After the Prime Minister's Office loudly trumpeted that Benjamin Netanyahu would embark at the end of February on an historic visit to Kenya and Uganda, it seems that this endeavor has been buried with barely a whimper.
According to a top government official, the Prime Minister's Office has informed the foreign ministry that Netanyahu cannot take the trip. Foreign ministry officials are now scratching their heads, wondering how to avoid a diplomatic incident with two African states that had been preparing for the visit.
Netanyahu personally initiated the idea of visiting Africa. In mid-November 2011, the prime minister of Kenya and the president of Uganda visited Israel. Netanyahu met with the two dignitaries, and he told them that he would like to take a trip to their countries in early 2012. The two were enthusiastic, and told Netanyahu that they would be happy to host him.
Having some experience with Netanyahu's declarations during diplomatic meetings, foreign ministry officials estimated that several months would pass before the Prime Minister's Office might take a serious look at the possibility of an African visit.
Surprisingly, just a few days after the meetings with the Ugandan president and Kenyan prime minister, the Prime Minister's Officer announced that Netanyahu was interested in making the visit in February 2012.
Israel's embassies in Kenya and Uganda initiated contacts with top officials in these two countries, to set dates for the trip. The officials settled on the last week of February. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was poised to join the prime minister on this visit to Africa.
The Prime Minister's Office disseminated word of the visit in media outlets, stressing the trip's historical character, it being 40 years since an Israeli prime minister has visited Africa; Levi Eshkol, they noted, visited Africa. This history lesson was not entirely accurate since in the 1980s, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir visited Cameroon.
Some media reports about the anticipated visit went as far as to say that Netanyahu would reach the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, to take part in a memorial service for his brother Yoni, who died while commanding the famous Israeli rescue operation there in July 1976.
In speeches, Netanyahu started to mention the need to strengthen ties with African states, both to promote Israeli exports and also to recruit diplomatic support for showdowns in international forums. In a recent government meeting, Netanyahu stated that he would go to Africa to probe possible solutions to the issue of foreign workers who cross into Israel via the Sinai Peninsula.
Yet in recent days, the winds have been blowing in other directions in Netanyahu's office, and the foreign ministry was informed that the Prime Minister has decided not to embark on the trip.
According to the source, Netanyahu has decided to attend the AIPAC conference in Washington in early March, in lieu of the African journey. The guest of honor at the AIPAC event will be Shimon Peres, and the simultaneous presence of Israel's president and prime minister in America's capital will be an unusual occurrence.
Foreign ministry officials were incredulous about this turn of events. Netanyahu's flip-flop regarding the visit reminded the officials of his handling of an anticipated visit to China in November 2010.
In this earlier case as well, Netanyahu decided to cancel the already-arranged visit; he flew instead to a gathering of Jewish organizations in the US. The Chinese were insulted, and Netanyahu has not subsequently been able to wrest an invitation to Beijing.
"For now, Netanyahu is not traveling to Africa," says the senior government official. "The idea of a trip remains on the agenda, but it doesn't look like it will happen in late February. Right now we are waiting to see whether there will be a deferral to another date, or whether Kenya and Uganda will simply be informed of a cancellation."
The Prime Minister's Office relays in response that "the prime minister's trip to Africa, scheduled for next month, has been deferred."
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