Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to leave early Monday morning for a historic four-day trip to Africa, featuring meetings with seven African leaders, in a strategic bid to boost Israel’s ties with the continent.
The highlight of his trip — the first visit by a sitting prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in decades — is a ceremony Monday at the old Entebbe airport in Uganda, where he will mark the 40th anniversary of one of Israel’s most legendary rescue operations.
On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos, flying some 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to Entebbe, 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.
The future prime minister was studying in the US at the time of the operation.
“In Uganda, I will meet with seven heads of state upon my attendance there at a special summit of East African nations,” Netanyahu said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
In fact, he will be meeting 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.”
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.
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.
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.
— Raphael Ahren (@RaphaelAhren) July 3, 2016
Both the guest list for the high-profile event at Entebbe and the unprecedentedly high cost of the trip have led to criticism.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, for instance, says the upgrading of Israeli-African relations is important but wondered whether it justified such a high sum. In a press release, the nonprofit demands that the PMO provide a detailed list of all the costs and explain to the public why they are necessary.
Arriving in Entebbe on Monday afternoon, 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.
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.
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.