ADDIS ABABA – From people lining the street holding Israeli flags and waving on the road from the Entebbe airport to the presidential palace nearby; to the “Karibu, We Welcome H.E. Benjamin Netanyahu” billboards on some Nairobi streets; to the Rwanda brass band and colorful honor guard that greeted him at the Kigali Airport – East Africa, or more precisely a good chunk of East Africa, clearly embraced Israel this week.
And what was so telling about this embrace is that it was done in public, in broad daylight, and with much enthusiasm.
Which leads to one major question. Why did it take so long? If leader after leader, from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, all – in their own unique style – extolled the benefits of cooperation with Israel, and if Netanyahu, in numerous speeches and four press conferences, declared the strategic importance of Africa to Israel, then why did it take so long to move this relationship into high gear? Kenyatta supplied the answer: It’s now a different world.
“We think the world has changed,” he said in elegant British-accented English, standing alongside Netanyahu on a red-carpeted podium set before the entrance to State House in Nairobi, a palatial, White House-looking building with a massive black, red and green Kenyan flag flying from the rooftop. “The nature of the global problems that we now share are different from what they were some 30 years ago.”
Africa, he said, “cannot live in history,” an allusion to opposition from some on the continent to greater ties with Israel because of the relationship Israel had in the past with apartheid South Africa.
“We have to be able to live in the future, address ourselves to the challenges of today,” he said. “And the one clear fact is that [terrorism is] the biggest challenge we face, not only as a state and continent but as a community of nations threatened by deranged people who believe in no religion and threaten men, women and children around the globe.”
More than all the technological know-how that Israel can supply, more than the expertise it can provide in soil conservation and solar energy, Africa is opening up to Israel because of groups like the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabaab from nearby Somalia, threatening the peace and quiet of the continent’s eastern corridor.
All efforts to push a social agenda, all attempts to build infrastructure and improve the living standard of the people, all attempts to make life better for their citizens are being thwarted, Kenyatta said, by the threat of terrorism. It dwarfs everything else; it casts a cloud over everything.
And for that reason, he made clear, Africa needs Israel, as much as Israel needs Africa.
NOW WHILE ALL THIS may sound clear and logical to Israelis, the fact that Kenyatta – as well as Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – said it openly is what is unique.
Israel is no stranger to discrete diplomatic ties; indeed, they continue to this day, both with states in Africa with whom Israel does not have diplomatic relations – such as Somalia, Chad and Mali – as well as with Arab countries in the region.
And it is those ties with the Arab states, with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states in particular, that has helped lead to a change in African attitudes. The public might not know much about Israel’s ties with the Gulf states – beyond the fact that they are taking place – but leaders around the world are aware of them, and their very existence is having an impact.
Kenyatta said that faced with the challenge of terrorism, it would be “foolhardy” for Africa not to cooperate closely with Israel, it would be “like an ostrich burying its head.”
He noted that Israel today has better ties with the Arab world than ever before, and asked – essentially – why Africa should be more Catholic than the pope. “Why should we on the African continent say we know better than those in the region?” Yoram Elron, the Foreign Ministry’s director-general for Africa, whose father was an ambassador in Zambia
until he was kicked out in 1973 when most of Africa cut off ties with Israel under intense Arab pressure, and who himself served as ambassador to Cameroon and nonresident ambassador to South Sudan, termed this week’s events a “milestone” in Israel-African ties.
One of the elements that made it a milestone, he said, was Netanyahu’s summit in Uganda with the leaders of seven Eastern African countries: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia
, South Sudan and Tanzania.
That summit was unprecedented, he said, and its significance should not be downplayed.
At short notice, the leaders flew to Uganda for a three-hour meeting that Netanyahu described as the start of a strategic alliance among countries with many common interests. That meeting sent a message that those who attended were no longer afraid of bringing ties with Israel into the sunlight, no longer afraid of the reaction of Arab states, the North African states or South Africa.
The importance of the meeting to the African leaders who participated was evident in that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame came to it even though it fell on the day marking the end of the genocide in his country in 1994. In Rwanda, that day is the equivalent of that nation’s independence day, and his showing up to the meeting would be like Netanyahu flying abroad for a meeting on Israel’s Independence Day.
Tall, razor-thin and soft-spoken – not elegant like Kenyatta or bombastic like Uganda’s Museveni – Kagame, in fact, is the force driving this alliance, pushing it forward, urging other countries to get involved. And Rwanda, despite its small size, has emerged as a key force in Africa in recent years, largely because the country’s military is strong and its economy is robust and growing rapidly.
Rwanda is also arguably – along with Kenya – Israel’s strongest friend in Africa. Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said recently that both those countries were instrumental in beating back Iranian attempts at the UN to keep Israel, for the first time ever, from gaining the chairmanship of a key UN committee.
Jerusalem hopes to replicate the type of summit it held in Uganda on Monday in the near future in West Africa, with countries like Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and others participating.
The impression is that Monday’s meeting will open the door and provide a strong “back wind” for replicating this type of event in West Africa.
Ironically, it is Nigeria – a country plagued by the terrorism of Boko Haram and which had very warm relations with Israel up until new elections there in 2015 – that is posing an obstacle. Israel’s relationship with Nigeria flowered under its Christian president, Goodluck Jonathan, but when he lost the election, the country’s attitude – and voting pattern in international forums – changed.
This phenomenon – of changing attitudes depending on who is in office – works both ways, however.
Just as Nigeria’s attitude cooled with the election of a Muslim president, Muhammadu Buhari, Tanzania’s attitude improved with the election there in 2015 of a Christian president, John Magufuli, replacing his Muslim predecessor.
Tanzania’s Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga was at the summit in Uganda and announced that his country would open an embassy in Tel Aviv. This will bring the number of African embassies up to 15, with four new ones opened in the last three years: South Sudan, Rwanda, Zambia and now Tanzania.
In addition to the Uganda summit, Netanyahu’s trip was significant on two other levels: It provided strong momentum to strengthen bilateral ties in each of the countries he visited – Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Some nine bilateral agreements, ranging from accords on tourism to those on agricultural cooperation and visa waivers for diplomats, were signed.
Furthermore, representatives from some 50 Israeli companies held business seminars in both Kenya and Ethiopia, giving a huge push to developing business ties.
Secondly, both Kenyatta and Hailemariam pledged to work to get Israel’s observer status at the African Union reinstated, a status that has been blocked since 2002 by the Arab states and South Africa.
The significance of this, Netanyahu said, is that it will further open Africa’s doors to Israel, as Israel will be involved in pan-African consultations and be able to present its case to the body. The Palestinian Authority has this status already.
Netanyahu clearly soaked in all the warm words and the pomp and ceremony surrounding his whirlwind visit to four states in just over four days. One reason he seemed to enjoy it was that he was not confronted at every turn by questions about the diplomatic process.
The Palestinians, according to one senior official in the prime minister’s meetings with the African leaders, barely came up.
“They have bigger fish to fry,” he said.
It was refreshing, another senior diplomatic source noted, that the main issue on the table on a foreign visit was not the Palestinians or the diplomatic process, but rather, how to grow more crops, how to more efficiently use more water, and how to use Israeli technology to fight terrorism.
Though Museveni, Kenyatta and Hailemariam all mentioned the need for peace in the Mideast in their speeches, they all just essentially pledged allegiance to the two-state solution and stressed the need for negotiations. By emphasizing the need for negotiations, they gently fell into line with Israel’s position that this is what is needed to move the diplomatic process forward, not additional international conferences.
In Africa this week, none of the leaders fixated on the Palestinian issue or cared overmuch about whether a few hundred more housing units will be built in Ma’aleh Adumim. That definitely would not have been the case had Netanyahu opted to spend the first week of July not in Africa but, rather, in the US or Europe – another reason he is eager to return to Africa, this time the western part, in the near future.
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