Israel’s foray into East Africa was surprisingly well received
Benjamin Netanyahu’s tour of East Africa came at a time Israel’s position in the Middle East is militarily and strategically unassailable. In the past two decades or so, she has seen her main Arab foes simply crumble, a process the Arab Spring only helped to accelerate.
Syria has become an absolute mess, where militias and terrorists, most fearsomely the Isis group, are roaming free. Iraq remains broken ever since America invaded in 2003. The only growth industry there are car bombs that explode nearly every day.
Isis is entrenched there too. War-torn Libya has two governments, two armies, two central banks – you get the picture. Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel, are waging a rearguard struggle against radical Islamist forces that threaten to overwhelm the entire Middle East.
The Persian Gulf oil sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia may look stable. Yet that is illusory. They are threatened by the same deadly forces of disintegration sweeping the region. Last week’s extraordinary suicide bomb attack at Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, which is Islam’s second holiest shrine, sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world.
Surveying all this disarray, the only threat Israel sees is Iran, which is racially Persian rather than Arab. Thus with her hostile Middle Eastern backyard destabilised in a way she never ever dreamed of, Israel now feels free to project muscle to places like nearby Africa.
The four countries Netanyahu selected for his tour were not picked at random. The Ugandan stop was primarily sentimental. It was timed for the anniversary of the 1976 Entebbe raid, when the prime minister’s brother Jonathan was killed. Kenya is a special case. Israel knows our country is the key if the Jewish state’s engagement with eastern Africa is to be meaningful.
Rwanda was another necessary stop. The two states share emotional memories of genocide, one during the Nazi era in Europe and the other in 1994 against the Tutsi people. Rwanda has since her calamity been reaching out to Israel for lessons on how to sustain that collective memory and how to rebuild the self-assurance of the survivors.
Ethiopia is the country Israel has had one of the longest relationships with in Africa. Some of us recall the airlifts of the Ethiopian Falashas to Israel in the 80s and 90s after Israel’s Chief Rabbi gave an edict that they were bona fide Jews. But the relationship has a larger strategic purpose. There is Ethiopia’s position near the Red Sea and her proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. Israel also has for long valued Ethiopia as a counter to Sudan, which the Jewish state accuses of trans-shipping Iranian weapons destined for Israel’s Gaza-based enemy, Hamas.
Of course, Israel cannot match the resources China is pouring into Africa. Nor can she equal what India has to offer in terms of trade. But she has certain specific and proven competencies. The security-related aspects are obvious, as is her expertise in dryland farming. Less well known is her high-tech industries, which are world class. Incidentally several US government agencies have come to rely on Israeli firms on cyber-security.
Indeed, Iran’s nuclear programme got derailed by a top-secret and highly sophisticated computer bug called Stuxnet developed jointly by US and Israeli specialists.
Israel is acutely aware East Africa faces a major terrorist problem in the shape of Al-Shabaab. It was inevitable counter-terrorism would be the top agenda of Netanyahu’s official business in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The precise details of the Israeli input that was agreed on was not disclosed, but it is an open book that when it comes to tracking the movements of terrorist masterminds and the sources and flow of their funding and arms, Israeli security agencies are at the top of the global league.
Uhuru Kenyatta overdid things by promising to push for the reinstatement of Israel’s observer status at the African Union. This will be vigorously resisted. There is a critical mass of African states with Muslim populations where this proposal will not sell.
It is also difficult to imagine a powerhouse like South Africa’s ruling ANC countenancing any move that will be construed as a betrayal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, with which it has old ties. Many African governments – even Arab ones like Morocco – engage with Israel. However they prefer to do it secretly.
Netanyahu himself is a big part of the problem. He is the most hawkish Israeli prime minister in living memory.