Netanyahu in Uganda as Israel seeks better ties with African countries
KAMPALA - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Uganda on Monday for a rare tour of sub-Saharan Africa, seeking new trade partners and marking the 40th anniversary of a hostage rescue in which his brother died.
In a statement just before his departure for the four-day tour, Netanyahu called the first visit by an Israeli premier to the region in decades "historic".
The trip comes as Israel launches a $13-million aid package to strengthen economic ties and cooperation with African countries, said Netanyahu's office.
Israel would also provide African states with training in "domestic security" and health, it said.
After Uganda, Netanyahu will travel on to Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda, but he is also meeting other African leaders at a summit in Uganda.
"Coming on a journey like this is also very important from diplomatic, economic and security perspectives and I am pleased that Israel is going back to Africa in a big way," Netanyahu said in a statement, adding: "We are opening Africa to Israel again."
The Arab-Israeli conflict drove a wedge between African countries and the Jewish state in the 1960s.
Following wars between Israel and its neighbours in 1967 and 1973, north African nations led by Egypt put pressure on sub-Saharan African states to cut ties with Israel, which many did.
Relations were not helped by Israel's friendship with the apartheid regime in South Africa before it fell in 1994.
In an interview with Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper ahead of his visit, Netanyahu said his visit was an attempt to thaw relations.
"I'm very open about it, that's true," Netanyahu said, according to the paper.
- Honouring his commando brother -
Beyond diplomacy and trade, the trip will have deep personal meaning for Netanyahu.
His brother Yonatan was killed in July 1976 as he led a commando raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to free passengers aboard an Air France plane hijacked by two Palestinians and two Germans.
Uganda's deputy foreign minister Henry Okello Oryem told AFP Netanyahu would be given a gun salute on arrival, before "proceeding to the 40th anniversary commemoration ceremony at the old airport terminal."
He later takes part in an anti-terrorism summit alongside leaders from Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia, before heading to Nairobi later on Monday.
Israel's dealings with Africa currently constitutes only two percent of its foreign trade, leaving plenty of room for growth.
Demand is rising for its defence expertise and products.
But it also sees African countries as potential allies, particularly at the United Nations and other international bodies, where it is regularly condemned over its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Some African countries are keen to obtain Israeli agricultural and water technology, which the country has been promoting, say officials. Netanyahu's trip follows years of efforts to improve ties.