NAIROBI, Kenya – Fourteen years after Israel was booted out, Kenya is backing Israel’s bid to regain observer status at the African Union, the country’s president announced Tuesday.
“We believe that there is need for us as a continent once again to reengage Israel on a more positive basis, with an understanding that our partnership can help make this world that much more secure,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Nairobi State House.
“This is something that Kenya will continue to push, to see how Israel can regain her observer position at the African Union. I believe that this is not just good for Kenya. It is good for Africa. It is good for global peace. It is good for partnership,” said the president.
Strengthened Israel-African cooperation is important for both sides, Kenyatta went on, adding that while some countries on the continent have had tense relations with the Jewish state, current global challenges obligate African countries to reassess their position.
“We think that the world has changed,” the Kenyan president said. “Global problems that we now share are different than what they were some 30 years ago. And we need to partner with each other. We need to deal with the security threats we have together.”
Israel was kicked out of the African Union in 2002 at the behest of Libya. Recent efforts to have Israel rejoin the group failed, due to objections from South Africa and others. The AU, based in Addis Ababa and currently comprising 54 African countries, is an organization dedicated to promoting cooperation among its members.
The single biggest challenge facing not just Kenya and Africa but the entire world, said Kenyatta, is terrorism committed by “deranged people who believe in no religion.”
“It would be foolhardy for one to sit back and say that, faced with those challenges, Kenya and Africa cannot engage in Israel in this particular issue. That’s like an ostrich burying its head in the sand,” he declared.
Kenyatta went on: “The importance is not for Israel to be recognized by the African Union. (Rather), it is critical for us to be able to partner with all those who see this as a challenge and with whom we share a common position… That’s why I strongly believe it is critical for us to reevaluate our relations with the State of Israel, given the challenges we on the African continent especially are faced with today.”
Netanyahu, who is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Kenya, thanked Kenyatta for advocating Israel’s return to the union, saying the president’s words were “very important.”
Regaining observer status at the African Union “has very great significance for us,” Netanyahu said. “Africa is a continent with 54 countries. The possibility of changing their position and their attitude toward Israel is a strategic change in Israel’s international standing.”
The nascent African-Israel rapprochement is already resonating on the continent, the prime minister added, “but it will have a very big resonance in the future of Israel’s international relations in our effort to make a very large number of countries support Israel.”
In their remarks, both Kenyatta and Netanyahu mentioned Kenya’s role in Israel’s Operation Entebbe 40 years ago.
“As a country, we stood with Israel both in practice and in principle,” the Kenyan leader said, recalling that “many of our people were subsequently killed in Uganda by Idi Amin as a result of the support that we gave.”
After terrorists hijacked an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda, in June 1976, Israeli special forces launched a spectacular rescue operation. On their way back from Entebbe, the Israeli plane landed in Kenya to refuel.
“We remember Kenya’s assistance in the rescue mission in Entebbe,” Netanyahu said, a day after he marked the rescue — at which his brother Yonatan, head of the Sayeret Matkal commando team that carried out the operation, was the only Israeli military fatality — at a ceremony at Entebbe airport. “Our pilots landed here afterwards, and in retrospect we know that was not merely an act to save innocent Israeli hostages, but it was an act that dealt a devastating blow to international terror at the time.”
Read: How Kenya played a vital, silent role in Entebbe, ‘the most audacious hostage rescue in history’
Today, though, said Netanyahu, “we are engaged in the resurfacing of a new form of terrorism that threatens all our countries. And we must join forces.”
Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu laid a wreath at the grave of Kenya’s founder, Yoma Kenyatta, the current president’s father. After their press conference, Netanyahu and Kenyatta were scheduled to attend a forum of African and Israeli businessmen.
Nairobi is the second stop on Netanyahu’s historic four-country visit to East Africa, which started Monday in Entebbe. On Wednesday he will visit Rwanda before wrapping up his trip in Ethiopia.