Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to four countries in East Africa has paid off, as Tel Aviv is now counting on the support of much of Africa when it comes to votes at the United Nations.
Highly placed officials in the Uganda government told The EastAfrican on the sidelines of a counter- terrorism summit attended by PM Netanyahu and seven Heads of State that Israel’s foreign policy was one of the main reasons for the prime minister’s visit, and that he would “gain something from this tour.”
His agenda: To get friends from Africa who would back Israel in UN voting, re-admission as an observer at the African Union, trade and security deals.
“This is about their foreign policy. PM Netanyahu wants to use this visit to end Israel’s isolation. You know Israel has been isolated by Africa and the Arab world for many years,” said Ambassador James Mugume, the Permanent Secretary in Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“But Uganda also has a lot to gain. So, it’s about our interests as well,” Mr Mugume added.
Other analysts of geopolitics say Israel’s choice of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia as the four countries that its prime minister visited was in careful consideration of the influence and respect that these countries’ leaders enjoy within the African Union.
The points of influence they cite are based on these countries’ or their leaders’ ability to articulate strong positions on issues that other members of the continental body equally feel strongly about, without voicing their opinions.
For instance, analysts argue that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has built respect for himself within the AU as a leader who will come out and say what most leaders are afraid to critique.
A case in point being the continental body’s stand against the International Criminal Court after the Hague based institution indicted first, Sudan president Omar al Bashir and later, Kenya’s President and Deputy President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto respectively.
In its protracted conflict with Palestine, Israel has been dealt several blows by the 54-member state Africa, which tends to vote as a bloc within the UN.
Uganda particularly has been a strong ally of the Palestinian Authority, and in previous votes at the UN, the East African country has stood with Palestine.
For instance, in the November 2012 vote when Palestine sought to gain observer status at the UN, Uganda made a last minute switch from its initial position to abstain, and instead voted along with the rest of the AU and Non Aligned Movement members to avoid what would be interpreted as betrayal of Palestine, officials said.
At the time, International Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem said despite Uganda’s close relationship with Israel, the country works through regional groups, and on this vote, Kampala was persuaded by the unanimous decision of AU and the Non Aligned Movement members to vote for Palestine to get observer status.
Israel "blacklisted" in Africa
In 1973, several African countries severed ties with Israel after the Arab-Israeli war or Yom Kippur war. The Arab coalition was led by an African country, Egypt.
Moreover, Israel, which until 2002 enjoyed observer status at the former Organisation of African Unity, lost this status when the organisation was dissolved in 2002 — another issue that PM Netanyahu sought to change with his just concluded trip.
“Israel was blacklisted in Africa, basically kicked out by political pressure from many countries in which we were involved in in the 1960s and 1970s and it took a while to change that,” said PM Netanyahu in an interview he gave before embarking on his four-nation trip.
“I think the thing that changed most was something outside of Africa — the Arab world changed. Arab countries now understand that Israel is not their enemy but their partner in fighting militant Islamist terror that threatens just about every country in the region, and many countries in Africa and equally, many African countries recognise that,” he added.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania have been victims of Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in recent years, an issue which Israel wants to help with.
In his remarks during PM Netanyahu’s visit, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of Israeli’s commandos’ raid on Entebbe to free Israeli hostages in 1976, President Museveni said both Jews and Palestinians have historical claim to their land in the Middle East.
“The only way for you and for the world is for the two of you to agree to live side by side in two states – one Jewish and the other Arab – in peace and with recognised borders,” said President Museveni.