WASHINGTON The annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States, usually hosts at least one head of state every year. In most cases it will be either the Israeli prime minister or the U.S. president, but this year both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump chose not to attend.
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Still, despite this absence from the conference held in Washington, AIPAC hosted a world leader: Rwandan President Paul Kagame. His speech on the conference’s first day drew enthusiastic applause from the thousands-strong crowd and marked an AIPAC milestone: the first time a leader of an African nation addressed the group’s annual conference.
Kagame gave a short speech emphasizing how Israel and Rwanda are two nations sharing a history of genocide and revival. “My message today is simple: Rwanda is, without question, a friend of Israel. I wanted to take a moment to tell you why,” he declared. “No tragedy is so great and so vast that human ingenuity and resilience cannot give rise to a better future. The survival and renewal of our two nations testifies to this truth.”
Kagame has been leading Rwanda since 2000 and faces another election next year that he’s expected to win easily. He rose to power after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people mostly from Rwanda’s Tutsi community were massacred, and more than 2 million people mostly from the country’s Hutu community became refugees. Kagame led the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front that in June 1994 took control of the country, ended the genocide and founded a new government that he has been leading for the last 17 years.
In the years following the genocide, Kagame was the West’s favorite leader in Africa. The way he rebuilt Rwanda’s institutions, stabilized its economy and led its people healing from a genocide drew immense praise from world leaders. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were among his most prominent fans. In recent years, however, Kagame has come under increased criticism from the Obama administration and the European Union over his country’s human rights record and Rwanda’s 2015 referendum that extended his authorities as president and lets him remain in power until 2034.
On the first day of the AIPAC conference, shortly after his speech, Kagame sat for an interview with Haaretz. For 45 minutes, he spoke about his country’s cooperation with Israel, his tense relationship with the Obama administration, and his expectations from Donald Trump’s presidency.
Why did you decide to speak at AIPAC this year?
“I received an invitation from the leadership of AIPAC and decided to come. It’s a great honor to speak at this event. It points to a very strong relationship that we have between Rwanda and Israel a relationship built on our histories, where we’ve come from and our shared interests.”
Rwanda was one of the four African countries that Netanyahu visited during his tour of East Africa last July; it was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister in more than two decades. Kagame has come to Israel a number of times since taking power, including a visit in 2013 to attend Shimon Peres’ 90th-birthday celebrations.
In your speech, you said “Israel is coming back to Africa.” What does that mean?
“After Netanyahu’s visit to the region and his meeting with six heads of state, there have been other bilateral visits, just below the level of heads of state, and more and more engagement between Israel and countries in Africa. I was told that later this year there could be another summit with Israel and a number of states involved.”
How much of the dialogue between Israel and African countries like Rwanda is centered around the issues of counterterrorism and intelligence?
“Terrorism is a topic that the whole world needs to come together to tackle. It's not going to be addressed by one country alone. It is going to take collaborations to uproot this serious problem that is affecting every country, without exception. Israel has its own capabilities on this issue, so it gives countries a lot of strength if they work with Israel.”
One of the more controversial elements of the two countries’ relationship is Rwanda’s agreement around two years ago to absorb thousands of asylum seekers and migrants from African countries who entered Israel via Egypt on foot. The full details of the deal remain secret, but it reportedly consists of cash payments from Israel as Kagame’s government lets Israel deport migrants to Rwanda.
I asked Kagame if he was aware of the criticism of the deal from Israeli human rights groups and if he could understand why many Israelis find the agreement such a problem.
“I’m aware of the discussions that are going on. I think it’s a complicated issue. I decided to just leave it the way it is. We agreed to play a role in order to help not only Israel but also the people concerned, trying to stop this from becoming a much bigger problem.”
What is Rwanda’s interest in this deal?
“Most of all, the strength of the relationship we have with Israel. It’s really limited to that. If I went to Israel and said ‘Can you help us? There’s a problem we have,’ I’m sure there are many things Israel would be willing to do to help us.”
Kagame emphasizes that he has a good relationship with Netanyahu, but that the Rwanda-Israel relationship isn’t limited by politics. “Trust with Israel has been built across the aisle. It’s not an issue of right, left or center, it’s about Israel and Rwanda. I know that in Israel you find different schools of thought on different topics.”
A main accusation hurled at Kagame by the Rwandan opposition and international agencies is that in his country it’s becoming increasingly harder to have “different schools of thought.” His opponents accuse him of cracking down on press freedom, silencing political rivals, widening his presidential mandate at the expense of other democratic institutions, and fueling vicious sectarian fighting in neighboring countries.
If under the Clinton and Bush administrations there was a consensus in the West on seeing Kagame as an inspiring leader and a role model for other African leaders, today he’s considered more controversial. His supporters in Rwanda and across the world point to his achievements in raising the country from the ashes of genocide and turning it into one of the most prosperous and successful places in Africa. His critics say that while he deserves great credit for that, his civil and human rights record is a problem.
I asked Kagame about his relationships with the last three U.S. presidents Clinton and Bush who mostly praised him, and Barack Obama, who was very critical. “I will talk about two of the presidents you mentioned and leave out the other one,” he said with a smile. “We had with Clinton and Bush very good relationships. They genuinely wanted to help Rwanda and Africa. They had trust in us and they understood we had a very specific situation to deal with, given what we had gone through.”
The danger of another civil war
Kagame said these two presidents realized that trade relations and business cooperation with the United States can be more helpful to many African countries than direct financial aid, which is also why he doesn’t necessarily see the Trump administration’s decision to cut foreign aid as disastrous.
When I pressed him to respond to the criticism from the Obama administration, the EU and human rights groups that accuse him of harming democracy in his own country, he replied that “we need more of the [economic] aid we just talked about than aid in politics and human rights. Those things we are capable of handling ourselves. I don’t think Rwanda and Africa need aid in terms of managing countries’ internal politics, or the so-called human rights issue. I think there is just a tradition of making noise about these issues. That’s not what our countries need.”
When I asked about that issue once again, Kagame compared his country to “a beautiful work of glass that you are holding in your hand and looking at it and appreciating it. It’s intact and pretty, as long as you’re still holding it in your hands. The moment you stumble, the whole thing goes out of your hands, and it is absolutely breakable.” He claims that while Rwandans “understand” this metaphor and realize that their country is still in danger of slipping into another civil war, foreign critics don’t understand how dire that situation is.
For Israel, Kagame’s human rights record hasn’t been a concern at any stage of the relationship. Before he visited Israel in 2013, I asked a senior Israeli official who deals with Africa about the reports that Kagame was going after his political opponents. “Kagame is their David Ben-Gurion,” that official replied. “He is rebuilding a country after a terrible genocide. Did Ben-Gurion do some undemocratic things when he built our country after the Holocaust? Of course he did. Maybe not as bad, but you get the point.”
The Trump administration, it seems, is going to treat Kagame with a similar approach. Human rights monitoring doesn’t seem to be high on the administration’s list of international priorities. Bilateral trade deals, business cooperation and fighting terrorism three things that Kagame is eager to discuss are much higher on the agenda.
“I think there are good intentions in this administration to deal with the problems that are there in Africa. I have no complaints so far. They want to be helpful. How specifically they do that, given all the problems they have to address, is a different question. It’s been too short a period for making a judgment.”
What is your main expectation from the new president?
“We want the United States to increase its partnership with Rwanda and Africa. To look at it more as a partnership not just as a relationship in which the United States goes to Africa and does some good things and helps people. To think more about investments, business initiatives, trade. We need to create a win-win situation that makes more sense to me.”
Kagame does point out, however, that there is a difference between urgent humanitarian aid which he still thinks is necessary for Africa and long-term aid programs, some of which he believes could be remodeled to fit his “win-win” thesis.
Speaking of bilateral relations, your country has some close partners in the Arab world with whom you’ve been expanding business cooperation in recent years. How does your relationship with Israel affect your contacts with those countries? Have you heard any complaints from them about it?
“That’s a very good question. We have very good relationships across the Arab and Muslim world, and at the same time, a very strong relationship with Israel. Our stance has always been we don’t relate with one people at the expense of others. We don’t trade friends. We are looking at our own good as Rwandans, and we don’t try to inject ourselves into other countries’ problems. We’re not taking sides.”