeli" in the guise of the arms dealer (mostly former intelligence and military officials), who promotes weapons sales on behalf of Israeli military industries, with the backing of the defense establishment, have given Israel a bad name world-wide. Israelis have been involved in civil wars (in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast) and in aiding dictatorial regimes such as in Equatorial Guinea and the two Congo republics.
A case in point is the deal concluded recently between Israel Shipyards and the Nigerian defense ministry, for the manufacture and delivery of two Shaldag patrol boats. According to the Nigerian navy's budget book, the deal is worth $25 million (even if, for various reasons, this may be an inflated price). One boat has already been delivered. Nigerian crews have been trained in Israel, and Israeli instructors will provide further training in Nigeria.
The middleman in the deal was Amit Sadeh, who is a partner in a large shopping mall in Lagos. Sadeh was involved in the controversial sale of air and sea drones by the Yavneh-based Aeronautics Ventures, to the Nigerian defense ministry, as well as the sale of used planes from Ukraine to Nigeria. Sadeh also represents Israel Aerospace Industries, whose Ramta subsidiary competed for the same deal. IAI as well as the CEO of Israel Shipyards, Avi Shahaf, declined to comment, while Sadeh was not available.
These deals have put Israel in the position of interfering in an internal Nigerian dispute that could lead to civil war. The boats and intelligence equipment are intended for the use of Nigerian forces against rebels in the Niger River Delta region. In an interview with Haaretz last year, a spokesman for the rebels warned Israel not to go ahead with the sales.
Lieberman is planning to bring with him dozens of businessmen, most of them arms dealers, as well as security advisers and representatives of the military industries. But perhaps it would be better for the foreign minister to follow in Meir's footsteps and put more agricultural advisers and medical and education experts in the center of its diplomatic stage, rather than arms dealers.