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Netanyahu's Africa tour
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 07 - 2016

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent tour of East Africa did not pass without Israeli, Arab, and international comment. It was the first such tour by an Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin went to Morocco in 1993 to meet the late King Hassan II.
Netanyahu began his African tour in Uganda, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe Raid of June 1976, in which Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was killed. Speaking of the event, Netanyahu said it had “changed the course” of his life, as it had given him the opportunity to begin his political journey.
“Forty years ago, they [Israeli soldiers] landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists,” said Netanyahu upon landing at Entebbe Airport and referring to the late Idi Amin who supported the Palestinian cause in the 1970s. “Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists,” he added.
Netanyahu was accompanied by a major economic delegation of some 80 important figures from more than 50 firms, as well as pilots and soldiers who had helped free the hostages on the Air France flight that was hijacked by two Palestinians and two Germans and taken to Entebbe Airport in the 1970s.
The plane carried 248 passengers. Most of them were released, but the Israelis among them were held. On 4 July 1976, the rescued Israeli passengers returned with the Israeli special forces who had freed them with the help of Kenya that had allowed them to use its airspace and supplied them with fuel and a place to treat the wounded.
On his Uganda stop this month, Netanyahu met with the leaders of Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Zambia, and Tanzania, all of them Nile Basin countries except Zambia, as well as his host Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
The Israeli press reported that Netanyahu said that one of the summit leaders had arranged a call with the leader of a Muslim African state. The English-language Times of Israel reported a “contact” between Netanyahu and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, but the office of the president in Mogadishu denied any meeting between the two men. Netanyahu neither confirmed nor denied the meeting.
“I don't want to answer your specific question. I can merely say that we have lots of contacts with countries that we don't have formal relations with,” Netanyahu said. One writer on African affairs also wrote in an article in the US journal Foreign Policy that Mohamud and Netanyahu had met in Israel, but did not specify the date of the meeting.
At the end of his Uganda trip, Netanyahu held a press conference with Museveni in which he ignored the Ugandan leader's references to Israel as “Palestine.” Museveni also described the Middle East peace talks as “a waste of time” and offered to mediate between the Palestinians and Israelis, promising to reach a solution in a short period of time.
On his second stop, in Kenya, Netanyahu promised to help Kenya build a wall between it and neighbouring Somalia in order to protect the country from terrorist attacks by the extremist Somali Al-Shabab group.
Nairobi announced several months ago that it intended to build a fence along its 440-mile border with Somalia (more than 800 km) because of increasing terrorist operations by Al-Shabab.
The two states also agreed to establish flights between the two countries starting next week. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to support Israel's bid for observer status at the African Union, of which it was stripped in 2002 at the behest of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. During a celebration organised by pro-Israel evangelical Christians in Kenya, one leader also described Netanyahu as “a hero”.
In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Netanyahu met with President Paul Kagame, who said he had no objections to Israel having observer status at the African Union. In Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, the last stop on his tour, Netanyahu met with President Mulatu Teshome before heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
In a speech to both chambers of the Ethiopian parliament, Netanyahu said he was proud to announce that “Israel is coming back to Africa in a big way. I want to see every African country represented by an embassy in Israel.” Netanyahu concluded his speech by saying that “Ethiopia is on the rise. Africa is on the rise. Our friendship will soar to new heights. May God bless Ethiopia.”
Throughout his tour, the four heads of state he visited treated Netanyahu as “the chief of a superpower,” according to a story in the Times of Israel. Netanyahu was escorted on Hercules planes carrying special forces and armoured personnel carriers, while Kampala, Nairobi, Kigali, and Addis Ababa were adorned with his portrait or with photographs of him and the local leader.
Netanyahu's most important objective on the trip was to reclaim Israel's observer status at the African Union and win African support at the UN that could otherwise go to the Palestinians. Netanyahu told the Israeli reporters who accompanied him that he wanted to break the “automatic majority” enjoyed by the Palestinians in international forums thanks to African support.
Tel Aviv still remembers with bitterness the African vote against it in the mid-1970s and the UN General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism.
Israel was only able to reinstate its ties with Africa following the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, but even then the outcome was not positive. Until 2012, no African state had voted against the resolution to give Palestine observer status in the UN, and only five countries had abstained from voting — Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, and Togo.
In contrast, no African state voted last year for a resolution that would have required Israel to open up its nuclear facilities to UN inspectors. In addition, Nigeria and Rwanda abstained on a UN Security Council Resolution in 2014 that would have compelled Israel to withdraw from the Territories it occupied in 1967.
Tel Aviv's ties with Africa began as African nations won their independence in the early 1960s, when then prime minister Golda Meir established diplomatic relations with many newly independent countries. However, seven states broke off relations with Israel following its aggression against the Arab states in 1967. Another 23 states cut ties in the wake of the October 1973 War.
Only three states maintained relations with Israel — Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland — due to the influence of apartheid South Africa over them. During the 1970s and 80s, many African countries condemned Israel because of its cooperation with the apartheid regime in South Africa, before the latter collapsed in 1994.
Israel is now attempting to establish a wall of allied states from Cote d'Ivoire in the west to Kenya in the east, according to Yoram Elron, the director of African relations at the Israeli foreign ministry, in a statement made to the London Financial Times.
Ties with Ethiopia are the most important, given that it is home to the largest Jewish community in Africa. The country will also be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council starting next year, and Netanyahu's visit is even more important considering the Ethiopian prime minister's pledge to support the Palestinians.
In addition to the importance of diplomatic support in UN forums and Israel's desire to break the Palestinians' automatic majority, Tel Aviv also wishes to expand its trade with Africa. Israel is offering Africa advanced technology such as irrigation systems, TV equipment, computer software, military equipment, and even cantaloupe seeds. It has also offered to train forces in several African states in counter-terrorism, thanks to what Netanyahu called on his African tour “extensive Israeli security expertise.”
But not everyone welcomed Netanyahu's visit. Many African activists believe that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is a form of racism, and they have major objections to the treatment of African migrants in Israel.

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