Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his four-country trip to East Africa in Uganda on July 4 before heading to Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. It was the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to the region since 1987. In a bid to bolster Israeli-East African ties, the prime minister held talks with his counterparts on increasing cooperation on security and economic matters. Official comments professing mutual dependence aside, the trip is unlikely to yield huge benefits given Israel’s relatively small size.
Israel’s ambitions in East Africa are modest, with trade remaining low as a result: Israeli exports to all of Africa in 2015 amounted to $1 billion, or just 2 percent of its total exports. Business ties are informal, in most cases offshoots of direct personal relationships. For example, Ugandan officials, including longtime President Yoweri Museveni, made frequent trips to Israel in recent years. During these visits, friendships were forged with powerful Israeli figures, including former Mossad official Rafi Eitan, who is an advocate for more Israeli investment in Uganda. Yet despite these signs of warm relations, neither country has a diplomatic mission in the other.
Symbolically, though, Netanyahu’s first destination, Uganda, holds great emotional resonance for Israelis — and, most notably, for the prime minister himself. His visit coincided with the 40th anniversary of the famous Entebbe raid, when Israeli Sayeret Matkal commandos freed 103 hostages held by Palestinian and Red Army Faction terrorists at the Entebbe International Airport. Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, commander of Sayeret Matkal, died during the operation. He was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother.
On the practical side of his trip, Israel’s prime minster came prepared with a modest package (reportedly worth around $13 million) to boost relations with the region. The money will provide for Israeli economic attaches in East Africa and for the creation of centers by Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the four nations. It will also fund various finance projects, among other things. The small amount of Israeli aid and foreign investment for East Africa relative to funding provided by the European Union, China, the United Kingdom and the United States means that Israel’s main influence there will come in niche areas such as security and agriculture.
Significantly, an 80-person delegation of Israeli business leaders representing more than 50 companies accompanied the Israeli prime minister. The contingent included executives from Elbit Systems, the country’s premier defense contractor; Magal Security Systems, which specializes in perimeter security at airports; Aeronautics Ltd., a drone maker; Israel Chemicals, a fertilizer producer; and Netafim, a producer of drip irrigation systems. The inclusion of officials from one of its chief producers of irrigation systems, a field in which Israel is a world leader, was an attempt to capitalize on “water diplomacy” — a tactic it has used to varying levels of success elsewhere — in East Africa, where governments desperately need to improve agricultural yields.
More important to Israel than drumming up agricultural business in East Africa is boosting its security industry and ensuring its own national security. As a leader in physical and cyber security, the country is capable of providing technical expertise to East African states seeking to improve counterterrorism abilities. Even as the European Union and United States provide the bulk of high-level support to countries facing al Qaeda and Islamic State-related activity, the inclusion of Israeli companies specializing in airport perimeter security and drones underscores the Israeli desire to build on existing cooperation.
Israel, encircled by Arab countries largely hostile to it since its creation, sees East Africa as an important source of potential allies just beyond the Middle East. It also wants to block Iran from using the Greater Horn of Africa region as a land route forweapons destined for Gaza militants, making the region a key forum for the Israeli-Iranian shadow struggle. Ties with Ethiopia, Kenya and other East African countries give Israeli intelligence officials cover to better monitor Sudan, a previous target of Israeli operations aimed at blocking Iran from supplying Gaza militants with arms.
Islamic militants in East Africa, be they members of al Qaeda, the Islamic State or Somalia’s al Shabaab, also threaten Israeli diplomatic and business interests in the region. For example, suspected al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants attacked an Israeli-owned hotel and airplane in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, killing 13 and injuring more than 80 at the hotel. The 2013 al Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall could be considered to have been motivated, in part, by a desire to strike at Israeli interests — given that the mall was partially Israeli-owned at the time — though the Somalia-based terror group had larger aims with the attack.
So while any new business and security initiatives from this trip will be relatively small by global standards, they will be significant to the Israelis and East Africans themselves.