Kenya media’s coverage of the visit by Benjamin Netanyahu, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister in 30 years, has predictably focused on the “goodies” that he was supposedly bringing. There has been lots of discussion of what the country stands to gain from cooperation with Israel in areas ranging from security to agriculture but relatively little about the price Israel would extract for such cooperation.
It is undeniable that the Israelis have much to offer. As we have been constantly reminded over the course of the last few days, the visit comes on the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt, the spectacularly daring Israeli commando raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda which freed over a hundred hostages from a hijacked Air France plane. The rescue cemented Israel’s fearsome reputation in dealing with terrorist threats and such expertise will undoubtedly come in handy as Kenya faces up to terror threats of its own emanating primarily from the Somalia-based extremist group, Al Shabaab.
Beyond security, Israel is famed for its agricultural and water management innovations which have made the desert bloom as well as for its booming hi-tech industry whose goods and services account for half its industrial exports. Its disaster response capabilities have many times been on display whenever Israeli crews have lent a hand to their Kenya counterparts to extract people trapped in collapsed buildings. In these, and in many other areas, Kenya can derive substantial benefits from a closer relationship with the Jewish state. As the late Tom Mboya once remarked, “any African who turs Israel cannot fail to be impressed by the achievement made in such a short time from poor soil and with so few natural resources”.
There is, though, another side to this coin. Netanyahu’s visit is also a charm offensive. “Israel is coming back to Africa. Africa is coming back to Israel,” he has declared. Israel’s overriding objective in its relations with the continent has always been to break out of its political and diplomatic isolation. But it is important that we do not lose sight of the reasons why that isolation exists in the first place.
Past ruptures in Africa’s relationship with Israel have been attributed to pressure by Arab states, particularly in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and the Yom Kippur War (“The Arabs have the numbers, the space and the oil. In the third would they outweigh Israel” as Senegal’s first President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, put it) and Tel Aviv’s relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa. However, these issues have for the most part been resolved and, by her own count, Israel today maintains full diplomatic relations with 39 of 47 of the countries south of the Sahara and has nine resident embassies on the continent.
The major sticking point has been the Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The African Union has repeatedly stressed its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and condemned the “illegal and illegitimate” Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as well as her settlement policies which “contravenes International Law and undermines the two-state solution and prospects for peace”. African countries have also repeatedly blocked Israeli attempts to regain observer status at the African Union precisely because of this.
It is not surprising that nations on the continent, which have themselves experienced the horrors of racist colonial domination, would feel a sense of solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinians. In 2014, South African icon, Desmond Tutu said the "the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces … is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government."
Breaking this African consensus is Netanyahu’s declared aim. And he seems to have at least partially succeeded in winning over President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has now called for a “re-evaluation” of Africa’s relationship with Israel. In doing so, Uhuru has traded in our values – and sold out the Palestinians for thirty pieces of silver.
But perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, in the recent past, the Kenyatta administration has stood with North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan at the UN to oppose protections for human rights defenders and voted with China and Russia to remove references to freedom of expression in a resolution on online freedom. Let’s face it. Values are not his strong suit.