Heading to Entebbe, PM looks to mark raid while boosting Africa ties
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Heading to Entebbe, PM looks to mark raid while boosting Africa ties

Boarding plane for Uganda, Netanyahu says ‘all Africa excited’ for historic four-nation swing, coming 40 years after his brother was killed in daring hostage rescue

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016, at the start of a trip to Africa. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016, at the start of a trip to Africa. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Forty years after a team of Israeli commandos mounted a daring rescue mission to Entebbe, Uganda, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday boarded a plane for the same airport on a four-nation trip to Africa aimed at boosting ties between Israel and its neighbors to the south.

The trip — the first visit by a sitting prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in decades — will kick off with a ceremony Monday at the old Entebbe airport in Uganda, where Netanyahu will mark the 40th anniversary of one of Israel’s most legendary operations to free a group of Israeli hostages.

Speaking to the press from the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport before he boarded the plane at 7 a.m. Monday morning, Netanyahu called the trip “historic” and played up its role in helping to bolster ties with Africa.

“[The trip] has great importance from diplomatic, economic and security perspectives,” he said, standing flanked by his wife Sara Netanyahu and surrounded by reporters outside the El Al jet waiting to take him to Uganda, before swings through Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

“I’m happy that Israel is returning to Africa in a big way,” he added.

The last time an Israeli plane carrying a Netanyahu made a direct flight to the old Entebbe airport was no less big, if somewhat more covert.

Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)
Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)

On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos, flying some 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to Entebbe while avoiding radar, spectacularly managed, in less than an hour, to rescue 102 of 106 Israelis who had been taken hostage by Palestinian and German terrorists. Monday’s commemoration is particularly poignant for the Israeli prime minister, since his older brother Yonatan, who commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal unit that carried out the operation, was killed during the rescue.

“All of Africa is excited about by this visit. And I am excited,” Netanyahu said before boarding the plane.

Netanyahu said at the summit he would meet with leaders from 7 African countries “who are coming especially for this summit to Entebbe.”

Netanyahu is slated to meet with the presidents of Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Zambia, plus the prime minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, and the foreign minister of Tanzania, Augustine Mahiga.

“We intend to return to the African continent, which has 54 countries. We intend to return to Africa just as Africa is returning to Israel. This has very important implications vis-à-vis varying our international alliances and international relations, which are expanding to the major powers in Asia, to Russia, to Latin America and — of course — to the African continent,” he said at a cabinet meeting Sunday.

Several dozen Israeli businessmen, and former IDF troops who were involved in the Entebbe operation and their relatives, are joining Netanyahu’s entourage on four planes.

Joining Netanyahu on his plane are Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold and IDF Military Intelligence chief Herzi Halevi. Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Yair Golan is also slated to attend the event at the old Entebbe airport, though he will take a separate plane.

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the first plane will carry the prime minister’s aides; the second one will transport 140 people who are to participate at the ceremony at Entebbe, including family members of former IDF soldiers who took part in the rescue operation and representatives of the hostages; and two Hercules planes will carry Netanyahu’s motorcade, additional security personnel and a field hospital, which is going to be donated at the end of the trip.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding a plane to Uganda at Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016. Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu boarding a plane to Uganda at Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016. Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Yedioth put the total cost of the visit at a whopping NIS 28 million ($7.3 million). The Prime Minister’s Office initially declined to respond to the report on the price tag, but later issued a statement saying it cost NIS 12.5 million ($3.25 million). This sum includes trips to four countries, the memorial event at Entebbe and all security measures as required by the Shin Bet, the PMO said. The delegation of businessmen is being paid for by the Israel Export Institute.

Arriving in Entebbe on Monday afternoon after the six-hour flight, Netanyahu will be welcomed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who was involved in toppling the country’s Entebbe-era dictator Idi Amin and has been in power since 1986.

After the official ceremony, which is scheduled to last for 45 minutes, Netanyahu and Musevini are set to have dinner together at the presidential palace in Kampala before the prime minister heads to Nairobi, where he will spend the night.

On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu will visit the mausoleum where the founder of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, is buried, then meet with his son, Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s current leader.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at his Jerusalem office on Monday, February 23, 2016 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at his Jerusalem office on Monday, February 23, 2016 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Jomo Kenyatta was the “architect of the friendship between Israel and Kenya,” Netanyahu said in February during Uhuru’s first visit to Jerusalem. “He demonstrated that friendship most dramatically 40 years ago in helping Israel in the raid in Entebbe to rescue our hostages. This is something that has left a deep imprint on Israel. The people of Israel are grateful for that. And I’m personally grateful for that.”

After their meeting, the two leaders will hold a press conference, before attending a conference of Israeli and Kenyan businessmen, then will dine together.

In Kenya, Netanyahu and his wife Sara are also expected to participate in a safari, according to Hebrew media reports, though his official schedule makes no mention of this.

A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

On Wednesday, Netanyahu will spend the day in Kigali, where he will visit the memorial for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which more than one million Tutsis were killed, and meet with President Paul Kagame. The two leaders will have lunch together, sign agreements of bilateral cooperation and hold a joint press conference.

Netanyahu will spend the last day of his tour in Addis Ababa, meeting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — with whom he will again sign agreements and answer reporters’ questions. After a meeting with President Mulatu Teshome, the Israeli leader will address a forum of Israeli and Ethiopian businessmen before holding a speech at the country’s parliament and visiting its national museum.

On Friday, Netanyahu will return to Israel.

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