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Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Visits Israel

Despite his growingly authoritarian regime back home, Israel’s staunch African ally is warmly received in Jerusalem

Armin Rosen
July 12, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel last week was hailed an historic achievement for Israeli diplomacy, and a sign that the Jewish state is perhaps less isolated than it’s ever been. Modi is a right-wing religious nationalist, but his leadership of the world’s largest democracy—and nearly 20 percent of the human race—balanced out at least some of the queasiness over his apparent “bromance” with Netanyahu. Unlike the budding relationship with India, strong ties with Rwanda are not a strategic necessity for Israel, and the African country’s president, Paul Kagame, has a rap-sheet that’s arguably far worse than Modi’s. Still, Kagame, who arrived in Israel for a two-day visit on July 10th, is getting a warm welcome. Unusually, both Netanyahu and Israeli president Rueven Rivlin appeared with Kagame after his arrival on Monday, and the Rwandan president is planning to use the visit to attract Israeli investment in his country. Like Modi, Kagame has no plans to meet with Palestinian Authority leadership.

Kagame has emerged as one of Africa’s most pro-Israel leaders: Netanyahu swung through Kigali during his four-nation tour of Africa in July of 2016, and this past March, Kagame became the first African head of state to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington, DC. Ties with Israel connect Rwanda to a technologically and geopolitically significant country at a time when Kagame’s stock is fading internationally. Fifteen years ago, as the former leader of the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriot Front, Kagame was admired for supposedly helping his country stabilize and reconcile after its 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 members of Kagame’s Tutsi minority ethnic group were slaughtered. A staunch disciplinarian since his days as a militia leader, Kagame was considered one of Africa’s most responsible stewards of international aid and investment, and he built a functioning and seemingly thriving state in the midst of one of the most historically violent regions in Africa.

The shine is largely off Kagame, whose army committed a string of alleged war crimes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and who built what’s now widely recognized as a strict authoritarian regime with an ominously ethnicity-based dimension to its strategies of social control. In early 2016, the Rwandan constitution was changed to allow Kagame to “legally” remain in power until 2037. A forward-leaning policy towards Israel wins Kagame a powerful new friend, while putting him at the forefront of a seemingly larger, continent-wide trend of warming ties with the Jewish state.

Israel stands to benefit from the relationship as well. Rwanda has sided with Israel at the UN, abstaining on the 2011 Security Council Resolution on Palestinian statehood—feting Kagame a full six years later shows that Isreal is willing to reward countries that have its back in Turtle Bay. Israel is powerful, but not to the point where Jerusalem has the luxury of turning its back on willing allies. A small, potentially vulnerable country can’t tell the Paul Kagames of the world to stay away—especially when Rwanda was elected to chair the African Union in 2018, and holds a seat in the UN’s reliably anti-Israel Human Rights Council until the end of 2019.

Both Kagame and Israeli leaders are also stressing deeper commonalities between their countries. “We are two nations who understand the horror of genocide, and we must show what humanity can achieve with cooperation and understanding,” Rivlin said during his appearance with Kagame and Netanyahu on Monday. During his March AIPAC speech, Kagame said that he admired Israel’s “single-mindedness about survival”—a subject which, as a former militia leader during and after a genocide, he should know a little something about.

Jews and Rwandan Tutsis are recent targets of exterminationist violence—and share a history of forging contested and, at times, morally compromising state-building projects in the aftermath of genocide. It makes sense that the two governments are on friendly terms. But whatever the mutual benefits of closer ties, comparisons between Kagame’s Rwanda and the state of Israel aren’t as straightforward, or as positive, as they might seem.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.