TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent five-country tour of Africa was more about building up intelligence links and selling arms than diplomacy, according to one Israeli intelligence specialist.
Lieberman didn't sign any arms deals during his swing through Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. But Israeli officials estimate there are African arms contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars waiting to be grabbed by Israel's export-hungry defense firms.
Yossi Melman, who writes extensively on Israel's intelligence establishment, questioned whether Israel should be engaging in such activities instead of sending in agricultural advisers and medical and educational experts to such economically distressed countries.
He noted that the publicly announced objective of the tour was "Israel's willingness to assist counties … to find solutions to their problems: hunger, insufficient clean water, epidemics."
But he wrote in the liberal daily Haaretz that the main but "less publicized" aspect of the tour was boosting "defense exports," such as the arms deals worth $500 million that Israel has signed with Nigeria in recent years.
Melman observed that an "even more secretive" goal was "the hope of developing intelligence ties and cooperation in the effort against international jihadist elements, and especially countering the activities of Iran in some of these African countries" where Israel has been engaged in some murky dealings over the years.
Lieberman's entourage included representatives of many key Israeli defense firms, both state-owned and private enterprises. These included Israel Military Industries, Israel Aerospace Industries, Soltam, Silver Shadow Advanced Security Systems, Israel Shipyards and Elbit Systems.
There was also a delegation from the Defense Ministry's foreign assistance and military sales department, known as Sibat.
And finally there was a team from Israel's intelligence community, including a senior official from the Mossad, the foreign intelligence service.
Israeli intelligence has operated in Africa for decades, and military teams have been active in training Africa armies, often clandestinely, with weapons sold by the Jewish state.
Melman observed: "Secret funding from the United States Central Intelligence Agency was channeled by American trade unions to (Israel's) Histadrut labor federation …to finance various activities.
"Among other things, the money was used to post an impressive array of Mossad agents in the African states."
These activities, Melman noted, "gave Mossad agents and Israeli Defense Forces officers an excuse to be involved in the internal affairs of African regimes."
Indeed, Israelis were reportedly involved in military coups in Uganda and Zanzibar, or as Melman drily observed "at least had prior knowledge of them."
The African countries where the Israeli agents operated included those of geostrategic interest to Israel on the periphery of the Arab world, such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.
These remain of some importance to Israel today because of their proximity to Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia and Sudan control the Red Sea shipping lanes to Eilat, Israel's only southern port in the Gulf of Aqaba.
In July and August, amid growing tensions with Iran, Israel deployed one of three German-built Dolphin-class submarines and two corvettes into the Red Sea in a clear warning to Tehran.
In January and February, Israeli warplanes were reported to have destroyed at least two convoys in the Sudanese desert that were carrying Iranian arms to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Israelis have long had close intelligence links with Ethiopia, a Christian-dominated Red Sea state ringed by Muslim countries. Addis Ababa is currently propping up the Western-backed transitional government in neighboring Somalia, where al-Qaida is reputed to be operating.
Melman lamented: "It is a sad truth that … almost all Israeli activity on the African continent is related to weapons exports.
"The 'ugly Israeli' in the guise of the arms dealer (mostly former intelligence and military officials), who promotes weapons sales on behalf of Israeli military industries, with the backing of the defense establishment, has given Israel a bad name worldwide.
"Israelis have been involved in civil wars (in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast) and in aiding dictatorial regimes such as in Equatorial Guinea and the two Congo republics."