Israel yesterday opened a new embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali, in a sign of strengthening relations between the two countries.
The new mission was opened by the director of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, and Rwandan Foreign Minister Richard Sezibera, the Times of Israel (ToI) reported. Addressing the ceremony, Rotem said he is "confident that the opening of the Israeli embassy in Rwanda will within a few years bring our relations with Rwanda and with the African continent to a whole new level."
While in Rwanda, Rotem also met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and inaugurated an initiative called the Centre of Excellence in Agriculture, which will be run under the auspices of Israel's national aid agency MASHAV, ToI added.
Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a statement about the new mission, saying: "The opening of the embassy reflects the ongoing strengthening of relations between the two states and will enable expansion of the cooperation between them in many areas, such as education, academia, women empowerment, science and technology, innovation and agriculture."
The decision to open an embassy in Rwanda was first announced in February, when the new Israeli Ambassador Ron Adam presented his credentials to the Rwandan Foreign Ministry. At that time, Adam also met with President Kagame, emphasising that the two countries intend to boost cooperation "in different fields" in conjunction with the mission's opening.
Israeli-Rwandan relations were thrust into the spotlight in late 2017 when it emerged that the two countries had allegedly signed a deal under which asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel – most of whom are of north or east African origin – would be sent to Rwanda.
In October 2017, Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom revealed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had signed a deal with a "third country" that would allow him to forcibly deport asylum seekers. Rumours quickly surfaced that Rwanda was the "third country", a claim it vehemently denied. Rwanda's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe, said on Twitter that "Rwanda has no deal whatsoever with Israel to host any African migrant from that country. This story is no news. It is fake news".
The rumours, however, refused to subside, and by January 2018 Rwanda was still being forced to deny the existence of a deal. Nduhungirehe again wrote on Twitter: "Let me be clear: Rwanda will NEVER receive any African migrant who is deported against his/her will. Our « open doors » policy only applies to those who come to Rwanda voluntary, without any form of constraint."
Some commentators suggested that the deal formed part of a wider agreement which would see Rwanda granted Israeli arms in return for taking its forcibly-displaced asylum seekers. Israeli newspaper Maariv in February reported that a delegation of high profile army officials and military equipment manufacturers had made a secret visit to Rwanda to this end.
By March 2018, under huge pressure from the international community and the UN's refugee agencies, Israel's Supreme Court cancelled the deportation scheme. Many of those asylum seekers it had planned to deport remained in Israeli prisons throughout the spring, some of whom were finally released in April.
The new embassy in Rwanda is Israel's eleventh in Africa, already having embassies in Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. The move has been interpreted as part of a wider effort to increase Israel's influence on the continent, particularly among Muslim or Arab countries as part of Israel's normalisation drive.
In January, Netanyahu visited Chad to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were severed in 1972. Speaking at a press conference before his departure, Netanyahu said that the visit was "part of the revolution we are doing in the Arab and Muslim world," claiming that such an initiative "greatly worries, even greatly angers" Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Just a day later it emerged that Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir had allowed Netanyahu to fly over South Sudan on his return from Chad. Sudan's aviation authorities control neighbouring South Sudan's airspace, though neither hold formal diplomatic ties with Israel and normally do not allow their airspace to be used by Israeli aircraft. The flight was seen as evidence of warming relations between the two countries, despite Al-Bashir's claims that he rejects "any normalisation with Israel".
Though Israel's normalisation drive in Africa has material benefits – often including lucrative arms deals, memorandums for economic cooperation and the use of airspace which will significantly shorten flight paths for commercial Israeli airlines – the initiative is also pursued for its propaganda value. Netanyahu has been keen to emphasise these diplomatic successes, particularly in the run up to Israel's upcoming general election slated for 9 April.