Abdel Bari Atwan

Israeli commentators are making much of the ‘diplomatic opportunity’ afforded by France’s military intervention in Mali.

Israel has long been keen to establish a foothold in parts of Africa, for strategic as well as economic reasons. The vast continent offers relatively accessible (and increasingly fought-over) sources of energy and water, as well as emerging markets.

While Israel has been able to establish diplomatic relationships with most non-Muslim African countries, nations such as Mali and Niger have so far refused to formally recognise it.

Clearly, Israel would like to convert these nations of the Sahel into friends and a potential rear guard against hostile Arab nations in the north. Part of the way it hopes to do so is by creating, or exploiting, anti-Arab feeling. Feelings Mali’s new leader, President Dioncounda Traoré, has taken to voicing in the past weeks.

At the end of January, Traoré told the African Union summit in Addis Ababa that he felt “betrayed” by the Arab nations. While the Arabs had criticised France for its military intervention, he said, they had failed to help Mali oust the Islamists who had taken over the north of the country. Certain Malian newspapers went even further, with an article in Le Matin claiming that the Arabs - and Iran - were actively backing the Islamists; Le Matin singled out the Palestine Liberation Organisation ambassador to Bamako for particular criticism.

This “diplomatic opportunity” for Israel continued, despite the fact that this month’s Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit in Cairo passed a resolution, supported by all 57 nations present, “condemning terrorism” in the west African state and backing the Malian government’s efforts to restore the “unity and territorial integrity of Mali”.

Israel began its campaign to win over strategically important Africa countries back in 2009 when Avigdor Lieberman, currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust but serving as Israel’s foreign minister at the time, became the first incumbent of his office to visit Africa for 20 years. He was accompanied by a delegation of Israeli businesspersons from the energy, irrigation and arms sectors among others.

As well as seeking new business opportunities and rewarding friendly African countries with arms deals, Lieberman - who once threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam and ‘drown Egypt’ - was also exploring ways of putting pressure on Egypt by threatening its water supplies.

Under agreements brokered by the British and dating from the colonial era, downstream Egypt and Sudan still claim the lion’s share of Nile water, a situation easily exploited by Israel offering water-starved upstream countries help with expensive hydro-projects - including dams and systems to divert tributaries - and renegotiating (or circumventing) the quotas.

The first three (of five) African countries Lieberman’s 2009 delegation visited control, between them, the sources of Nile. Ethiopia houses Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile originates, while Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile, is shared by Kenya and Uganda.

In July 2012, Israel signed a co-operation agreement with newly seceded, largely non-Arab, Southern Sudan, pledging Israeli aid for water infrastructure and technological development… and further increasing Israel’s leverage against North Sudan and Egypt.

Lieberman’s 2009 excursion was certainly not unrelated to the fact that just months earlier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had also toured Africa, apparently in search of willing suppliers of uranium. This brings us back to Mali.

The Sahel region contains the world’s fifth largest uranium deposits, most of it is in neighbouring Niger but Mali possesses over 17,000 tons of mainly unexploited deposits; in 2012, new reserves were discovered in the northwest part of the country, where the Islamists had established a stronghold.

France depends on nuclear energy for 78 per cent of her electricity supply and obtains one fifth of her uranium supplies from Niger. Undoubtedly, this contributed to President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Last week, French special forces were deployed over the border to protect the massive Arlit uranium mine in Niger owned by French multinational Areva.

By defending Dioncounda Traoré’s interim regime against the Islamists, France has achieved two important goals. It has secured Mali’s gratitude and safeguarded its own essential energy sources.

‘Energy Diplomacy’ backed by military co-operation is the latest route into Africa; some have described it as the new colonialism. In 2011, the UK produced its first ever ‘Energy Security Strategy’ which highlighted the importance of Algeria and Libya as sources of oil and gas. Britain played an active role in the military intervention which helped topple Muammar Gaddafi and before the conflict was over, BP had agreed access to the country’s oil with the Libyan rebels. In the wake of the Saharan hostage crisis, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron paid an unprecedented state visit to Algeria where he offered ‘military partnership’ and UK training for its security forces.

In the 2011 civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, France and Israel clashed in a proxy war when the former backed the rebels led by Alassane Ouattara while ‘friend of Israel’ President Laurent Gbagbo asked Tel Aviv for help. In Mali, however, Israel considers the two countries to be on the same side (against the Islamists) and seeks to exploit this allegiance diplomatically with France’s former colonies in Africa.

Yet the 12 African nations that still refuse diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv do so out of conscience. These decisions were made, or reviewed, in the wake of the Second Intifada, the 2008/9 war on Gaza or the 2010 commando attack on the humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza which left nine Turkish activists dead.

             –Gulf News