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Israel: Relations with African States
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > Foreign Relations > Relations with African States


Until the early 1970s, Israel sent hundreds of agricultural experts and technicians to aid in developing newly independent sub-Saharan African states, seeking diplomatic relations in return. The Arab countries, however, exerted pressure on such states to break ties with Israel. Most African states eventually complied with this pressure because of their need for Arab oil at concessionary prices and because of Arab promises of financial aid. Furthermore, Israel received heavy criticism from African nations because of its relations with South Africa. Moreover, Israeli support for the Biafran secessionist movement in Nigeria alarmed the members of the Organization of African Unity, many of whom faced threatening national liberation movements in their own countries. The June 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula stirred a sense of unease among the African states; after the October 1973 War twenty-nine African states severed diplomatic relations with Israel. Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland were the only sub-Saharan countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.

The African "embargo" of Israel began to collapse after the 1978 Camp David Accords and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. Following Zaire's lead in 1982, Liberia (1983), the Côte d'Ivoire (1986), Cameroon (1986), and Togo (1987) renewed diplomatic ties with Israel. Kenya, Gabon, Senegal, and Equatorial Guinea have also shown interest in renewing diplomatic relations. Several other African countries, although maintaining their diplomatic distance, nevertheless had unofficial ties with Israel, as expressed by the presence of Israeli advisers and technicians. Ghana had an Israeli "interests office," and Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic all maintained unofficial ties with Israel.

Israeli military expertise and technical skills, particularly in desert reclamation, have often facilitated ties with the sub-Saharan nations. In Cameroon, Israel built a training center to assist in halting the advance of the Sahara Desert, and in Côte d'Ivoire, Israeli contractors undertook several major building projects. Israel also trained the elite armed units protecting the presidents of Cameroon, Liberia, Togo, and Zaire.

Israel has long had a special interest in Ethiopia, a partially Christian country, because of the presence of Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) in that country. Ethiopian-Israeli relations had been close until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the imposition of a Marxist, pro-Soviet military regime in 1974. In 1978 Ethiopia received military aid from Israel as well as from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Libya in its border war with Somalia. In 1984 and 1985, it was reported that, in exchange for Israeli military aid to Ethiopia in its battle against Muslim Eritrean secessionists supported by Arab states, Israel organized an airlift of more than 10,000 Falashas from ethopia to Israel. In 1988 it was estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Falashas still remained in Ethiopia.

Israel has also had a longstanding interest in South Africa because of its approximately 110,000 Jews and 15,000 Israelis. Israeli leaders justified trade with South Africa on the ground that it offered protection for the South African Jewish community and developed export markets for Israel's defense and commercial industries. Excluding the arms trade, in 1986 Israel imported approximately US$181.1 million worth of South African goods, consisting primarily of coal; it exported products worth about US$58.8 million.

Israel has traditionally opposed international trade embargoes as a result of its own vulnerability at the hands of the UN and Third World-dominated bodies. In 1987, however, Israel took steps to reduce its military ties with South Africa so as to bring its policies in line with those of the United States and Western Europe, which had imposed limited trade, diplomatic, and travel sanctions on South Africa. In a speech to the Knesset on March 19, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Peres formally presented the Israeli cabinet's four-point plan to ban military sales contracts with South Africa (Israel's arms trade with South Africa was reportedly between US$400 and US$800 million a year); to condemn apartheid, which Peres characterized as "a policy totally rejected by all human beings;" to reduce cultural and tourist ties to a minimum; and to appoint an official committee to draft a detailed list of economic sanctions in line with those of the United States and other Western nations. The cabinet also announced its decision to establish an educational foundation for South African blacks and people of mixed race in Israel.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Israel was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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