Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in East Africa today with one clear priority – to end decades of hostility and convince African countries to stop voting against Israel at the United Nations.
In an interview at his Jerusalem office on Friday ahead of his visit, Mr Netanyahu told Daily Monitor that his visit is an attempt to thaw relations that have been icy for decades over the Palestinian question and Israel’s dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
“I’m very open about it, that’s true,” said Mr Netanyahu, who will be the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Africa in over two decades. “Why should there be such a dissonance between these strong bilateral ties and the multilateral ties? Why not correct this absurdity?”
The Israeli PM said he had not visited Africa earlier because of fraught relations with many countries on the continent.
“Israel was blacklisted in Africa, basically kicked out by political pressure from many, many countries in which we were involved in the 60s and 70s and it took a while to change.”
Mr Netanyahu said it would be a “very emotional” moment when he lands this afternoon at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, exactly 40 years to the day his brother, Lt Col Yonatan, was killed during an operation to rescue Israeli hostages held by militants linked to the Palestinian cause. Mr Netanyahu visited the airport a few years ago when he was out of government.
On Monday afternoon, the Israeli PM will join host President Yoweri Museveni and leaders of Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Zambia and Malawi in a regional anti-terrorism summit before flying to Kenya. He is also expected to visit Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Mr Netanyahu said Israel was willing to help African states counter terrorism after a spate of attacks by al-Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, plans he is expected to share with the regional leaders.
Israeli-owned businesses in the region have been targeted by terrorists. They include: Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which was attacked in September 2013, as well as Paradise Hotel in Mombasa struck in 2002, and a commercial jet that was fired on in the same place the same year.
Mr Netanyahu said attempts by western allies to impose democracies in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Libya had misread the political dynamic in the region and contributed to the emergence of “head-chopping caliphates” in Syria and elsewhere.
“Bubbling under the surface were the forces of militant Islam,” he said. “This was not fully understood.”
Pivot to Africa
Mr Netanyahu is expected to announce a $13 million initiative to increase trade and investment between Israel and Africa, the opening of commercial outposts, as well as cooperation in health, agriculture, water resources management, and technology.
However, the relatively small figure belies the fundamental shift in Jerusalem’s policy towards the continent that the visit represents.
Israel’s warm ties with Africa were sullied by the 1967 and 1973 wars against its Arab neighbours, the 1976 raid on Entebbe, and cooperation with the apartheid regime in South Africa, which Jerusalem helped develop nuclear technology and other commercial ties despite a boycott by many countries in the world.
Mr Netanyahu has quietly worked to build bridges with South Africa, including an extended visit by his foreign affairs’ aide, Dore Gold, earlier this year, which included a much-publicised visit to Soweto.
“Many African countries want Africa to come back to Israel,” he told the Nation.
Questioned about Israel’s ties to apartheid South Africa, Mr Netanyahu said: “It stopped under my predecessors and I am glad it did.” Pressed to state whether he had any regrets about the cooperation, he added: “Yeah, and I am glad it [ended].”