Jonathan Ferziger

Out of Africa, Netanyahu says he’ll expedite business deals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will follow up on his palace-hopping trek through east Africa with financing and regulatory help for some of the business deals his entourage of Israeli executives discussed along the way.

The diplomatic fruit of last week’s five-day trip will ripen only further down the road, said Netanyahu, who hopes stronger alliances with African and Arab leaders can help blunt the antagonism Israel routinely faces at the United Nations.

“The multilateral effect will take time, but it has begun,” Netanyahu said in a phone interview after returning Friday from his trip to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. “I don’t think it’s a journey of 1,000 miles, but we have definitely crossed the first mile. I see momentum being built.”

As Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini feted Netanyahu at a palace banquet with six other African heads of state, the Israeli business delegation landed in Kenya for four days of state-sponsored speed dating.

Among potential deals discussed were Magal Security Systems Ltd.’s bid to help Kenya build a wall across the Somalian border with the “smart fencing” it pioneered in the Gaza Strip. Also brewing were irrigation projects across Africa by Netafim Ltd., mining ventures with Israel Chemicals Ltd. and wind turbines pitched by solar energy specialist Gigawatt Global Ltd.

“There’s a commonality between Israel and Kenya in that they share the same concerns about terrorism and border security that we do, but on a much bigger scale,” Magal Chief Executive Saar Koursh said in an interview at Nairobi’s Villa Rose Kempinski Hotel. The company has already earned about $35 million from its contract to design and manage perimeter security at Kenya’s Mombasa port, he said.

Netanyahu, 66, kicked off the business conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking to about 300 business owners and executives. The Israeli prime minister also sponsored a similar meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart, Hailemariam Desalgn, in Addis Ababa.

Netanyahu said his staff will create a team to follow up on the Africa trip. The top priority is “to make sure that our government bureaucracies do not hamper these opportunities,” he said, mentioning loan guarantees as one way the government could expedite deals.

In each capital, security around the Israeli prime minister’s trip tied up roads, with army helicopters hovering over the 25-vehicle motorcade and black-suited commandos circulating in hotel lobbies. Netanyahu denied a report in Kuwait’s Al-Jarida newspaper that his security detail was told by Kenyan authorities to change the route into town from Nairobi airport to foil an attempted terrorist attack.

Netanyahu said it was striking that African countries were little inclined to connect diplomatic and trade relationships with Israel to the status of the Palestinian issue. Many African countries severed ties with Israel after the 1973 war under pressure from the Arab League. During the trip, Netanyahu requested and received support for Israel’s observer status to be reinstated in the Addis Ababa-based African Union.

“It’s something that opens the gates for engagement with the entire 54 countries of Africa, and it can also herald a change in much broader voting patterns in international bodies,” Netanyahu said.

It won’t all go Israel’s way, of course. Ethiopia’s Desalegn, whose country will be a member of the UN Security Council next year, said he would continue to back Palestinian statehood even while supporting Israel’s bid for observer status at the African forum.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who already has observer status at the African Union, will attend a summit meeting next week in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, his office said.

“The vast majority of the African nations will continue to support and express their solidarity in favor of the inalienable Palestinian right to be free,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in an e-mailed statement.

Emmanuel Navon, a Tel Aviv University political scientist who studies Israel-Africa relations, said he was skeptical that Netanyahu’s visit would lead African countries to change their UN voting patterns.

“They all still have business with the Arab states and Iran, so it’s a matter of calculating costs and benefits,” Navon said. “I don’t see much significant change anytime soon.”

One indication of Israel’s increased acceptance, Netanyahu said, was a phone call he had on the trip with the leader of an unnamed Muslim country, during which they agreed to meet. He also said relationships with Gulf Arab countries were improving because of shared concerns about terrorism and Iran.

“I have no doubt that what you’re seeing is the opening of Israel to many parts of the world that were hitherto either closed or almost closed to vigorous business activity and open diplomatic activity,” he said. “That’s clearly changing.”

– Blomberg