Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try this week to generate new business in Africa for Israeli companies while making an emotional journey to Uganda, where his brother died 40 years ago in the daring Entebbe hostage rescue.
Netanyahu left Monday on a five-day tour that also includes Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda in the first trip by an Israeli prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in 29 years. With a delegation of 70 business executives, the African excursion is part of the Israeli leader’s effort to cultivate growth markets while economies languish in the country’s biggest trade partners, the U.S. and European Union.
“This has very important implications for diversifying our international alliances and international relations and expanding our powers to Asia, Russia, Latin America, and of course now, the African continent,” Netanyahu told cabinet members on Sunday. Before departing Monday, he called the trip “historic” and added, “Israel is coming back to Africa, big time.”
While Netanyahu touts Israeli technology, particularly in the fields of anti-terrorism, desalination and solar energy, he also has a clear diplomatic agenda. The prime minister is pushing for open political support from African countries that have largely sided with Arab nations on resolutions critical of Israel in the United Nations and African Union. He made the point directly in February to visiting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“Many of these countries can be said to be military allies of Israel because they also have the threat of radical Islam and terrorist attacks,” said Emmanuel Navon, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. “They are very fond of Israeli military technology and anti-terrorist expertise but that doesn’t mean at the UN in terms of votes, we’ll reap any benefits.”
Last July, Kenya and Ethiopia both abstained in a UN Human Rights Council vote condemning Israel for alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has a long history of ties with African nations built on export of arms and agricultural products while importing oil, diamonds and other natural resources.
Companies sending executives with Netanyahu include Elbit Systems Ltd., the country’s biggest publicly traded defense contractor; Netafim Ltd., which makes irrigation systems; Magal Security Systems Ltd., a specialist in perimeter security at airports; Israel Chemicals Ltd., a fertilizer producer; and dronemaker Aeronautics Ltd.
The prime minister will attend two gatherings for his business delegation and potential local partners in Kenya and Ethiopia. He said last week that Israel is allocating about $13 million to strengthen economic ties with the four African countries, including training programs in health and security techniques and the signing of an agreement on space satellite technology in Ethiopia.
Netanyahu’s first stop will be a ceremony Monday at Entebbe airport marking the hostage rescue on July 4, 1976.
The prime minister’s older brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, led the commando rescue of about 100 passengers and crew members on an Air France flight seized by Palestinian and German hijackers. The Ugandan president at the time, Idi Amin, openly supported the hijackers demanding the release of Palestinian militants in Israeli prisons and prisoners in other countries.
About 100 commandos landed at the airport at night after flying 2,500 miles from Israel, bringing along a black Mercedes similar to the one the Ugandan leader used to try to fool troops guarding the airport. Bursting into the terminal, the Israelis killed the hijackers along with 45 Ugandan soldiers. Yonatan Netanyahu, the only Israeli commando killed, has become a symbol of bravery in his country. The prime minister refers to his brother’s death as a painful turning point that projected him into politics.