But these days the Jewish state has a new ally, Kenya, which wants Israeli help to fight the growing menace of jihadist terrorism emanating from war-torn Somalia, Kenya’s northern neighbor where jihadists linked to al-Qaida are active.
Israel is also seeking a foothold in the turbulent Horn of Africa to guard the approaches of the Red Sea. This is a vital shipping route and the access to the Arabian Sea for missile-armed Israeli submarines to target Iran should hostilities erupt.
It is also used by Iran to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip via Sudan and Egypt.
The Kenyans have suffered three major attacks by al-Qaida in recent years — the suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on Aug. 7, 1998, and twin attacks Nov. 28, 2002, in Mombasa, the bombing of a hotel frequented by Israelis and a missile attack on an Israeli airliner.
Kenyan Minister of Internal Security George Saitoti asked for Israeli counter-terrorism assistance when he visited Jerusalem in February.
According to media reports, he told Israeli leaders: “The jihad is taking over Somalia and threatening to take over Kenya and all of Africa. No one is more experienced than you in fighting internal terrorism.”
These reports said the Israelis responded by saying they were prepared to consider establishing a joint force with Kenya to guard its northwestern border to prevent terrorist infiltration.
Somalia’s al-Shebab Islamist movement, which is fighting a Western-backed transitional government in Mogadishu, has repeatedly threatened to attack Kenya for allegedly training Somali troops.
According to the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. think tank that monitors jihadist militancy, “The talks with Kenya appear to be part of a growing Israeli interest in the Horn of Africa.”
In early February, Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, reportedly told the Somalia media that Israel was prepared to recognize the breakaway territory of Somaliland, which split from Somalia in 1991, as an independent nation.
If that happened, Israel would be the first country to recognize Somaliland, which is strategically located on the Gulf of Aden.
There have been reports, all unconfirmed, that Israel has its eye on setting up a naval outpost at the port of Berbera to monitor the approaches to the Red Sea. The Soviet military established a naval port there in 1969 during the Cold War, along with an airfield capable of handling all types of military and cargo aircraft.
Last June, one of the Israeli navy’s German-built Dolphin class submarines, reputedly able to carry nuclear-armed missiles, transited the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean into the northern end of the Red Sea for “exercises.” That was generally seen as a warning to Iran as Israeli warships usually have to take the long route from the Mediterranean via the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Red Sea.
Two Saar 5-class missile ships followed in July to beef up the Israeli presence in the waterway.
According to several Internet reports, two more Israeli warships passed through the canal in recent weeks into the Red Sea. Israel’s Defense Ministry declined comment.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Israel cultivated links with many of the post-colonial African states because they provided considerable diplomatic support in the United Nations and other internal forums, usually in exchange for military and agricultural support.
That changed amid a swell in pro-Arab sentiment following the Middle Eastern wars of 1967 and 1973.
More recently, Iran has been buying off some of Israel’s erstwhile allies in a systematic effort to spread Tehran’s influence in the Third World.
Last year, Mauritania, one of the few Arab League members to have relations with Israel, told it to close its embassy in the capital, Nouakchott, after Iran moved in.
Iran’s clout in central and west Africa is also heightened by the presence of large and influential communities of Lebanese Shiites who are generally sympathetic to Hezbollah.
They dominate the diamond trade in the region, which provides considerable funds for the Iranian-backed movement.
However, in recent months, Israel has been building military and intelligence links with Ethiopia, Nigeria and other African states.