Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Uganda on Monday as the first Israeli prime minister to visit sub-Saharan Africa in 30 years. For personal reasons, this could be an emotionally-charged visit for the 66-year-old leader.
This visit to Uganda has an element of personal tragedy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Forty years ago, on July 4, 1976, his brother Yonatan was killed while leading a commando raid in Entebbe to free passengers aboard a plane hijacked by Palestinian and German militants. About 100 Israeli and Jewish hostages were freed in the raid but 20 Ugandan soldiers and seven hijackers were killed, along with several Ugandan civilians. Yonatan Netanyahu was the sole casualty among the Israeli assault team.
Israel is seeking new trading partners on this African tour which will also take the prime minister to Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Before leaving, Netanyahu told his cabinet that the visit was “part of a major effort on our part to return to Africa in a big way.”
In the 1960s, Israel maintained good relations with young African states that had just acquired independence. This changed in 1973 when many African states, faced with pressure from Egypt, severed ties with Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The war began when the Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions in Israeli-occupied Yom Kippur. Since the 1980s relations between African states and Israel have slowly improved but decades have elapsed since an Israeli prime minister last visited sub-Saharan Africa.
Searching for allies at the UN
There is a clear reason for Israel’s new-found interest in Africa. It needs new allies. European states, such as France, are becoming increasingly vehement in their rejection of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and its policy of building settlements on the West Bank. “Because relations with the EU are tense, we are looking for help from the Africans,” Arye Oded, a former Israeli ambassador to Kenya and Uganda told DW.
Israel has diplomatic relations with 40 states in sub-Saharan Africa. “In the UN there are many resolution which target Israel and we want to change this with the help of the Africans,” Oded said. When Netanyahu held talks with Ghanaian Freoign Minister Hanna Tetteh in March, he said he expected from the Africans “further changes in voting patterns at the United Nations with regard to anti-Israeli decisions taken by international committees.”
What can African states expect in return? “I don’t think that Israel has as much to give them politically as they can given to Israel,” Jacob Zenn from the US-based Jamestown Foundation told DW. “Israel can help them with defense and technology.”
Asking for help
Israel is launching a $13 million (12 million euros) development aid package for Africa covering agriculture, health and training in “domestic security.” Even since militant groups such as Boko Haram in West Africa and al-Shabab on the Horn of Africa have been stepping up their activities, countries in these regions have been displaying an interest in Israel’s expertise in defense and security technology as well as in the exchange of classified intelligence.
“Even Nigeria, which has a substantial Muslim population, is asking Israel for assistance,” Oded said. So, too, are Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Cameroon. “They are asking Israel to help them fight terrorism.” Oded added. Authoritarian regimes, such as those in place in Rwanda and Ethiopia, may wish to use advanced surveillance technology against their own citizens.
African states are apparently prepared to help Israel resolve a tricky domestic issue. According to the Financial Times, two unnamed African countries are prepared to resettle 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees currently in Israel.
Israel has faced international criticism for its treatment of refugees, who were able to enter its territory via Egypt until a border fence was built to keep them out. Generally, less than 10 percent of applications for asylum are approved by the Israeli authorities. Refugees and migrants are not allowed to work in Israel. Many are held in detention centers one of which is located in the Negev Desert.
“We don’t force them to go back to Eritrea, “Oded said. “But they are a burden for Israel as we already have 150, 000 Palestinians here. They have jobs and we don’t need labor from other countries.”
Zenn doesn’t believe that Israel’s controversial treatment of refugees will be an issue during Netanyahu’s tour. “Many African countries themselves are not taking in refuges and have a moral perspective on the repatriation of migrants or refugees which is quite different to that prevailing in Europe,” he said.
Israeli human rights activists say that the two African countries that are prepared to take in the Eritrean refugees are Rwanda and Uganda. There is the suspicion that Israel has promised them arms and defense expertise in return.