ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — A life-size stuffed lion greets visitors to the National Palace in Addis Ababa, lying on a red carpet adorned with Stars of David. Always aware of a good frame, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not pass up on the opportunity to have his photograph taken with the lion on the sidelines of his meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Thursday morning.
A few hours later, the country’s president, Mulatu Teshome, took his Israeli guest down to the palace garden, where they gazed at real lions. Netanyahu is the first statesman to have been allowed to get so close to the animals; even US President Barack Obama wasn’t granted this honor during his recent visit.
Posing for the cameras with President Teshome, as two lions strolled in the background, Netanyahu said the occasion gives new meaning to the verse “They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions” (2 Samuel, 1:21).
In Africa, Netanyahu could be forgiven for feeling like Lion King Bibi. During his four-day tour this week to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia — which required unprecedented security arrangements, including special forces and armored personal carriers brought from Israel on Hercules planes — he was treated like the chief of a global superpower.
In Entebbe, Nairobi and Kigali, he was received and bid farewell at the airport by the countries’ heads of state. They spared no effort to make him feel welcome: red carpets, white gloves, military marching bands, national anthems, honor guards, gun salutes and girls handing flowers to the first lady.
The capitals of Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia were adorned with large posters featuring photos of the Israeli prime minister — some alongside the local leader, some all by himself.
“It’s a very, very high profile visit,” said the anchor of a Ugandan news channel during a live broadcast Monday that followed almost every step Netanyahu took in the country. “It’s not every day that an Israeli prime minister visits Uganda.”
The next day, at a meeting of Evangelical supporters of Israel in Nairobi, a shofar was blown to mark the momentous occasion — the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in three decades, and the first ever to Kenya. “He’s a hero in our eyes,” a local Zionist declared.
Netanyahu’s relatively underwhelming 12-minute address Thursday to lawmakers in Addis Ababa — in Africa’s oldest parliament — garnered a somewhat less enthusiastic response than his controversial anti-Iran deal speech at the US Congress last year. But his African adventure was a walk in the park compared to the lion’s den he’s grown accustomed to entering in Washington and in capitals across Europe. In Africa, no one’s much bothered by new housing units in East Jerusalem or controversial legislation to rein in left-wing NGOs.
As Netanyahu noted in speech after speech, and briefing after briefing, many parts of the continent want to get closer to Israel, mostly because they are interested in two things: Israeli technology — especially in the fields of agriculture, water and cybersecurity — and Israeli security know-how.
Africa and Israel have had a rollercoaster past, but in an age of escalating terrorism many leaders in this continent have concluded that they can no longer afford to show a cold shoulder to the Jewish state. Netanyahu stressed the point at his press conferences; his hosts readily echoed the message.
If Africa has much to gain from Israel, Jerusalem in return expects the continent to help Israel break out of its international isolation. But it’s not only Israel’s prowess in high-tech and counter-terrorism that have enabled the new romance with Africa. It was the Arab Spring and the crumbling of hitherto powerful states that allowed for the realignment.
“We think that the world has changed,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tuesday at a joint press conference with Netanyahu. “Global problems that we now share are different than what they were some 30 years ago. And we need to partner with each other. We need to deal with the security threats we have together.”
As he landed Friday morning in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu could claim several concrete diplomatic achievements: Tanzania announced its intention to open its first-ever embassy in Israel; the leader of a (yet unnamed) Muslim African nation that does not have diplomatic ties with Israel spoke to him by phone and agreed to meet in the near future; and several East African countries publicly promised to push for Israel to be granted observer status at the African Union. For years, African leaders have said they support Israel’s bid to regain observer status, but they had made no previous public commitments to make it happen.
Israel lost its observer status at the AU in 2002 and recent efforts to regain it failed mainly due to objections from South Africa. But the organization’s chairmanship, currently held by a South African, is changing in a few months, and this could provide Israel with a golden opportunity to rejoin the group.
Regaining observer status at the AU “has very great significance for us,” Netanyahu said Tuesday in Kenya. “Africa is a continent with 54 countries. The possibility of changing their position and their attitude toward Israel is a strategic change in Israel’s international standing.”
Remaking the international balance
Specifically, Netanyahu is bidding to change the balance of power in the way the world relates to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Palestinians, frustrated by decades of deadlock, have in recent years tried to internationalize the conflict. Blocking this effort was a central goal of this week’s mission to Africa.
While Israel’s traditional allies — the US and Europe — pressure Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, organizing international peace summits and threatening sanctions, Netanyahu sees Africa as a potential savior. If they vote as a block, Netanyahu’s thinking goes, they can help break the Arabs’ automatic majority in international forums such as the UN.
“It might take a decade, but we will change the automatic majority against Israel. That’s something that has never been possible in the past,” Netanyahu told the traveling press on Monday night as his plane headed into Kenya.
“My goal is to talk directly and seriously with the Palestinians. But that’s impossible because they are escaping to international forums where they have an automatic majority,” he said the next day at a briefing in Nairobi. Rather than to negotiate directly with Israel, the Palestinians choose to unilaterally turn to international bodies to advance their statehood bid, the prime minister lamented.
His policy to expand Israel’s foreign ties, he argued, “will lead to a situation in which the Palestinians will no longer have this shelter and will have to discuss with us on a bilateral basis, something they refuse to do it as long as they have the international refuge.”
The ultimate goal, Netanyahu told reporters Thursday, is to create a counterweight to the traditionally Israel-critical Non-Aligned Movement — in the shape of a new “movement aligned with Israel.”
The prime minister knows his vision of all or most African nations voting with Israel won’t be realized tomorrow. It’s part of a long-term strategy the fruits of which might become visible only years from now — or even decades. But his visit to this continent underlined that Netanyahu has decided to make a determined effort to tap into the vast potential Africa holds for Israel. And as he made clear to the Israeli journalists who traveled with him through Africa, he’ll be back.
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