Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power may be shaky back home, weakened by legal troubles, but on his road trips abroad Bibi, as he is popularly known, is exuding lots of confidence when negotiating deals with foreign leaders.
Mr Nethanyahu was here on a one-day visit on Monday, hosted by President Yoweri Museveni at State House Entebbe. Sudan’s Sovereign Council head Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan also flew in to meet the Israeli leader at Entebbe. This was the first sign of the thawing of relations between the two nations following the overthrow of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir last year.
In a tweet in Hebrew, Mr Netanyahu said he and Gen Burhan had “agreed to start a cooperation that will normalise relations between the two countries. History!”
On camera, President Museveni and Netanyahu projected calm and camaraderie as they discussed several issues of mutual benefit but off-camera, away from the press conference, the leaders addressed in the evening, their security minders injected a hefty dose of unexpected drama in the one-day visit. The Israelis insisted on taking control of the entire security operation at State House.
When journalists arrived at 12:15pm at State House for a scheduled press conference, about four cars were parked at the main gate off the Entebbe highway. All the cars had State House or Uganda Police registration plates.
This seemed a little odd. On any given day, Special Forces Command, SFC, the presidential guard unit, is firmly in charge of security at State House. At the gate, SFC disarms every armed escort. There are no exceptions. They disarm vice presidential guards and Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga’s guards.
No armed escort takes a gun beyond the quarter guard. On several visits of high-profile dignitaries, SFC has remained in charge at State House. They were in charge when presidents, Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Omar Bashir of Sudan visited.
It’s only when the late former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi visited or when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited in 2016 that dramatic fights for supremacy ensued between SFC and the foreign escorts. But with Netanyahu, SFC showed respectful restraint. They let the Israelis run the show.
At the main gate, Israeli soldiers turned everything upside down. Even a pile of sand dumped near the gate was shoveled upside down and scanned for suspicious elements. The pile of wheelbarrows nearby was also flipped and carefully scrutinized. Next, the Israelis turned to the big gun statue at the entrance; or is it a real gun?
They went round it several times. They were dressed in black suits and sported dark shades. They carried guns we usually see in movies. On seeing the guns, one SFC soldier whispered loudly to a colleague, “Obushaija bwine omuzinga,” literary meaning, these guys have a sophisticated gun.
The Israelis carried machines, which looked like bomb detectors, some very small, others medium and others really big. They took control of the main entrance to State House.
After about 10 minutes of waiting at the entrance of the main gate, we were told by an SFC officer to use the service gate. SFC manned this gate and they did more screening than usual. Our cameras and recorders were subjected to intense scrutiny at three locations. They didn’t leave anything to chance. Inside, there were many Israelis and SFC soldiers.
The Israelis paced around State House, moving from room to room –occasionally asking SFC soldiers some quick questions. Our SFCs just looked on in awe. When Netanyahu arrived, there was no illusion about who was in charge.
Even our president seemed bothered by the heavy Israeli security presence much as he is used to this kind of foreign security intervention many times. For he has hanged around six US presidents and knows when they are around, they are in charge.
When we asked the waiter why he was not serving milk in our room, he said Israelis prohibited milk in the room where Netanyahu was going to speak to journalists. As we waited for the press conference scheduled for between 2:30pm and 3pm, we became security pundits too.
“When our president [Museveni] goes to Kenya or South Sudan, our soldiers take over security there,” one journalist said.
“…I don’t like the way our SFC have been reduced to a helping role,” another chipped in.
“Today our soldiers are very humble, if you put up a fight with an Israeli soldier, you lose even before the fight starts,” another said.
The banter went on and on as we waited for the press conference that didn’t take off until 5pm. When it did, it lasted only seven minutes and the principals left. They didn’t entertain any questions. Netanyahu used the press conference to ask President Museveni to open an embassy in Jerusalem, a hugely contested city by Israel and Palestine.
“I have a simple suggestion you should have time to consider Mr President, my friend, open an embassy in Jerusalem, I will open an embassy in Kampala. We hope to do this in the near future because there is a historic bond between us,” Netanyahu said.
In response, President Museveni who seemed like he hadn’t expected Netanyahu to bring up the issue said, “The issue of the embassy, we are discussing it and the good thing is that with all the controversies, there is a part of Jerusalem, which under the partition plan is in Israel. At least that is not part of the arguments,” Museveni said.
The two also discussed a number of issues including, security, agriculture and Uganda having a direct flight to Israel at least once a week. By the time the meeting ended and the Israelis left Entebbe, we were convinced; the turbulent region in which Israel is found coupled with years of fighting has prepped them to really be on top of their game.