If one were to predict which state besides Kenya spoke out most strongly about the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall on 21 September, Somalia might be a good guess; al-Shabaab, the attackers responsible, originated there. Ethiopia, which has been fighting a proxy war with al-Shabaab for influence in Somalia for a number of years, or the United States, as a global superpower concerned with Islamist terrorism, might be other guesses. Yet, all of these are wrong. The state that reacted most strongly was Israel. It was Israel that sent advisors to Nairobi, and potentially Israeli commandos to aid in the ultimate assault on the mall.
This seems somewhat surprising, as typical coverage of Israeli foreign policy is restricted to the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its relationship with the United States. It is quite easy, in fact, to forget that Israel is actually quite close geographically to East Africa, and has longstanding ties there; the Zionist movement briefly considered a British offer of Uganda as the side of an alternative Jewish homeland. Israel has long taken advantage of their connection, maintaining strong relationships in much of Africa in the early post-colonial period, and has begun to refocus diplomatic efforts there. In the past two years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met separately with Kenya, Uganda, and the newly formed government in South Sudan in an effort to build up ties – both military and economic – between these states.
The Westgate mall itself is a fitting example of this new connection. Israeli-owned, the luxurious mall opened in 2007 in order to meet the demands of Kenya’s rapidly expanding consumer class. As a symbol of Western –not to mention Israeli- presence in Africa, it was a perfect target for al-Shabaab’s depredations. The attack also highlighted the budding security relationship between Israel and Kenya. Israeli advisors were heavily involved in the planning process and there are unconfirmed reports of Israeli Special Forces being deployed in the actual battle within the mall. This dual form of security co-operation –intelligence and operational assistance- coincides with the expected framework of a rumoured Israeli-Kenyan security agreement. This rumoured agreement, while not public, was effectively confirmed by Kenyan officials after the attack. Though a cone of silence has since descended on matters related to the pact, the suddenly sealed lips of those very same officials can be explained by worries over public discussion of security arrangements rather than cold feet on one side or another.
So while the details of any pact remain unclear, it is obvious that Israel refocusing on East Africa, a fertile ground for diplomatic efforts. While Israel’s most important African partner had been Egypt, the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 has put that relationship into question. Moreover, the subsequent fall of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to a military coup does not necessarily bode well for Israeli-Egyptian relations. The army’s hold on power is tenuous, with the Egyptian street remaining unpredictable. Competing political factions may leap to condemn Israel, either in an electoral battle as promised by the ruling junta or in a bloody civil conflict that more cynical observers predict. In a country whose population is still vehemently opposed to Israel, criticizing Israel is an easy way for a party to win support at the ballot box or in the street without upsetting any key demographic.
Israel continues to feel more and more isolated not only in the region but globally as well, with American support doing little to stem pressure from most states, as made clear by last year’s UN vote on granting the Palestinian Authority observer-state status. For Israel, it’s a matter of having friends at the table – any friends – and East Africa seems to be the best place to find them. Israel also wishes to stem and reverse the flow of East African refugees into its territory, going so far as to promise weapons and development aid to Uganda in exchange for taking thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.
What do East African states like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan get out of such an agreement? Quite simply, East Africa is witnessing a geopolitical storm to its north, with political instability in the Middle East compounding existing conflicts in Somalia and Sudan. As a Christian-majority state with large, often marginalized Muslim minorities, Kenya shares an interest with Israel in containing Islamic extremism. The same rationale applies to Ethiopia, which faces domestic extremists, regional separatism and a running conflict with Somalia, and South Sudan which faces constant tensions with an Islamist government in Sudan. Uganda’s interest is more mercenary, with Israeli military and economic ties providing a boost to its authoritarian regime. In addition, Israel’s security establishment has extensive experience in fighting counter-insurgency campaigns and repressing dissent, which may be attractive to these governments, Thus, while East African states have traditionally been wary of getting too close to Israel for fear of a backlash, the costs of angering the Arab world and other post-colonial states appear to be outweighed by opportunities for security co-operation.
The developing relationship between Israel and East Africa is thus one of realist necessity, not some sudden discovery of kinship. Whether the relationship continues to move forward will depend neither on the African states nor Israel, but rather on the swirling currents of the Arab Spring and the state of Somalia’s collapse. Should conflict subside quickly in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, and Somalia stabilize with defeats for al-Shabaab, Israel may no longer feel as isolated, and East Africa’s states may no longer be willing to risk the political costs of working extensively with such a controversial partner. In conflict continues though, Israel’s partnerships with the states of East Africa will continue to grow stronger.