His trip, the first to the continent by an Israeli leader in more than two decades, began with a ceremony in Entebbe, Uganda marking the 40th anniversary of the hostage rescue in which his brother, Yonatan, died. He then travelled to Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
The operation to liberate hostages held in Uganda’s main airport by German and Palestinian terrorists took place on July 4, 1976.
They were passengers aboard an Air France plane, en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, which had been hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
Uganda was at the time ruled by the murderous tyrant Idi Amin, who was a supporter of the Palestinian cause.
While in Uganda, Netanyahu also met with the presidents of South Sudan and Zambia, as well as the foreign minister of Tanzania.
Netanyahu’s trip was part of a growing alignment between Israel and sub-Saharan African states. Jerusalem is searching for new allies as the prime minister tries to shift Israel’s diplomatic strategy away from relying largely on its Western allies, particularly Washington.
Israel’s traditionally close ties with Europe have cooled, but both it and African states face a common threat from radical Islamist groups. Not coincidentally, all of these African states are Christian-majority countries.
These countries are afraid that what has happened in Libya, Mali and the Ivory Coast could happen to them as well.
Israel is willing to help Africa defeat Islamic terrorism, Netanyahu remarked at a meeting in the Israeli Knesset with Israeli MPs and 13 African ambassadors in February. “It threatens every land in Africa,” he told them. “Its nexus is in the Middle East, but it is rapidly spreading. It can only be defeated if the nations that are attacked by it, make a common cause.”
Israel’s intelligence and military expertise could help African states dealing with groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, was in Israel in February, the first visit by a Kenyan leader since 1994. Ghana’s foreign minister, Hanna Tetteh, was in the country a month later and discussed deepening economic and security co-operation, “especially the fight against Islamist terrorism.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf travelled to Israel in June to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa for her work promoting women’s equality and other human rights issues.
In Nairobi, Kenyatta promised Netanyahu that he would work to restore Israel’s observer status at the African Union, which it lost in 2002.
Kenya has suffered a number of attacks by al-Shaabab Somali militants, including the attack on Sept. 21, 2013 on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi that left 67 people dead. A private Israeli firm is now in charge of security at the shopping mall.
In Kigali, Netanyahu laid a wreath at the mass graves honoring the more than 800,000 victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide perpetrated by Hutu extremists.
In Addis Ababa, Netanyahu, the first prime minister to ever visit Ethiopia, addressed both houses of that nation’s parliament.
The Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for Africa, Yoram Elron, has noted that “Africa, which has today one of the highest growth rates in the world, presents many business opportunities in areas Israel has extensive expertise, such as agriculture, telecommunications, alternative energy and infrastructure.”
Netanyahu was joined on his trip by a delegation of 80 Israeli business executives representing 50 companies working to strengthen commercial and economic ties. In Ethiopia, Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam attended an economic forum with some 300 Israeli and Ethiopian businessmen.
“The Eastern African corridor has the potential of huge co-operation with Israel, and we need to engage Israel,” Hailemariam said.
Ironically, Israel’s relations with South Africa, the continent’s second-largest economy and home to its largest Jewish community, remain strained.
The ruling African National Congress has long had strong ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement, modeled on the international anti-apartheid movement, has a strong following there.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.