Last Thursday, while the rest of Israel was commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dan Shacham, Israel's non-resident ambassador to Africa, met one of the most notorious dictators in the world, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe, who is considered one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest associates, has been slapped with harsh sanctions by Egypt and the European Union for grave human rights violations and "blood diamond" trade.
Israel and Zimbabwe have had diplomatic relations since 1993. The Foreign Ministry confirmed that Shacham submitted his credentials on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor noted that the ambassador was aware of the sensitive timing of their meeting and therefore invited the Zimbabwe Jewish community's rabbi, Moshe Silberhaft, to the credentials ceremony. "Throughout the ceremony, the two told President Mugabe of the special meaning of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the latter even discussed the matter in great lengths," said Palmor.
Zimbabwe's Jewish community is made up of only 250 people, after most members of the community left the country in the 1980s after its independent, when white residents were harassed by Mugabe's regime. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 2003, the central synagogue of Bulawayo was torched in an anti-Semitic attack.
In an interview with the local magazine of Zimbabwe's Jewish community, Silberhaft said the subject of Holocaust Memorial Day indeed came up at the meeting, and that he himself informed Mugabe that the government does not interfere with the lives of the country's Jewish community, which is given free exercise of religion.
The Foreign Ministry said that Holocaust Remembrance Day was the only day the Zimbabwe government allocated to foreign ambassadors that are not based in the capital Harare. "The credentials were submitted after more than one year," said Palmor, who added that "the next opportunity would have been in about a year's time. On the same day, credentials were submitted by the non-resident ambassadors of Ireland, Zambia and Sierra Leone."
The website of Zimbabwe's Jewish community, which reported on the meeting, said that Mugabe talked to the Israeli ambassador at lengths, and requested Israeli assistance in agriculture, irrigation systems and the possibility of importing the kibbutz model to Zimbabwe. Another topic that Mugabe focused on was the Palestinians, and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The matter of human rights violations and trade of "blood diamonds" appeared to have been omitted from their discussion.
Another issue that was not mentioned in their conversation was the close ties between Mugabe and Iran, and Ahmadinejad in particular. In November 2006, Mugabe visited Tehran and criticized what he defined as "crimes full of hate committed by the Zionist regime" against the Palestinians. Mugabe said back then that Israel "is butchering innocent Palestinian citizens while non-Jewish nations stand by in silence."
In April 2010 Ahmadinejad arrived in Zimbabwe for a reciprocal visit. The meeting took place some weeks after a secret agreement was signed between the two states, for the supply of uranium in return for oil. Under the agreement, which was revealed by the British newspaper the Sunday Telegraph, Iran received access to the vast uranium deposits in Zimbabwe and mining rights. In return, it committed to supplying oil to Mugabe's regime.
Mugabe, aged 88, has been the president of Zimbabwe for 32 years, and is thought to be one of the cruelest dictators alive today. Mugabe, who rose to power immediately after the country's independence in 1980 to lead the state with an autocratic regime, introduced a policy of targeting the white minority and expelling them from their lands.
In addition, Mugabe instructed the expulsion and mass murder of tens of thousands of residents of the suburbs of Harare out of fear that they would attempt to overthrow him. That policy resulted in Zimbabwe being dismissed from the British Commonwealth in 2004. The United States and members of the European Union accuse Mugabe of interfering with the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections and of murdering numerous members of the opposition parties.
Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch accuse Mugabe of trading "blood diamonds," which are mined using forced labor at mines under the military control. The sale of diamonds allegedly financed purchases of Chinese weapons and enabled him to cement his Mugabe's regime through bribery.
Over the past few years, the United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Mugabe and members of his regime, whose entrance into the European Union has been barred. In addition, limits have been imposed on the export of diamonds from Zimbabwe. In December 2010, Israel – who then led the United Nation's Kimberley Process to forbid the trade of blood diamonds – led the proposal to prevent Zimbabwe from exporting diamonds. The suggestion was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly.
Nonetheless, Israel in the past provided the Mugabe regime with weapons. In 2002, the Defense Ministry approved the sale to Zimbabwe of the Israeli-developed riot-control vehicle produced by Kibbutz Beit Alfa, which is used to disperse protesters. The deal was harshly criticized and claims were made that Mugabe would use the riot-control vehicle to suppress the opposition.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Palmor said that Israel is conducts diplomatic ties with Zimbabwe like all other countries of the world, but is a full partner to the European Union's sanctions on Zimbabwe.