Israel Silent on Uganda's Anti-gay Law, Fearing Blow to Strategic Alliance

Fearing damage to its alliance with Uganda and arrangements to deport African asylum seekers, Israel has not joined the chorus of condemnations from the West.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Israel is remaining silent on Uganda’s new anti-homosexual act to avoid damaging its strategic alliance with the East African country.

The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law Monday, prescribes up to a 14 year prison sentence for “promoting or recognizing” homosexual relations and a life sentence for multiple convictions. Homosexual contact between men in public and being HIV-positive while having homosexual relations are among other crimes punishable by up to a life sentence under the law.

The law further criminalizes not reporting knowledge of such homosexual acts to authorities, extends for the first time criminal sanctions against homosexual acts, which have existed in Uganda since British colonial days, to lesbians and states that discussing homosexuality without condemning it could be criminal.

Museveni signed the bill into law despite strong international pressure not to do so. The Ugandan Parliament passed the bill on December 20, 2013, and had been waiting for Museveni to sign it.

In response to the law’s enactment, the United States announced it was reconsidering its relations with Uganda, including its annual $450 million aid package.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the new law, saying: “This is a tragic day for Uganda and for all who care about the cause of human rights. Ultimately, the only answer is repeal of this law.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called in Uganda’s ambassador to the UN and reprimanded him. Ban warned the new law “could fuel prejudice and encourage harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

Countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark also condemned the law and announced a halt in economic aid to Uganda. Austria and Sweden announced they would reexamine their aid programs to Uganda.

On Tuesday, Haaretz asked the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to clarify Israel’s policy on the Ugandan law and whether it would reconsider its broad cooperation with the country. The Foreign Ministry had not planned on making an announcement on the issue, but as a result of Haaretz’s inquiry, officials held consultations to formulate a response. The Prime Minister’s Bureau was also involved in the discussions at one stage. After five hours of consultations, the Foreign Ministry issued a 22 word statement in Hebrew, which did not directly refer to Uganda or question Israel’s cooperative efforts with the country.

“Israel views the protection of the rights of the various genders in every society and country as important, and feels there is no place or justification for discriminatory laws that harm individual rights,” the Foreign Ministry state said.

The Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Bureau do not want to jeopardize Israel’s close and decades old relationship with Uganda by offending the regime. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally attributes great importance to the relationship, particularly because Israel is currently working to deport to the country Sudanese and Eritreans who arrived in Israel illegally. Netanyahu’s representative on the deportation, former deputy head of the Mossad Hagai Hadas, reached understandings a few months ago with the authorities in Kampala. A week ago, Haaretz reported that dozens of asylum seekers had already been secretly flown from Israel to Uganda.

The strategic relationship between Israel and Uganda includes broad intelligence and security cooperation. Israel Aerospace Industries refurbished Ugandan Air Force planes and its pilots have trained in Israel. A number of private companies owned by retired senior Israel Defense Force officers have trained Ugandan special forces units. Israel also sells Uganda weapons, such as mortars, machine guns, artillery and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry grants Uganda direct aid in the areas of agriculture and health. In addition, Israel and Uganda have widespread economic links, and many Israeli businesspeople operate in Uganda. Among them is former Israeli minister Rafi Eitan, who was involved in Museveni’s second visit to Israel in November 2011. During the previous visit in 2003, Museveni met with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and discussed arms deals between the two countries.

Israel’s silence on the law is particularly notable, because Netanyahu often makes use of the Israeli LGBT community for public relations purposes. In almost all of his speeches abroad, Netanyahu attacks the Iranian regime for persecuting gays and executing them at public. At the same time, to strengthen Israel’s image as a liberal and democratic nation, Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry often emphasize the way Israel has advanced the rights of its LGBT community.

A Ugandan newspaper stand.Credit: AFP
Jewish activists in New York protest new anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda.Credit: Brian Schaefer

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