The young State of Israel was among the first countries to extend substantial assistance to the newly independent African countries and their awakening peoples.
From the beginning of the African states’ liberation from colonial rule in 1957-1960 (mainly British and French, but also Spanish, Portuguese and even German), and at the initiative of then Foreign Minister Golda Meir, the young State of Israel was among the first countries to extend substantial assistance to the newly independent countries and their awakening peoples. This was manifested in every possible field – from agriculture, medicine and defense to such infrastructure projects such as the construction of airports, the establishment of shipping companies, educational and professional training institutions, etc. This activity was largely carried out by government ministries and corporations, together with the Israel Defense Forces and private companies.
Until 1973, some 30 Israeli embassies operated throughout the continent, and hundreds of experts from the Israel Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation (MASHAV) guided, trained and managed large projects in all these fields.
The excellent relations prevailing between Israel and the various African states were a result of a mix of mutual interests, partly political, military and economic, set against the backdrop of Israeli initiative and solidarity. There was a sense of sharing of a common destiny of peoples who had suffered from discrimination and foreign rule, and also a deep religious faith in which the mention of the name "Israel" was almost magical. In many ways these feelings still exist today.
Israel also maintained good relations with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963. In 1971 Israel hosted a delegation of conciliation, composed of the presidents of four African states (Senegal, Nigeria, Zaire and Cameroon), sent by the OAU as part of the international efforts and initiatives to advance the peace process between Israel and its neighbors.
The turning point in Israel-African relations occurred during the oil crisis of 1973 and the Yom Kippur War, when the OAU bowed to the heavy pressure applied by the Arab League and was forced to pass a resolution recommending that member states sever relations with Israel. The rationale presented by the Arabs was that Israel, by crossing the Suez Canal, had occupied African land.
Some African countries chose to lower the Israeli flag while in practice continuing to maintain relations. However, the large-scale closing of Israeli embassies throughout the continent drastically reduced the Israeli government and MASHAV presence. A number of Israeli interest offices continued to operate in Africa under third-country sponsorship, and the operations of such large corporations as Solel Boneh, Tahal, Motorola Israel continued as well.
With the knowledge that Africa had not enthusiastically adopted the Arab League stance but rather did so reluctantly out of a position of weakness in the international context of the period, Israel bore no grudge. Israel continued to view the renewal of relations with African countries as one of its national interests, and strove to achieve this goal.
The renewal and initiation of new diplomatic relations between Israel and Africa began in the mid-1980’s, parallel to the fluctuations in the Middle East peace process and Israel’s relations with its neighbors. The first countries to renew relations were considered daring and brave, having done so in violation of the OAU’s resolution and challenging the authority of the Arab states who in turn threatened to cut off their aid. Today, Israel maintains full diplomatic relations with 39 of 47 of the countries south of the Sahara and has nine resident embassies on the continent.
The restoration of diplomatic relations was accompanied by the renewal of government cooperation, albeit on a much smaller scale than had previously existed, focusing primarily on MASHAV training programs and humanitarian aid. Today, most of the Israeli activity on the African continent is of private corporations, primarily in the fields of development, diamonds, Africa’s abundarnt raw materials and natural resources, infrastructure, telecommunications, and large agricultural projects.