Former Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan attended official meetings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres held last week in Jerusalem with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, according to a senior Israeli official.
Eitan, now a businessman, helped organize Museveni's visit to Israel. He has been trying to establish business operations in Uganda and to set up a cattle ranch in the country.
This is the second visit to Israel for Museveni, who has been Uganda's president for 26 years. On his previous visit, in 2003, Museveni met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and with Netanyahu, who was then foreign minister, mainly to discuss Israeli arms sales to Uganda.
About a month ago, during efforts to thwart the Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations, Netanyahu spoke with the Ugandan president and invited him to visit Israel. According to the senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, the meeting last Sunday focused more on economic aid to Uganda than on arms sales.
The source said Eitan's involvement in the visit came a surprise to several government officials. He said the Foreign Ministry staffers who came to the airport to welcome Museveni were surprised to see Eitan waiting on the tarmac to shake the Ugandan president's hand.
"The president of Uganda arrived in a private plane and the welcome was in an area of the airport reserved for VIPs. It is unclear how Rafi Eitan even got a permit to get in there," the source said.
Eitan went on to take part in meetings among Netanyahu, Peres and Museveni. "No Israeli official invited Eitan to the airport, and he also invited himself to the meetings with Netanyahu and Peres and sat in the room," the official said.
Eitan, 85, held several government positions in the course of his career. He served in the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state, underground Haganah, the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces.
He went on to become director of operations in the Mossad, Israel's espionage agency, and participated in the capture of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Eitan also served as head of the Bureau of Scientific Relations, the agency that handled the Jewish-American Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. From 2006 to 2009 he was pensioner affairs minister in the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"I have been a friend of the Ugandan president for many years and I helped him [with the visit to Israel]. I know a few people in the wider world and sometimes I go with them to see the prime minister and the president," Eitan told Haaretz yesterday.
Eitan initially said Museveni had invited him to the meeting with Netanyahu and Peres, but afterward said he had phoned the prime minister and president and asked to join the meetings. "Shimon Peres and I have been friends for many years. I called and told him I was a friend of the Ugandan president, and Peres told me to come to the meeting," Eitan said.
Eitan returned to the world of business two years ago and became interested in various business ventures in Africa, mainly in Uganda. "I want to start farming projects, like a cattle ranch, but it has not yet started. In any case, agricultural projects do not depend on meetings with prime ministers," Eitan told Haaretz.
In a response the President's Residence in Jerusalem said Eitan had asked to attend Peres' meeting with Museveni and that President's Residence Director General Efrat Duvdevani had consulted with the Foreign Ministry.
"The Foreign Ministry said Eitan's participation in the meeting was up to us," the President's Residence said. "We decided to grant the request because Eitan is a former minister and former senior Mossad official and has historical relations with Uganda and a personal relationship with the guest. In any case Eitan's business in Uganda did not come up in the meeting."
The Prime Minister's Bureau declined to comment on the issue.