Kenyan FM: Nairobi committed to Israel

Says commitment comes despite threats of increased terror.

kenya riot 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
kenya riot 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Kenya's friendly ties with Israel are one reason it has been hit over the last decade by terrorist attacks, but despite this, Nairobi will not re-evaluate its ties with Jerusalem, Kenyan Foreign Minister Raphael Tuju said in an interview this week with The Jerusalem Post. "Our friendship with Israel and the United States has been responsible for our being targeted, because every time we have had a terrorist attack in Kenya, it has not targeted Kenyans - it has targeted either American or Israeli or Jewish targets in our country," Tuju said. But, Tuju added, "We are not going to let our relationship be defined by fear. We are committed to strengthening our relationship, despite the fact that it increases our risk of being attacked." Tuju will leave Israel Thursday following a five-day visit - his first ever to the country and the first visit by a Kenyan foreign minister in over a decade - during which he met the country's top political leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Terrorists have attacked Kenya on a number of occasions in the past decade. In 1998, a blast at the US embassy killed 219 people, and in 2002, a bomb attack at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, owned by Israelis, killed 13 people. That same day, terrorists fired missiles at, but did not hit, an Arkia charter flight carrying 261 people back to Israel. Tuju said that the terrorist threats in Kenya have not led caused the majority of Kenyans, most of whom are Christians, to sever ties with Israel. "The average sentiment toward Israel is very positive," he said. "There is an affinity toward Israel because this is where Jerusalem is. People can relate to Israel because of the Bible. If there is any book that people from the older generation have read from cover to cover, it is the Bible. I don't see a situation where Kenyans would call for a closing of the Israeli embassy - not in my lifetime." Which is a shift, because Kenya did cut off ties with Israel once before - back in 1973, when the countries of Africa, under pressure from the Arab world, severed ties with Israel. In 1988, Kenya became one of the first African nations to renew these relations. Tuju said that even when there were no formal ties between the two countries, Kenya showed its friendship by allowing IDF planes to land there after the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976, and by letting El Al planes flying from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg refuel in Nairobi. Today, Tuju said, Kenya often abstains or does not show up for votes condemning Israel in various international bodies, something that he termed "exceptional" in Africa. As to why Kenya wouldn't consider actually voting on Israel's side, the foreign minister said that he had explained in his Jerusalem meetings that in many of those votes, Africa had cast its ballot as a bloc, as does the European Union. "If we don't vote as a bloc with the rest of Africa, we will be ostracized, and this is not good for Kenya," he said. 'But as much as possible, we have tried to be the voice of reason in favor of Israel in several forums." Regarding terrorism, Tuju denied there were al-Qaida cells operating in his country. "They don't have bases in Kenya, but they had some in Somalia, that we believe have been liquidated. But the fight is still on [in Somalia], and there may be some [al-Qaida operatives] in flight." Israeli diplomatic officials said that the recent fighting in Somalia, to Kenya's east, has led to a situation where the al-Qaida cells welcomed there by the ousted Islamic Movement have now been forced out of the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, and might try to flee into Kenya. Tuju said that Israel and Kenya would soon sign a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of an emergency rescue team in Kenya. Israel has on two occasions - following the bombing of the US embassy in 1998 and the collapse of a building in Nairobi last year - sent rescue workers to the country. Tuju said that the IDF Home Front Command would provide disaster training for an unspecified number of Kenyans The 20,000 Israelis who vacationed each year in Kenya before the Mombasa bombing have dwindled considerably, due both to the lack of any direct flight from Tel Aviv to Nairobi, and the fact that Israel has issued a travel advisory against visiting Kenya. Tuju said that he has not tried to convince Israeli to take his country of the list. However, he said, he felt safer in Kenya than in Jerusalem, where his visit to the Western Wall on Monday was accompanied by what he described as a level of security he never needed back home. "I don't think that the threat in Kenya is any higher than in any other cities. If anything, I think there is more risk in Jerusalem than where we are." Nevertheless, Tuju said that Kenya lives in a "very tough neighborhood" - with Somalia to the east, Sudan to the northwest, and northern Uganda "with its own problems" just next door. Further afield, he said, there are problems in Congo, Rawanda and Burundi. "People are a little bit apprehensive about the security situation, and we don't hold it against Israel," he said. As to the situation with Iran, Tuju said that there is no "homogenous" African policy on the nuclear issue, and that Kenya - which has diplomatic ties with Teheran - has not yet "developed a policy...toward the developments in Iran." But, he said, "we do not like the recent comments made by Iran that Israel should be wiped off the map." That kind of statement, he said, "is not just a bad joke, it is obnoxious."