Israel’s relations with Uganda over the past five-plus decades epitomize how military ties and business investments ebb and flow with the currents of regional politics. These are halcyon days for mutual opportunism in Israeli-Ugandan relations.
In some ways, the cooperative present harkens back to the early 1960s. In that decade of African independence, Israel was eager to win friends and influence economics on the continent. According to Arye Oded, a former Israeli ambassador to various African countries,
Israel wanted to break through the encirclement of hostile Arab countries and open a way to a nearby continent, and especially East Africa. Moreover, as the number of independent African countries steadily increased during that decade, Israel wanted to gain their support at the United Nations and in international conferences. Israel also had commercial, economic, and strategic interests in Africa.
Oded explains that Uganda’s attractiveness to Israel was in part a result of its location next to civil war-stricken Sudan: “It was in Israel’s interest that an independent entity should be established in southern Sudan that would tie up Sudanese and even Egyptian forces, which might come to Sudan’s assistance.” Oded had the dubious distinction of accompanying a man who posed as Ugandan leader Milton Obote on a one-week visit to Israel in 1960; the Israelis only learned of the deception afterward. The real Obote, who served as prime minister and then president of Uganda, cooperated with the Jewish state in fields ranging from defense to agriculture, infrastructure, and commerce. He was overthrown in 1971 by Idi Amin.
At the outset of Amin’s reign, the self-titled “King of Scotland,” “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea,” and other egomaniacal accolades availed himself of Israeli military advisors and selected Israel as the site of his first foreign excursion. Amin’s ties to Israel dated back to his paratrooper training there in the 1950s, and he began his stint in power by presiding over a phase of increased cooperation with the Israeli government and business sector.
Amin was amenable to providing the kind of interference in Sudan that Israel was hoping to see. He solicited Israeli expertise on water resources in the hope that the Ugandan “desert of Karamoja would be as green as Jerusalem.” Among his government’s fateful decisions was the hiring of the Israeli construction firm Solel Boneh to build the terminal at Entebbe, the country’s main international airport.
Within several years, relations between the two countries soured when Israel’s financial and military assistance to Uganda amounted to less than the dictator expected. He turned to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, thereby transitioning the country into the anti-Zionist camp.
In June 1976, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Baader-Meinhof gang hijacked Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris in a bid to secure the release of prisoners held in Israel and various other countries. The hijackers diverted the plane to Entebbe airport, site of the ensuing bloody hostage rescue mission by the Israel Defense Forces. The Israeli operation was aided by Solel Boneh, which provided the airport’s blueprints.
Casualties of the raid included Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, elder brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and a couple of Jewish hostages accidentally killed by their would-be rescuers. Despite these casualties, the operation was celebrated ecstatically in Israel. But it was condemned by the UN Secretary General as “a serious violation of the sovereignty of a United Nations member state.”
During a recent visit to Entebbe, a Palestinian friend and I attempted to access the site of the raid, currently occupied by the Ugandan military and the UN. We were denied entry and therefore were unable to view the commemorative plaque to Lt. Col. Netanyahu, which was unveiled in 2005 at a ceremony attended by brother Binyamin. He was told by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that Operation Entebbe had provided crucial momentum to the eventual ousting of Amin in 1979. (According to Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, this has contributed to Netanyahu’s optimism about an Israeli strike on Iran.)
Museveni had resuscitated ties with Israel in 1994 following a twenty-two-year hiatus. Oded, who represented Israel at the agreement signing in Kampala, writes that Museveni’s reluctance to renew relations while Palestinians remained “homeless” was ameliorated with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, after which “his attitude improved markedly.”
The Oslo Accords were a useless step toward any prospective liberation of Palestine, but they did liberate Israeli commercial opportunism in Uganda. The water industry, for example, has staged a comeback. A 2012 dispatch from Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s office—headlined “Israel to develop water projects in Karamoja”—reprises Idi Amin’s earlier desert-blooming ambitions. The dispatch describes Mbabazi’s tour of desalination facilities in Israel, and incorporates voluptuous praise for Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. (Never mind that Israel’s alleged innovativeness in the face of scarcity is made possible by the diversion and theft of regional water supplies and the maintenance of a policy of water apartheid whereby Palestinian access to clean water is systematically obstructed.) Mekorot regards its insertion into the Ugandan water scene as a stepping stone to other African markets. Even Solel Boneh has found itself back in business in Uganda.
As for other repetitions of history, Israel has recuperated its position as a favorite supplier of Ugandan arms. A January 2003 Haaretz article noted that Museveni had gone to Israel for “arms shopping,” and that his trip had been “arranged by an arms merchant, Amos Golan of the Silver Shadow company, who represents IAI [Israel Aircraft Industries] and other Israeli defense industries in Uganda.” The president’s itinerary included a visit to a mortar factory, an outing on a Super-Dvora navy ship, and an air show of pilotless drones.
Former Mossad director Rafi Eitan, who describes himself as “a friend of the Ugandan president for many years,” helped facilitate Museveni’s subsequent trip to Israel in 2011. According to a Haaretz article about this particular excursion, Netanyahu’s extension of an invitation to Museveni took place “during efforts to thwart the Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations.” Eitan also sees Uganda as a land of personal opportunity; he is interested in “start[ing] farming projects, like a cattle ranch” there.
A few months ago, Israel’s Ambassador to East Africa, Gil Haskel, dropped into the African Jewish Abayudaya community in eastern Uganda. The Monitor quoted the Ugandan Industry Minister’s appeal to Haskel to promote Israeli investment in the country: “[P]lease talk to the industrialists, businessmen and others to come[;] this is your home since you have your community permanently here.”
Referring to Uganda as a home for Israel is an inadvertently ironic choice of words. Uganda was one of the locations considered by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, for the erection of a Jewish state.