Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1997, pg. 24

Special Report

Israel Comes to the Rescue of Africa’s Most Corrupt Ruler

By Rachelle Marshall

According to legend, Zionism is a national liberation movement that culminated in the founding of a democratic Jewish state dedicated to fulfilling the biblical injunction that Israel shall be “a light unto the nations.” In fact, for at least 30 years Israel has been an arms supplier and military supporter of some of the most despotic regimes in the world. During the height of South Africa’s apartheid system, and after the West had imposed sanctions against that country, Israel supplied not only weapons but nuclear technology to the South African government.

Other recipients of Israeli military aid and training in recent years include Nicaragua’s former dictator Anastasio Somoza, the murderous Ethiopian dergue regime under Haile Mariam Mengistu, El Salvador’s military junta, and the Guatemalan government whose army slaughtered tens of thousands of peasants and political dissidents. Israel even sold arms to the military officers who ousted Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991 and turned Haiti into a violence-ridden drug haven.

Now Israel reportedly is coming to the aid of one of the most notoriously corrupt dictators still in office, President Sese Mobutu Seko of Zaire. Mobutu seized power in a coup in 1965 and ever since has systematically enriched himself by siphoning off the profits from the sale of Zaire’s extensive mineral resources for his own use. A New York Times editorial of Nov. 20, 1991 referred to his regime as a “kleptocracy” because Mobutu has become a multimillionaire while the people of Zaire lack even the most basic services such as roads, schools, police protection and hospitals.

Mobutu’s government currently is threatened by the Democratic Forces for Liberation, an army that originally was organized by ethnic Tutsis who rebelled against a government effort to drive them from Zaire, where they have lived for hundreds of years. The rebel army now includes a broad cross-section of Zaireans who are anxious to get rid of Mobutu.

DFL forces already have seized much of the countryside and several cities where, according to press reports, the rebels have been warmly welcomed. Because government soldiers are seldom paid they are unwilling to fight, but leave a trail of looting, murder and wanton destruction behind as they retreat.

Mobutu has called in mercenaries from Russia, Serbia and elsewhere to fight the rebels, but although foreign pilots have dropped bombs on civilian areas in an attempt to terrorize the population, the liberation army so far has made steady progress. Its leader, Laurent Kabila, has called for negotiations with the government but so far Mobutu has refused to meet with the other side.

In early March a Zairean official announced that Israel would join with China to train 13 rapid intervention commando brigades, each with 2,000 men, to enter the fighting and help save the government. According to the Jerusalem Press Service, which carried the announcement, Israel and Zaire have had strong military ties in the past. In 1994 Israel approved a $50 million deal to send arms and combat veterans, through a private Israeli arms dealer, to train and equip Zaire’s army. That effort failed to produce an efficient fighting force.

Israel’s new infusion of aid and expertise to Mobutu probably will be no more successful, but it is certain to prolong the suffering of the people of Zaire. The self-described “only working democracy in the Middle East” seems to have no interest in allowing the people of another country to replace a despotic ruler with a government of their own choosing—especially not when there’s a profit to be had by supporting the dictator.

SIDEBAR

Corruption Charges Against Netanyahu Government Further Cloud Peace Negotiations

Recent allegations of corruption against the Netanyahu government could complicate the peace process if the charges prove true and the government falls. After the cabinet approved Netanyahu’s appointment last Jan. 10 of Likud party activist Roni Bar-On as attorney general, legal experts and others immediately protested that Bar-On was unqualified for the job. Two days later he resigned, but shortly afterward Israeli Television reported that the appointment of Bar-On had been part of a deal to arrange a plea bargain for Bar-On’s ally, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who is under indictment for corruption. In return for the appointment, Deri allegedly promised his party’s support for the Hebron agreement when it came up for cabinet approval. Deri’s defense counsel in the corruption case has since resigned, accusing Deri of masterminding the Bar-On appointment. On Feb. 18 police grilled Netanyahu for more than four hours, the first time an Israeli prime minister has been questioned by police in a criminal case. Israeli Television offered no evidence that Netanyahu was directly involved in any deal making, but according to reports the bargain was arranged by his two top aides, Avigdor Lieberman, director general of the prime minister’s office, and Justice Minister Tsachi Hanegbi. (Hanegbi was a peculiar choice for justice minister since as a Likud student leader he was involved in beating up Arab students at Hebrew University with chains, and he once grabbed a microphone from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in order to shout political slogans.) Police claim to have enough evidence to bring charges against at least one senior member of the government. If Netanyahu is forced to resign, elections could be held within 60 days. Recent polls show that Netanyahu is running about even with Ehud Barak, who is likely to succeed Shimon Peres as head of the Labor party. The stability of the Likud government may be threatened whether or not Netanyahu is indicted, because several of his associates are currently facing charges. The prime minister’s first justice minister, Ya’acov Ne’eman, is accused of obstructing justice and interfering with Aryeh Deri’s trial. Netanyahu’s close ally, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, is being tried for financial irregularities dating back to 1988 when he was treasurer of Likud. And Lieberman allegedly tried to sabotage the Israel Broadcasting Authority by deliberately padding the budget it submitted to the Knesset. Netanyahu’s decisions in the ongoing negotiations are certain to be influenced by his government’s precarious position. On the one hand he needs all the support he can get from his allies on the right, but if a new election is called he will have to appeal to more moderate Israelis as well if he hopes to be re-elected. Netanyahu will have to continue walking a tightrope, as he has since taking office, a spectacle that will provide only grim amusement to those still waiting for Israel to show that it is serious about making peace. —R.M.

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