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Netanyahu upbeat after 4-nation African tour

  • BIBI Africa
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's four-nation Africa visit last week was the first to sub-Saharan Africa by a sitting Israeli prime minister in nearly three decades. Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda while pursuing closer security, trade and other ties with African nations, which cut or limited their relationships with Israel in the 1970s under pressure from Arab countries.
by OWN CORRESPONDENT | Jul 13, 2016

African states were also opposed to Israel's close ties to South Africa's apartheid government.  His last stop was Ethiopia.

Netanyahu was joined in Africa by a delegation of 80 Israeli business executives representing 50 companies working to strengthen commercial and economic ties.

With the Jewish state’s policies toward Iran and the Palestinians having produced years of strained relations with Washington and Europe, Netanyahu is seeking stronger ties with African nations to help blunt Palestinian diplomatic efforts in the UN and other international bodies.

Last week Tuesday Netanyahu pledged to share intelligence with Kenya to pre-empt terrorist attacks.

Each of the countries on the tour was selected because of its link to Israel. Uganda, where the tour began last week Monday, was the site of a hostage rescue in 1976 when Israeli commandos stormed Entebbe Airport and saved more than 100 people. Netanyahu’s older brother, Yoni, led that raid and was killed during it.

The next stop, Kenya, is one of Africa’s biggest markets.

On the Wednesday, Netanyahu flew to Rwanda, which shares with the Jews a history of genocide. Israeli experts were consulted in constructing Rwanda’s memorial to the estimated one million people massacred in 1994. Historians have said more civilians were killed in Rwanda during that three-month span than during just about any other three months in human history, including the Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s last stop was Ethiopia, home to Africa’s largest indigenous Jewish population until Israel organised airlifts and brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Relations between Africa and Israel have been strained over the years. In the 1960s the Arab-Israeli conflict drove a wedge between African countries, many of which were embroiled in liberation struggles, and the Jewish state.

The Israeli entourage accompanying Netanyahu, hoped to sell Africa everything from Israeli-made plastic wrap, sprinklers and irrigation pipes to software, CCTV cameras and military equipment. Even cantaloupe seeds.

But Netanyahu was also on the lookout for something else: precious United Nations votes.

“There are 50 countries in Africa,” Netanyahu said (actually, there are 54). “Just about all of them,” he continued in an interview, “could be allies of Israel. They vote at international forums, and I know people don’t believe this, but I think we can change the automatic majorities in the UN and so on if you begin to shift this.”

Arab states often galvanise blocs of support within the UN to pass resolutions condemning Israeli policies. And with European and other nations increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s right-leaning government, blaming him for the impasse in the peace process with the Palestinians, reinvigorating ties with Africa seems to be part of a global Israeli survival strategy.

Later, wars between Israel and its neighbours in 1967 and 1973 led North African nations to urge sub-Saharan African states to cut ties with Israel, which many did.

Israel's support for the apartheid regime in South Africa - which ended in 1994 - also soured relations with much of the rest of the continent.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Israel felt a kinship to newly independent nations in Africa and dispatched diplomats across the continent, opening two dozen embassies.

But in the mid-1970s, after the Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, many African countries severed diplomatic ties with Israel. Today, it operates only 10 small embassies in sub-Saharan Africa, and its development projects tend to be low-key, like sending Kenyan students to study farming in Israel or helping Tanzanian beekeepers make more honey.

Israel also wants African states to support it at the United Nations, where the Palestinians were recognised as a non-member observer state in 2012.

Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said last week Thursday they would renew co-operation in the fight against extremism, a theme that Netanyahu has repeated often during his African tour, and they signed agreements to increase ties in technology, agriculture and more.

At his arrival in Kigali in Rwanda last week Wednesday for a symbolic stop, boosting ties between the two countries with a history marked by genocide, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Netanyahu visited the Kigali Memorial Centre where more than 250 000 of the at least 800 000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried in mass graves.

"My people know the pain of genocide as well, and this is the unique bond that neither one of our people would prefer to have," Netanyahu said at a media conference after visiting the memorial, alongside Kagame.

Kagame spoke of how the history of genocide had also influenced the two small nations to rely on their citizens. "We have been formed and shaped to see, to do things in a certain way - but based mainly on the major resource we have," Kagame said. "And that is our people, the other resources come after."

In 2014, when Rwanda sat on the UN Security Council, Kigali abstained from a resolution - ultimately rejected - advocating the end of the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Israel's business with Africa constitutes only two per cent of its foreign trade, leaving plenty of room for growth while demand for its defence expertise and products is rising.

In Nairobi, Kenya where he met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Netanyahu said Israel and Kenya should work hand-in-hand against terrorism.  

The Israeli leader promised to share intelligence and provide "direct assistance" aimed at saving lives. "There is a raging battle with terrorism," Netanyahu said.

The two leaders also discussed investment opportunities, student exchanges, easing of visa restrictions and opportunities to employ Israeli technologies in health, water and agriculture development.

"Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel," Netanyahu said, insisting that Kenya and Israel share "common opportunities" as well as threats.

Many sub-Saharan Africans, even if they have never met a Jew, are enamoured with Israel because of its links to biblical places and “because of the common enemy, the Islamic fundamentalist Arabs and terrorists,” said James Solomon Padiet, a political science lecturer in South Sudan.

But many Africans also identify with the Palestinians, who are seen as oppressed underdogs in the Middle East conflict.

Like any other nation, Israel constantly scans the horizon, trying to push its economic, strategic and diplomatic interests, looking for new friends and new markets.

Several African countries, including Kenya, receive Israeli military training and equipment; Africa has become one of the biggest growth markets for Israel’s arms industry.

Kenyatta said it was “critical for us to re-evaluate our relations with the State of Israel given the challenges we on the African continent are faced with today.

Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February, said he would lobby to have Israel’s observer status at the African Union reinstated. Israel had observer status under the AU’s precursor, the Organisation of African Unity, but it was not extended when the AU was launched in 2002.

Tanzania has also said it would open an embassy in Israel.

Israeli relations with most African nations collapsed over the 1967 Six Day War and its support for South Africa's apartheid regime.

Many of Netanyahu's meetings have focused on combating the terrorist threat from groups such as ISIS, al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

“The African continent constitutes vast potential for Israel,” Netanyahu said before the trip.

 “We are trying to diversify our exports through channeling efforts to markets that are growing more rapidly than [others],” he said. “Africa is one of them.”

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