Netanyahu, in Africa, Seeks Trade, Diplomatic Prospects

  • Israeli leader accompanied by 70-member business delegation
  • Seeks new areas for growth as traditional markets languish

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged African nations to re-engage with Israel as its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, tours the continent pursuing business deals and support in world forums.

In turn, Netanyahu exhorted a group of some 80 Israeli executives in his entourage to explore new business ventures in Kenyatta’s country and help strengthen political alliances in Africa. The Israeli leader later told reporters that part of his Africa strategy is to pressure Palestinians to resume peace negotiations by demonstrating that Israel is breaking out of its political isolation.

“Come closer, come and invest in Kenya,” Netanyahu told the Israelis in Nairobi who mixed with hundreds of Kenyan executives at a business forum to explore potential deals. “We have strategic interest, we have national and international interests, but I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t think that you would benefit.”

As the first Israeli prime minister in 29 years to visit sub-Saharan Africa, Netanyahu said he’s asking for political support from countries that have largely sided with Arab nations on resolutions critical of Israel in the United Nations and African Union.

“My goal is to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table for direct talks and prevent them from automatically turning to the international community to gain support to pressure Israel to reach peace on their terms, without negotiations,” Netanyahu, 66, told reporters traveling with him on the four-country tour.

‘Head in Sand’

Kenyatta, 54, made his own trip to Jerusalem in February. He said on Tuesday that longtime enemies of Israel are starting to soften their approach to the Jewish state as they find common cause in trying to fight terrorism.

“It would be foolhardy” for Kenya and Africa not to engage with Israel when its Arab neighbors do, Kenyatta said at a joint press appearance with Netanyahu at the presidential palace in Nairobi. “It would be like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, and we don’t want to be that way.”

Israel has a long history of ties with Africa built on exports of arms and agricultural products, and imports of oil, diamonds and other natural resources.

Alliances unraveled after many African states severed ties to avoid entanglement in the Arab oil embargo following the 1973 Middle East war. Ties have begun to deepen again over the threat of radical Islam and Israel’s outreach beyond its traditional Western allies.

“It might take a decade, but we will change the automatic majority against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I believe that this meeting will be seen as a turning point in Israel’s ability to reach a broad number of African countries, which is our goal.” 

At their joint appearance, both leaders spoke at length about sharing intelligence to fight terrorism. “Israel is doing this across a wide canvas, and we will share this,” Netanyahu said. Kenyatta said the countries’ “partnership is strong” in this area.

Ties Unraveled

As he builds diplomatic bonds, Netanyahu is more immediately trying to drum up business for Israeli companies during a visit that also takes him to Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. With a delegation of 70 business executives, the African excursion is part of Netanyahu’s effort to cultivate new growth markets while economies languish in the country’s biggest trade partners, the U.S. and European Union.

In Uganda, he joined leaders from the four countries on his itinerary, plus Zambia, South Sudan and Tanzania, to discuss how Israel could help African countries with technical expertise in areas such as anti-terrorism, water management and high-yield farming.

Companies sending executives with Netanyahu include Elbit Systems Ltd., Israel’s biggest publicly traded defense contractor; Netafim Ltd., which makes irrigation systems; Magal Security Systems Ltd., a specialist in perimeter security at airports; Israel Chemicals Ltd., a fertilizer producer; and dronemaker Aeronautics Ltd.

Netanyahu opened the trip Monday with an emotional stop at Entebbe airport in Uganda, where his older brother died 40 years ago leading a daring Israeli hostage-rescue mission.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.