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As Ties with Israel Warm, Uganda Bucks Consensus at United Nations

August 5, 2004
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When the Palestinians and their allies bring forth anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations, they know they can count on the support of countries in the developing world, and certainly in Africa. But that support is no longer unanimous: On July 20, when the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to order Israel to tear down its West Bank security barrier, one African country — Uganda — challenged expectations and abstained.

The move defied Uganda’s decades of support for the Palestinians and ran counter to the traditional regional embrace of so-called liberation movements.

Yet it didn’t mark the first time Uganda had abandoned the General Assembly consensus to carve out a new attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It began abstaining from or voting against several pro-Palestinian resolutions in December 2003.

Several factors underlie the shift. One is Uganda’s view of its own 18-year civil war ag! ainst the Lord’s Resistance Army through the same lens as Israel’s struggle against the Palestinians.

Another is the Palestinians’ continuing resort to terrorism.

The Palestinians “may have legitimate grievances, they are occupied territory, but their methods — Uganda does not believe that is the approach,” Onapito Ekomoloit, an adviser to President Yoweri Museveni, told JTA. “You can be a freedom fighter without being a terrorist.”

Uganda’s new diplomatic posture hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the public.

Mohammad Mahfudh, 27, a Ugandan Muslim of Yemeni origin, said he does not understand why Israelis and Palestinians can’t get along together in one binational state. Neither can Mahfudh comprehend Israel’s hesitation to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip, nor the army’s policy of assassinating Palestinian terrorist leaders.

Still, he saw no problem with the Ugandan government’s deepening diplomatic and business ties with Israel, whose achievements ! he admired.

“In the modern world, we need symbiotic relationships, ” he said.

He remembered how Israeli contractors built Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, along with office buildings and apartment blocks in Kampala, before the late dictator Idi Amin severed relations with Jerusalem in 1972, kicking Israelis out of the country.

Formal diplomatic ties were re-established in 1994. Today, Israeli companies do business here in agriculture, construction, road paving and water supply.

Israeli government experts in agriculture, biotech and dairy products are holding training courses in Kampala later this month. Meanwhile, more than 50 Ugandans are on various kinds of training programs in Israel.

This fall, Israel will extend a Foreign Ministry cooperation program to Uganda, making it the third country in Africa, after Ethiopia and Rwanda, to have the opportunity to learn about personnel and training for its own diplomatic staff.

A former British protectorate of about 23 million people, Uganda is a place where deep faith and post-colonia! l ideology intersect. It’s home to tens of millions of Catholics, Anglicans and evangelical Christians, along with more than two million Muslims.

Despite its Christian majority, Uganda is a member of the 53-country Organization of the Islamic Conference — which, according to officials, it joined to give its Muslims a platform and a voice.

“In principle, Uganda wants a balanced view of the situation in the Middle East,” Ambassador J.B. Onen, the top bureaucrat in the Ugandan Foreign Ministry, told JTA.

To that end, it maintains relationships with all the players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Museveni has seen the conflict up close: He made a state visit to Israel in January 2003, and also has spent time in the West Bank.

Museveni’s attempt to take a balanced approach to the Middle East crisis resonates with the public, said Andrew Mwenda, a political analyst and radio host.

“You should remember that Ugandans, having a Christian backgr! ound, very strongly believe in the existence of the State of Israel,” he told JTA.

But, Mwenda added, because Ugandans belong “to the wide Third World struggle against colonialism, and it appears to me the Israeli state appears like a colonial power over Palestine, Ugandans are also interested in seeing the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. And I do not think that those two interests are contradictory.”

What distinguished Uganda in Israel’s eyes, however, was its stance at the General Assembly last December.

Uganda abstained from two resolutions, one of them calling on Israel to withdraw immediately from the Golan Heights and restart peace talks with Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, it voted against a resolution calling on Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations under the “road map” peace plan.

“We said those resolutions did not take into account the facts on the ground and the need for a balanced perspective of the issues,” Onen said.

Uganda also voted against a resolution calling on the Gene! ral Assembly to deplore those countries — so far, only Costa Rica and El Salvador — who have embassies in Jerusalem. Arab states have mounted a fierce campaign to block recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“At all the interventions we have made at the various fora, we have clearly stated we do not support a position just because that’s what the group or the regional bodies want to take. We want it to be balanced,” Onen said. “For instance, we have condemned acts of terrorism. We have condemned suicide bombings because we don’t think indiscriminate killing will solve the problem. We believe that should be the correct position.”

So does Israel, which lauded Uganda’s decision to join the Jewish state’s few U.N. allies, such as the Untied States and Micronesia.

Israel’s ambassador to East Africa, Emanuel Seri, specifically mentioned that support at a Kampala reception in May for Israel’s 56th birthday.

“In refusing to allow terrorism to become a legitima! te means for achieving political goals, instead it believed that the s olution to the conflict in the Middle East rests in negotiation rather than cheap tactics used to manipulate international organizations like the United Nations,” he said. “And in maintaining its objectivity by remembering and respecting the loss that Israel has suffered as a result of the conflict, Uganda stands as a shining example to many other countries in the world.”

Uganda has been criticized for its position by its Arab and Muslim allies.

Their ire is not completely surprising since the country had voted consistently against Israel in the General Assembly as late as December 2002. At one session in November 2002, Uganda voted in favor of 10 anti-Israel resolutions.

Onen stressed that in December 2003 the government concluded that the United Nations needed to take an approach more constructive than its usual one-sided condemnations of Israel.

“I would not be surprised that” Museveni “can still balance his very good relations with the Israelis and very goo! d relations with Libya and other Arab countries,” Mwenda said. “He knows how to live with two enemies and still be friends of both — and even help bring them together.”

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