Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with NMG’s DANIEL K. KALINAKI in Jerusalem ahead of his visit to East Africa.
Mr Prime Minister thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to speak to you.
You’ve said Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel. You’ve been a player for many years now as Prime Minister and Africa is a place that has special importance to you personally. Why has it taken so long, and why now?
It’s too long and it’s about time, and it’s even overdue but I’m glad to have the opportunity as Prime Minister to correct that deficiency.
I think part of the reason was that Israel was…blacklisted is the word I’ll use…in Africa.
It was basically kicked out by political pressures from many, many countries in which we were active in the 60s and into the 70s and it took a while for things to change.
I think the thing that changed most was something outside of Africa — well, one or two African countries, too, are Arab states; the Arab world changed.
It hasn’t changed formally, but it’s changed informally in that many Arab countries now understand that Israel is not their enemy but their partner in fighting militant Islamist terror that threatens just about every country in the region, and many, many countries in Africa and equally, many African countries recognise that.
So what many of the Arab states now understand — certainly many African countries grasp as well — and they also, I think, understand another thing; that Israel can be their partner, not merely in the areas of security but first and foremost in the areas of development.
Israel’s also changed over the years and became a world power in innovation, in water management, in health, in agriculture, in just about every area of life that’s important for the wellbeing and prosperity of the people of Africa.
So when you have these two things finally congeal — a general political change in the world and in our region in the Middle East, and the growing needs of security and development — Israel is a natural partner. Therefore I’ve always wanted to have Israel come back to Africa but I think what’s changed now is that many African countries want Africa to come back to Israel and it’s happening now and I’m very excited.
You speak about Israel being blacklisted and one of the issues that brought this about was Israel’s partnership with the apartheid regime in South Africa, helping them in security and in other areas at a time when most of the African states believed the world shouldn’t be doing business with them. Is this something that you regret?
“Well, it stopped under my predecessors and I am glad it did. They stopped it. Many countries were doing it and they stopped and we stopped. But I think, too, that there is a mischaracterisation of Israel here and a mischaracterisation of apartheid.
We are engaged in a difficult battle for our survival, for our future, but 20 per cent of our people are Palestinian Arabs.
They are equal citizens, they are in our parliament, they are in our government, in the judiciary, in the supreme court.
It’s an integrated open and liberal society and yet the Palestinians who are accusing us of apartheid they say that in the state that they want to have — and we don’t mind them having a state; on the contrary, two States for two peoples living side-by-side in peace is my vision of the State — but in their vision of the state, while Israel has Arab citizens, they say 'we have to cleanse a future Palestinian state of any Jew’.
If I said we have to cleanse a [Jewish] state of any black or of any Chinese, or of any Latino, there’d be a tremendous uproar.
This is the worst instance of apartheid that you can think of and yet the paradox is that Israel is accused of something that it is not guilty of, our accusers are in fact talking about cleansing.
But do you regret that the partnership existed for as long as it did with the apartheid regime?
Yeah, and I’m glad it ended.
You talk about a country of diversity, that represents many people, yet Israel’s attitude towards migration, towards people seeking refuge, in particular people from Eritrea and Sudan, has been rather dubious. For instance, you’ve given asylum to only four out of 33,000 Eritreans, one out of 8,500 Sudanese; how should Israel, a country built by refugees for refugees, respond to people who are fleeing conflict and persecution?
Well, look; the people who came here in very large numbers were job immigrants.
They were healthy young men, typically in their early twenties and they were not refugees.
We’ve taken in people that we felt are our own brethren, the Jews of Ethiopia; we’ve brought them in by the many thousands.
As you know there are 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel…
Who also speak of being discriminated against…
Well, look, none of us are perfect society but we try to be.
I head a ministerial committee, personally, and every six to eight weeks I sit down and say what can we do to assist in education, health, housing, all the time going against any kind of these bigoted attitudes inside Israel towards our fellow men, in this case our fellow Jews who happen to have black skin colour.
It’s something that I feel very strongly about and I am proud of the fact that I helped bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel by the many thousands.
I think the question you are talking about is something about job immigrants, which is very different.
We also take in people from Africa, from the Arab world, from the Palestinian areas, from Syria — thousands and thousands of them — for humanitarian treatment.
We actually save the lives of many people who are either sick or wounded and we continue to do so. We are not a big country but we try to help in that regard.
You’ve spoken about “infiltrators” and you passed a law that seeks, as you said, to protect, the social fabric of the country. Some of the people in Africa remember the plan in 1903 to create a Jewish state in Uganda; how should they have treated the people of Israel if they had been given this land within East Africa to settle?
I don’t think it was a practical possibility because the founder of modern Israel, the founder of modern Zionism, the return to Zion, Jerusalem, was a man called Theodor Herzl — and you can see his picture in my office, for good reason — he was like a modern Moses.
He said that the Jews have to leave Europe and the only conceivable place is the land of Israel but he saw the holocaust gathering and said 'we have to first get the Jews out of Europe and if necessary — he actually foresaw the holocaust some 40 years before — maybe we should consider Uganda as a temporary state, just to have a place where the Jews could leave to’.
But interestingly enough — and this tells you about our sentiment towards Africa — Herzl said that 'after I finish liberating the Jews, I want to turn my attention to help liberate the black people of Africa.
Our history started from bondage, coming from slavery from Egypt, coming into the Promised Land and Herzl saw something that’s very deep in our ethos, and something of a universal quality too; where were people enslaved?
Where were people held in bondage and oppression 100-150 years ago when he was saying these things? In Africa.
I think that the Ugandan plan was something that he raised but it was opposed by many, including my own grandfather who said, look; the only place where Jews could establish a state is a place where we’ve been attached to for 4,000 years, from the time of Abraham, which is the land of Israel.
But I’m glad to say that we can fulfil Herzl’s mission in a different way…
Are you coming to save Africa? Do you see yourself as a saviour?
No. He thought that he would help but Africa has risen. Africa is independent. It has 50 states; they are seizing the future.
They have, in my opinion, tremendous capacities and tremendous potential. We want to be a part of that story.
We want to be your partners in your future and in our common future. We have a lot to do with each other.
I’ve been to Uganda, twice, very moving visits, and I think that the idea that what didn’t exist in Herzl’s time — there wasn’t an independent Jewish state, and there were practically no independent African states; Africa was divided by colonial powers, as was this country.
Well, we’ve risen above it. We now have our independent states. We can embrace each other and we can fashion a terrific future for our people.
How can Israel help Africa deal with the emergent threat of terror and if you look broadly at the Middle East and North Africa, at countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the events that have taken place over the last 20 years, do you think that the world committed a mistake in trying to impose democracy in these societies?
I think that there was a lack of recognition of the fact that bubbling under the surface were the forces of militant Islam that were waiting to burst through the cracks of dismantled states.
I think that’s basically what’s happening now. You have the militant Shi’ites led by Iran and its proxies on the one side, and the militant Sunnis now led by Daesh and they’ve already brought down four countries and they seek to bring down the rest and I think that this was not fully understood.
I have to say on this one that I warned against this a number of times and I think people now understand this threat better.
There are many challenges that we all face and none of us are perfect but the horror of seeing these head-chopping caliphates destroy our world, destroy our people is something that unites many countries in the Middle East and many countries in Africa, in Europe and now everywhere.
You see the danger that this medieval savagery poses to the entire world.
Security is obviously a big area where Africa can work with Israel but you’ve also said that you’d like to see African countries change the way they vote at the UN.
How much of this thrust to Africa is really to shore up the numbers of the votes in the UN?
That too! I’ll be very open about it. Of course; why not?
There’s an anomaly; Israel is opening up to all the powers of the world.
Our relations with India have changed; our relations with Russia have changed, with Japan, with China, with Vietnam, with Korea, countries in our own region, countries in Latin America and so on.
Why should there be a dissonance between these extraordinary ties we have a bilateral plane and the multilateral ritual in the UN?
You know, the UN Human Rights Council passes, every year, more resolutions against the democracy of Israel, in the heart of this troubling region in the heart of the Middle East, than all the other countries combined, including North Korea, Iran, Syria; it’s absurd!
So why not correct this absurdity? Why not have a more balanced and equitable reflection of the truth and fairness in international forums?
And yes, of course, I seek that — I am quite open about it — but equally I seek those bilateral ties with so many states.
Why not have with Africa what we have now with the countries of Asia and frankly with quite a few countries in the Middle East?
I think it makes sense every way you look at it — bilaterally and multilaterally.
And I’m very excited about this visit and it’s very emotional for me to come to Entebbe again.
It’s very emotional for me because this is the place where my brother was cut down and died at the age of 30 while leading a rescue force to free the hostages held by Arab terrorists in Entebbe Airport.
I regret that I can never get my parents, my late father, who was a great historian, when President Museveni invited me and my family to come — he was very kind and had a very moving ceremony conducted by Ugandan soldiers for the fallen soldier — I wanted my father to be there but I thought that he wouldn’t, might not survive the emotion that I felt.
He was in his nineties at the time. He didn’t come there but I felt tremendous emotion, sadness too, but also closing of the circle.
My brother landed in the pitch of darkness to save our citizens and here I come to Africa, a different government, a different relationship, in broad daylight, being welcomed by the President of Uganda — there’ll be other African leaders there; it’s both important for us on the national and international level but for me it’s a personal journey of the deepest sentiment so I am very emotional about this visit.
Should we expect any concrete cooperation on security and terrorism with East Africa in particular?
What advice do you give African countries dealing with either migration or internal terrorism?
If they ask me in the meeting with the leaders I’ll give them my advice but I have learned, over a few decades as both a diplomat at the UN and then as foreign minister, and now, fourth term, as Prime Minister, give your advice directly to the leaders, not always in front of TV.
* The transcript has been slightly edited for length and clarity.