Uganda was one of the few countries Israel courted to establish relations with even before independence. In that effort as early as 1962 just before independence, the Israel Foreign Affairs ministry sent Arye Oded to Uganda as a research assistant at Makerere University with the aim of establishing contacts with the incoming independent government. Before that, the only Ugandan official that the Israel government had interacted with was Yusuf Lule when he was the principal of Makerere College before it became a university.
Writing in the Jewish Political Studies Review of 2006, Dr Oded, the former research assistant at Makerere University, says Israel’s interest in Uganda in the early 1960s was the same as the rest of Africa.
“Israel wanted to break through the encirclement of hostile Arab countries and open a way to a nearby continent, and especially East Africa.” Israel’s interest in Uganda was not only formed by her earlier desire to have some of her nationals settled in Karamoja in the 1930s but also its vantage location of bordering an Islamic country Sudan, which had participated in wars against the Jewish state.
Soon after independence, Obote wanted to free Uganda from depending on Britain, her former colonial master. Israel’s interest in Uganda was a chance not to be ignored.
During his visit to Tel Aviv in September 1962, discussions centred on cooperation in areas of security, agriculture and military.
At independence, Israel was represented by their Labour minister Yigar Allon, who announced the opening of an Israeli embassy in Uganda and granting of 150 scholarships in the fields of medicine and agriculture.
In February 1963, just after independence, the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, visited Uganda and signed a technical cooperation, kick-starting huge cooperation between the two countries.
Through Mashav, Israel’s Department of International Cooperation, they sent civilian experts in the fields of medicine, cooperatives, agriculture and irrigation to see how best to assist Uganda, while Ugandan students went to Israel for training in medical and engineering fields.
“In Uganda itself, Israelis gave on-the-spot courses in agriculture, cooperatives, and community development. At Uganda’s request, advisers from the Carmel Institute in Haifa were sent to organise courses for office administrators.”
Their assistance was not limited to training alone but it stretched to economic and infrastructure development.
Companies such as Koor-Sahar, Solel Boneh International, Vered and Tahal were awarded contracts for different construction projects. Among such projects was a £1m (about Shs4.6b) project to construct the Kabale-Ntugamo road in 1966 by Vered.
Others included the construction of housing flats in Bugolobi by Solel Boneh, the construction of an airstrip and roads in Arua by Hiram-Ze’evi.
Militarily, Israeli advisors came to Uganda to train different sections of the army, including the parachutist, air force, infantry and the armoured corps. It was during the same time that Israel sold Uganda its first jet fighters – the Fuga type – and went ahead to train its pilots. To strengthen their military cooperation, a military attaché office was opened at the Israel embassy in Kampala to coordinate these activities.
Up until the Yom Kippur (the six day war) of 1967, the Ugandan government had been sympathetic to the Israel cause and voted favourably at the OAU and the UN.
However, after the war, Uganda’s attitude towards Israel changed. It was at this time that the relationship with the first Obote regime started getting cold as the Arab countries started warming up relations with Uganda.
The Amin era
Being Israeli trained, Amin was not new to the military setup of the Jewish country. “As chief of staff, Amin had had good relations with Israeli military officers and was considered a friend of Israel, he had taken a paratroopers’ course in Israel. Israelis gave him the name Hagai Ne’eman, which means ‘reliable helmsman’ and is a Hebrew translation of the Swahili name Idi Amin,” writes Dr Oded in Jewish Political Studies Review.
Despite the training and the relationship he had with them, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the Truman Research Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the Israel government, which he was serving as a diplomat at the time, was not involved in the internal affairs of any African country.
While attending a Commonwealth summit in Singapore, Obote was overthrown in a military coup on January 25, 1971, led by Amin. There were allegations of Israel having aided the coup.
Amin’s relationship with the Israeli head of military mission in Uganda, Col Baruch Bar-Lev, led to conclusions that his government backed the coup.
However, in his article ‘The Uganda Coup: Clan Action by the Military’, in the Journal of Modern African Studies of 1972, Michael F. Lofchie says “other factors involving developments within Uganda and the strained relationship between Obote and Amin”, caused the coup.
The first three months of the coup determined Israel’s relation with Uganda. In the beginning, the relationship between the two countries improved from what they were during Obote’s regime. It was in the military that the improvement in relation was first noted. Amin allowed the transfer of aid to Anyanya rebels in Southern Sudan through Uganda, something Obote had refused. In The People newspaper of December 9, 1971, Amin praised the work done by Israel military advisors in Uganda.
As a head of state, Israel was his first stop after taking power in July 1971. Foreign and Defence ministers of Israel, Abba Eban and Moshe Dayan respectively, received him.
In a press release after his meeting with the Prime Minister Golda Meir, Amin promised to change Uganda’s pro-Arab votes at the OAU and the UN made during Obote’s rule, he also promised to open up a Ugandan embassy in Tel Aviv. At the end of the visit the prime minister announced an expansion of cooperation in all areas relevant to Uganda’s needs.
However, the honeymoon did not last long. Within a few months of the takeover, Amin’s ballooning military expenditure forced Amin to look for aid which was not forth coming. On his first foreign trip he made a number of requests to Israel which included a £10m (Shs46b) loan from Israel but it was denied, asking the Israel government to recognise his regime the way Britain had done. The Israel premier replied saying, “We recognise states not regimes.”
During the talks with Meir, Amin had also asked for Phantom fighter jets. When asked by his host what Uganda needed the phantom jets for, Amin replied he was going to hit Tanzania.
The fighter jets request was also turned down. Amin went further and asked Israel to write off the military debt Uganda owed them, but even this was rejected. Having got a negative response from Israel on all his requests Amin looked somewhere else for help. This was the beginning of the end of the warm Israel-Uganda relation.
Through Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Amin reached Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in February 1972, who first reprimanded him for working with a Zionist entity but later agreed to give him the money he had been denied by the Israelis on the understanding that he will expel all Israelis from Uganda.
According to the Uganda Argus of February 14, 1972, “the two presidents emphasised their desire to base their regimes on Islam and expressed support for the Arab struggle against Zionism and imperialism, for the liberation of the captured territories, and for “the right of return of the Palestinian people to their homes and their lands.”
Soon after Amin’s return from Libya , he hosted a delegation from Libya. When the Libyan delegation left, Amin turned against the Israelis in Uganda, accusing them of not doing enough and on March 30, 1972, he ordered the closure of the Israel embassy in Uganda and severed diplomatic relations. On April 8, 1972, the last Israeli left Uganda.
After 22 years, in July 1994 relations between Uganda and Israel started normalizing. On July 29, 1994, the Israel ambassador to Kenya Dr Aye Oded signed an agreement with President Museveni to revive diplomatic relations.
In 2016, to mark 40 years of the Israel raid on Entebbe, Benjamin Netanyahu became the second sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Uganda. His brother who was commanding the operation was the only Israel soldier to die in the rescue mission.