Africa

Netanyahu in Entebbe: A personal journey amid a diplomatic push

  • 4 July 2016
  • From the section Africa
A statue in Uganda of Benjamin Netanyahu's brother Jonathan, who was killed in the Entebbe raid Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A statue in Uganda of Benjamin Netanyahu's brother Jonathan, killed in the Entebbe raid

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, is, in personal terms, a trip to the past; a past which shaped his own political future.

It was the death there of his brother - the commander of Israel's hostage rescue mission at Entebbe airport in July 1976 - that pushed Mr Netanyahu into public life, a path that would eventually take him to the leadership of his country.

But Mr Netanyahu's Africa tour - he is also visiting Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda - represents something of a reprise of the diplomatic past as well.

For, during the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel developed strong ties with several African countries.

In common with many African nations, Israel was seen as a young country that had established itself through its own independence struggle. Trade and security ties flourished.

But this was not to last. A whole combination of factors prompted a souring of ties between Israel and African capitals between 1966 and 1973.

Entebbe pilot Michel Bacos 'saw hostage murdered'

Entebbe: A mother's week of 'indescribable fear'

Israel's unwanted African migrants

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Netanyahu is keen to gain African diplomatic support

There was Israel's occupation of territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War. There was growing pressure from Arab states and, by the Middle East War in 1973, the oil weapon was a potent tool.

Guinea was the first to break off ties after the 1967 war. Uganda followed in 1972. Chad, Congo and Burundi followed. Israel's relations with some 35 African states simply fell apart.

Subsequently, Israel's security relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa proved an additional obstacle to restoring ties.

But now things are changing. In part, it is a question of Africa's own growing prosperity and its search for technology and economic partners. Israel too is eager for new markets.

But is also gathering vital diplomatic support as well because African votes on bodies like the UN Security Council and at related organisations like the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, can prove of crucial significance.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Israeli prime minister's visit marked 40 years since the hostage rescue

Israel's relationship with Sub-Saharan African states is taking on greater importance as some of its ties with its traditional allies in Europe cool.

Indeed it is part of a wider re-orientation of Israel's network of relationships, with countries such as India and China growing in importance.

After years of keeping their distance, African politicians are now eager to go to Israel.

The Kenyan President was there in February and, in March, Mr Netanyahu met Ghana's foreign minister. Even links with South Africa may be improving.

The Director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Dore Gold visited Pretoria earlier this year, the first such high-level visit for several years.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Mr Netanyahu described the visit as "deeply moving"

For Israel the benefits are clear: a more balanced foreign policy and crucial support in international bodies.

For African nations there is access to Israeli expertise in areas such as high technology, agriculture and irrigation.

But intelligence and security is going to loom large.

At a time when Islamist extremism is a growing problem in significant parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, with contagion spreading south from Libya and groups like Boko Haram exploiting ties with so-called Islamic State, there are obvious mutual benefits for Israel and its renewed African partners.

More on this story