He was the trophy guest that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta — facing questions on the credibility of the election that won him a second term in office — wished for.
Yet when it was confirmed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would attend President Kenyatta’s inauguration on November 28, the debate quickly turned to the closeness between the two leaders and Kenya’s strategic value to Africa.
While some State House operatives characterised Netanyahu’s visit as emblematic of the cordial relations between the two leaders and their people, the inauguration also afforded the prime minister an opportunity to interact with almost a dozen African leaders who were attending the swearing in ceremony. On the agenda was politics, diplomacy, security and business.
Mr Netanyahu announced he would be attending the inauguration in a speech marking the death 44 years ago of former Israeli premier Ben Gurion. In the speech, Mr Netanyahu spoke with nostalgia of Gurion’s foreign policy mantra — the Periphery Plan — through which Israel ignored hostile neighbours and courted Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia to be its allies.
“We are in an unprecedented [diplomatic] boom, not only with our great friend the United States, Russia, the Asian countries — especially China, India and Japan — but also Latin America, Australia, and African countries, where I will be going next week for the third time in a year and a half,” Mr Netanyahu was quoted by sections of the Israeli press as telling a faction of the ruling Likud party.
His one-day trip to Nairobi, Mr Netanyahu said as he boarded the plane, “is to deepen ties with Africa, including by establishing connections with nations with which we do not have diplomatic relations.”
Earlier he had told legislators that he would be meeting 11 African leaders — it turned out to be 10 — during President Kenyatta’s inauguration.
The trip was the prime minister’s third to Africa in 18 months. It enabled Mr Netanyahu to sustain rapport with the continent, a rapport that appeared to have been derailed following the cancellation of the Israeli-Africa Summit that was to be held in Togo at the end of October.
The summit was cancelled amid strong opposition from the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, South Africa and Morocco, denying Mr Netanyahu another chance to lobby for Israel to join the UN Security Council at the election set for 2019.
Mr Netanyahu had during a visit to Liberia in June this year as the guest of Economic Community of West African States, laid bare the basis for his engagement with Africa.
“My visit to Liberia is another chapter in the attempt to break the automatic anti-Israel majority in the United Nations. This process will take years. In the meantime, Israel is coming back to Africa in a big way,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
That rapprochement appears to be paying dividends faster than Mr Netanyahu envisaged. Senegal and Guinea — two Muslim majority nations — sent non-resident envoys to Israel in August while Cape Verde announced soon after that it would no longer vote against Israel at the UN.
After discussions with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Nairobi, Mr Netanyahu announced back home that Tel Aviv would open an embassy in Kigali, becoming the fifth diplomatic office Israel has opened in Africa in the past two years.
Currently, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia handles matters related to Rwanda. The country has been a dependable ally of Israel after abstaining in the 2014 vote on a resolution advancing the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations Security Council.
Mr Netanyahu also announced that Israel was considering starting direct commercial flights to Rwanda. The two countries recently agreed on a $5,000 per head price for African migrant that Kigali would accept, helping Tel Aviv deport up to 50,000 mostly illegal Sudanese and Eritrean refugees.
“This is part of the expansion of Israel’s presence in Africa and of the deepening co-operation between Israel and African countries,” Mr Netanyahu said.
On the sidelines of the inauguration festivities in Kenya, Mr Netanyahu also met the presidents of Gabon, Uganda, Zambia, South Sudan, Botswana and Namibia, the prime minister of Ethiopia and Tanzania’s vice president Samia Suluhu.
Details of the meetings were not immediately available but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said their discussion focused on “strengthening Uganda-Israeli relations.”
Before Liberia, Mr Netanyahu had visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia in July last year and is expected over the coming weeks to visit Paris, Brussels and India.
However, it was not lost on observers that upon Netanyahu’s return home, Israel announced that it would sign a memorandum of understanding on December 4 with the US to partner in the $1 billion Africa Power Initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2013.
The energy project seeks to connect 60 million households in Africa to electricity by 2030.
“Israel is becoming a partner in one of the biggest aid programmes available today, and this initiative is a result of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy to leverage Israeli ingenuity to strengthen diplomatic ties,” said Eli Groner, director general of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office. Israeli firms expect billions of dollars in deals from the partnership.
At the inauguration luncheon, where he was the chief guest, Mr Netanyahu said Israel was ready to use its advanced technology in various fields to ensure African countries achieve their development goals.
Israel is known for its advanced technology in water, agriculture (especially combating desertification) and power generation, but it is in security, cyber security and information technology that its dealing with East Africa are an open book.
Mr Netanyahu said challenges of international terrorism could only be tackled through co-operation between governments. “If we work together we will defeat the barbarians. Our people deserve better lives and we can provide that for them,” he said.
“I would like very much not only to co-operate on an individual basis with each of your countries and with Kenya but also with the African Union. I hope that we all find a way to have Israel become an observer in the African Union because we can help,” he said.
Kenya set alarm bells ringing in Israel when on the sidelines of the Africa-Arab Summit in 2013, President Kenyatta showed willingness to accept a Palestinian embassy in Nairobi.
Israeli observer status at Africa’s apex organisation was revoked in 1973 when 25 states of the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) severed diplomatic relations with Israel during the Yom Kippur war, when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria waged war against Israel.
Israel is concerned that Palestine, its main rival, already has observer status at the AU and is allowed to address the Heads of State Summit.
International relations scholar Dancun Ojwang noted that Mr Netanyahu’s visit endorses the position of US and Western countries, who have shown a willingness to work with African leaders, even those whose legitimacy is in doubt.
“If you see Israel, you see America. After elections, we saw Western diplomats going easy on the Jubilee government. This could be so because of the strong ties between China and Africa,” said Dr Ojwang.
According to Dr Ojwang, competition to strike business and security deals with African leaders could have informed the visit by the Israeli premier, who did not hide his intentions to have his country accepted at the AU.
-Reported by Erick Oduor, Peter Munaita and Fred Oluoch