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Why Kenya has tighter relationship with Israel than other great powers

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There currently is a serious global geopolitical realignment in which ‘global predators’, driven by ‘fear’, are competing to ‘lead’ others as a way of safeguarding and promoting their perceived interests. The concept of ‘global predators’ marauding all over the world, applies particularly to extra-continental powers competing to exploit and pressure Africans to side with one or the other ‘predator’.

There are three layers of global predators that Africa has to be concerned with. First are the three dominant powers that struggle to discredit each other and engage in proxy wars namely the United States, China and Russia. The second layer comprises former imperial/colonial powers that are on the decline but are also struggling to keep their imperial heads high as they fend off dominance from the top three.

Third, are mostly former European colonies in Asia and the Middle East that would like to become big powers and Africa seems like a good place to assert that bigness. Kenya is a target of the various layers of global predators. One extra-continental power – Israel – however does not qualify to be a ‘predator’.

Pre-dating Kenya’s independence in 1963, that sentimental attachment makes Kenyans to see Israel in ways that are different, which then disqualifies Israel from the category of ‘predator’ powers. [iStockphoto]

The reason for the exemption is that Kenya and Israel have very close relationship in which their people exhibit deep sentimental attachment to each other. Dr Fatma Abdullatif, Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs senior official, acknowledged this reality in a conference on ‘Global Actors’ at Riara University. That relationship defies normal diplomatic language of economic, trade, political, aid or security interests. Pre-dating Kenya’s independence in 1963, that sentimental attachment makes Kenyans to see Israel in ways that are different, which then disqualifies Israel from the category of ‘predator’ powers.

The close identification with Israel is emotional because it is religious, given that most Kenyans claim to be Christian. Some try to find pre-Christian links with Israel and settle on Abraham and his third wife, Keturah, as spiritual if not biological ancestors. Men relate to Old Testament stories of Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon, and the women see themselves in Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Esther, and in Hanna beseeching God to give her a son. In various ceremonies, for instance, masters of ceremony tend to give the venue ‘geography’ directions by referring to different places for Abraham and for Sarah. Kenyans have internalised Israeli Biblical sufferings and achievements and can never think of Ismael as ‘predator’.

The Israelis do their best to reinforce that internalisation and appear to link anti-British struggle in the late 1940s to establish Israel with Kenya’s anti-British colonial struggle. In the struggle, Jomo Kenyatta seemed like Moses and had such close connections with fellow anti-colonialists that he secretly sent young people in pre-independence days to train in Israel. As president and in order to inspire people to work hard, Kenyatta referred to the Biblical story of God’s curse to those who continue to expect ‘manna’ from heaven. As president, Kenyatta did not travel but his successor, Daniel arap Moi, travelled to the Biblical lands and occasionally partook of wine as per the Jesus’ Last Supper instruction, ‘drink this in memory of me.’ Other politicians, especially Raila Odinga, have used Old Testament imagery of Canaan and River Jordan to try and win votes.

The sentimental bond brings the two together in time of need. Kenya made its logistical facilities in Nairobi available when Israel decided to fix Uganda’s Idi Amin. While the Americans behaved badly when terrorists attacked their embassy in Nairobi in 1998, Israel endeared itself to Kenyans by quickly providing personnel, sniffer dogs, and chisels to rescue the injured. Only matatu operators received similar admiration.

The sentimental attachment is a unique form of diplomacy for Kenya and Israel. To Kenyans, Israel cannot be like Britain, China, and the US – predators.



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