When the Israeli prime minister’s wife took a twirl with Idi Amin
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Photo Essay

When the Israeli prime minister’s wife took a twirl with Idi Amin

As Netanyahu prepares for a whirlwind trip to Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda next week, Israel releases previously unseen pictures of previous PMs’ visits to Africa

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

  • Residents of Ivory Coast read coverage of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's visit to the country, May 31, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Residents of Ivory Coast read coverage of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's visit to the country, May 31, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in Ivory Coast, June 1, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in Ivory Coast, June 1, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tours a newly established village, similar to a moshav, in Ivory Coast, June 1, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tours a newly established village, similar to a moshav, in Ivory Coast, June 1, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in Ivory Coast in June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in Ivory Coast in June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Congolese premier Gen. Leonard Mulamba gives Prime Minister Levi Eshkol an elephant tusk in a ceremony outside Kinshasa, June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Congolese premier Gen. Leonard Mulamba gives Prime Minister Levi Eshkol an elephant tusk in a ceremony outside Kinshasa, June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Photos of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife, Miriam, hang in an information center in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in honor of their visit in June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
    Photos of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife, Miriam, hang in an information center in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in honor of their visit in June, 1966. (Moshe Fridan/GPO)
  • Miriam Eshkol, wife of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, dancing with then Ugandan foreign minister Sam Odaka and army chief (and later president) Idi Amin on a visit to an army base outside Kampala, June, 1966. (GPO)
    Miriam Eshkol, wife of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, dancing with then Ugandan foreign minister Sam Odaka and army chief (and later president) Idi Amin on a visit to an army base outside Kampala, June, 1966. (GPO)
  • Images of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Cameroonian President Paul Biya decorate the road to Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital city, August 25, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
    Images of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Cameroonian President Paul Biya decorate the road to Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital city, August 25, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Shimon Peres meets with Cameroonian President Paul Biya in Yaoundé, the country's capital, August 25, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
    Prime Minister Shimon Peres meets with Cameroonian President Paul Biya in Yaoundé, the country's capital, August 25, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Shimon Peres on a visit to Cameroon, August 27, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
    Prime Minister Shimon Peres on a visit to Cameroon, August 27, 1986. (Nati Harnik/GPO)
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on a visit to Togo in June 1987. (GPO)
    Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on a visit to Togo in June 1987. (GPO)
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is welcomed by the President of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, June 19, 1987. (GPO)
    Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is welcomed by the President of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, June 19, 1987. (GPO)

Next Monday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarks on a four-day trip to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. The trip is historic in that it marks the first time in over two decades that a sitting Israeli prime minister will visit sub-Saharan Africa. But prime ministerial trips to the continent are by no means unheard of.

In its early years, Israel had close ties with many African countries. The young Jewish state’s first embassy on the continent, in Accra, Ghana, opened its doors on 1956. Two years later, then-foreign minister (and later prime minister) Golda Meir became to first Israeli leader to tour West Africa.

“We couldn’t offer Africa money or arms, but on the other hand, we were free of the taint of the colonial exploiters because all that we wanted from Africa was friendship,” Meir recalled in her autobiography.

Jerusalem was interested in the African states’ vote at the United Nations, she admitted, but argued that was not the main reason for Israel’s “African adventure.” Rather, she wrote, “We had something we wanted to pass on to nations that were even younger and less experienced than ourselves.”

Foreign minister Gold Meir, with Kenyan officials, after her arrival in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1963 (GPO)
Foreign minister Gold Meir, with Kenyan officials, after her arrival in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1963 (GPO)

In later decades, often under Arab pressure, many African nations cut off ties or downgraded their relationship with the Jewish state. And yet, prime ministerial visits continued throughout the decades.

In 1966, Levi Eshkol went to Liberia, Congo, Uganda, Ivory Coast and Kenya. In 1986, Shimon Peres flew to Cameroon. In 1987, Yitzhak Shamir visited Togo.

In one particularly striking photo, taken at a Ugandan army base in 1966, Levi Eshkol’s wife Miriam can be seen dancing with Idi Amin, who at the time was the commander of the country’s armed forces. Five years later, Amin staged a coup, gave himself the title “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas” and adopted an extremely anti-Israel policy. He was president during the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe, the 40th anniversary of which Netanyahu will commemorate next week in Uganda.

Marking Israel’s renewed efforts to strengthen ties with the continent, the Government Press Office on Wednesday released previously unpublished photos from various trips to Africa by various Israeli prime ministers. Miriam Eshkol’s dance with the dictator-to-be was among them.

“Israel is coming back to Africa; Africa is coming back to Israel. It’s happening in a big way,” Netanyahu said in February, at an event to launch the Knesset Caucus for Israel-Africa Relations. “It’s happening now, but it should have happened a long time ago. It’s happening now because it’s so clear that this is good for Africa and it’s good for Israel.”

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved a NIS 50 million plan to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with Africa.

“The African continent constitutes vast potential for Israel in very many areas. Many countries are seeking to open their gates to Israel and we will realize this desire for their benefit and for the benefit of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Luke Tress contributed to this article.

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