Israel’s unlikely friend

As a quick introduction, this is my new blog, where I’ll be writing about interesting things in politics in a way that people that hate politics may like. I think that whilst it’s incredibly important, politics is inaccessible and uninteresting to almost everyone.

That’s the loose founding principle, but expect a lot of meandering. So, without further ado:

Yesterday morning I was looking for holidays in the Middle East: partly for the rich culture and history, partly because of the tensions that challenged my comfortable life and comfortable views. Israel seemed a good place to start. It has the architecture, the culture, and the simmering racial/religious hatred spanning decades.

I imagined a multi-country trip – hiking through rocky hillsides, talking to people from all manner of backgrounds, and enjoying some mind-blowing food. However, as people who have visited the area know, visas and border paperwork are extremely complex.

Your Israel visa may be stamped or put in a card, and having evidence of it may stop you getting into Lebanon, but it may not. Jordan kind of has an open border, but some countries may see the Jordan stamp as proof you went to Israel and so refuse you entry. And Israel has been known to give travellers permits that only allow them to visit the ‘Palestinian authority’.

And all of that doesn’t take into account the fact you may be left waiting for a few hours in security at Ben-Gurion Airport for reasons you’ll probably never know.

This bureaucratic complexity and difficulty in inter-national movement reflects the relations between Israel and the other countries in the region, as you can see from this map, which shows which countries (blue) have visa-free access, and those that need confirmation from the Israeli government (brown). The little red sliver is Israel.


As you can see, Israel is uncomfortable about visitors from the Arab world, and some other Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Pakistan. I don’t want to start this blog by trying to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict in detail as a lot of people feel very strongly about it. But as a SERIOUSLY brief overview: Israel came into existence in 1948, there were arguments about who the land belonged to, there was a civil war, a couple of wars between Israel and its neighbours, and alternating skirmishes and peace treaties until today. So at Israel’s borders this is very much the vibe from each side:


But there is something fascinating about this map that has had me wondering all day:

CAR image

There, in the middle of Africa, is a country in blue. A country whose people can get into Israel with no passport. Its name: the ‘Central African Republic’, its reputation: the most irrelevant country on the continent. As one blogger describes it:

“The Central African Republic, is the dead, dead center of Africa. This was never a crucial place to anybody, never had a great era of its own. Most current Hellholes can claim some golden age—whether it actually happened or not is another story. Not the C.A.R. It’s always been a sink, a Death Valley, Africa’s Sargasso Sea where the winds don’t blow.” 


Looking into it more, it becomes clear that it has had decades of civil war, its government was overthrown a couple of years ago, and it has a huge issue with children being stolen by bands of foreign guerillas including the Lord’s Resistance Army, who you may remember from:


None of this made sense, so I investigated. The explanation brought to light the forgotten cold war: Israel and the Arab world’s fight for Africa’s love.

In the 60s, Israel was a new country surrounded by enemies, and it needed all of the friends it could get. The U.S.A. wasn’t too interested at this point, and Israel didn’t want to become just another hanger-on to Europe. It felt it had a lot in common with countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: after centuries of persecution, the Jewish people had been given a chance to rise above it. In Africa, with all of the newly created nations, there was a similar feeling. And Israel thought it could help: they “had been forced to find solutions to the kinds of problems that large, wealthy, powerful states had never encountered.”

On the other hand, the Arab world felt that Israel’s existence and rise was theft at best and colonialist at worst. They were sick of Western domination and imperialism, and wanted to escape that taking Sub-Saharan Africa with them. Also, Arab countries in North Africa, especially Egypt, wanted to be leading figures in the continent’s politics.

So on one side, Israel, desperate for friends, the other, the Arabs, trying to make the most of a world full of crashed and burning empires.

There was also another reason the stakes were so high in winning over Sub-Saharan Africa: UN votes.

African nations, whilst mainly poor and in a few cases only a few years old, all sat on the United Nations General Assembly, and so had a vote that counted just as much as the USA or Russia. Since Israel already faced a large, hostile voting bloc from the Arab and Muslim states, it was important for Israel to try to win as many African votes as possible. With Africa’s support, Israel would have friends that could protect it from its unfriendly neighbours. In Israel’s first 2 decades, the struggle for Africa was a fight of life or death.

Enter the Central African Republic (let’s call it C.A.R. from now on). They definitely felt Israel’s advances, and decided there were some real benefits to being friends. In the seventies, surrounded by bigger countries, they were desperate for an army. There were also problems at home. The emperor, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, was insane. He was wider reported to throw courtiers that annoyed him to the crocodiles in his zoo. But more relevant to normal people there, he would spend most of the country’s budget on imperial coronations and palaces, so there were revolts and coups constantly ebbing and flowing.

Israel happily trained the imperial army, and an ex-Israeli Army general, Shmuel Gonan, became the emperor’s closest adviser.

In the end Bokassa’s combination of misrule and madness came to bite him: some children protested when he forced them to buy expensive school clothes his wife made. He definitely killed a few of them, but may have also eaten them. This was the last straw for the ordinarily culinary pioneers and ex-colonial masters France, who sent paratroopers in to overthrow him.

You never hear anything about Shmuel Gonan after this. I like to imagine the retired general in some African bar muttering to himself: “I told him, no eating other people! The public hate it.”

Despite this upheaval, Israel and C.A.R. remained good friends. The new President, a guy called David Dacko, made his first foreign visit to Israel and said:

“You have not tried to create us in your image. Instead, Israel has contented itself with showing the new African nations its achievements, in helping them overcome their weaknesses, in assisting them in learning. In so doing you have conquered Black Africa.”

This was partly because, as Israel and the USA got closer, Israeli diplomats were twisting arms and sweet-talking Senators into giving countries like the Central African Republic better deals.

There was also another reason they got on well.


C.A.R. were producing a whole load of diamonds, which Israel was only to happy to buy and process.

But the friendship had to falter, and so it did in the late 70s and early 80s, when Israel started to lose the war for African hearts and minds. Arab countries’ idea of a world that didn’t have to revolve around the West was getting traction, as was the very cheap oil and promised financial aid they were offering African countries. Also, the idea of ‘Pan-Africanism’ was on the rise: you were not just Ethiopian or Namibian, you were an African. Suddenly, the divide between Arab North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa seemed a lot smaller.

Also, Israel was caught in the jaws of a dilemma called ‘Apartheid South Africa’. Their policy of a two tier state based on racial subjugation of Black Africans was (shock horror) very unpopular in the rest of Africa, and Israel didn’t want to to be associated with that. On the other hand, there was a large, rich Jewish community in South Africa which sent Israel a lot of money. The South African government didn’t beat around the bush: you condemn us, you’re not getting any of that money. Israel stuck with South Africa, and so alienated most Sub-Saharan countries.

Israel had lost the war for Africa’s love, but its new friend the U.S.A. meant that it would still survive.

However, amidst all of this drama, C.A.R. kept selling Israel diamonds, and Israel kept selling them weapons. Through everything, they remained friends. Maybe there’s a lesson here: no matter how lame your friend might be, when you haven’t got many you shouldn’t be too picky. Also it helps if they have lots of diamonds.


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