Faithfully following the motif of his pre-election campaign before of the recent April 9, 2019 elections, Benjamin Netanyahu continues to promote his country’s international relations in order to positively promote his image to local public opinion two weeks before the opening of the ballot box on 17 September. In this context, today’s official visit to Israel by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is underway.
by Gabriel Haritos PhD , Researcher, The Ben Gurion Reserach Institute, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs
Ethiopia is an African country that has many ties to the Jewish state that date back decades, when the then Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, lived for long periods in his privately owned residence on the western side of Jerusalem The presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate in the city was an important channel of communication between the two countries – without undermining the mythical interconnection of Ethiopian and Jewish civilization through the special friendship allegedly between the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba, which was geographically situated on the Ethiopian coast of the Red Sea. But beyond the biblical / emotional ties of the distant past, Ethiopia was a very important country when David Ben-Gurion established the so-called “Doctrine of the Regions”, based on Israel’s interconnection with the countries in the wider region, who were not Muslim, were not Arab, and had no particular reason to take a purely pro-Palestinian position in the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of them was Ethiopia, which controlled the transit of merchant ships to and from the Red Sea. The Israeli-friendly Ethiopian stance served as a counterweight to Arab Yemen, which also had its say in the crossing of ships in the Red Sea and played an important role in enforcing the Arab trade embargo against Israel in its early decades.
Since the 1990s, the Israeli governments, having succeeded in overcoming any religious dilemmas of the local establishment, have transferred almost all of the Falasha Ethiopian Jews to Israel. They are now part of Israeli society. Lately, the Jewish Ethiopian community has in many ways condemned – sometimes through Ethiopian Jewish deputies in the Knesset, and sometimes through public outcry – the discrimination that exists on the part of public opinion and state bureaucracy.
Thus at the Israeli level, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s visit relates to Netanyahu’s attempt to assimilate Israeli ‘Ethiopian’ votes, which, due to various unfortunate incidents of violence between police and Ethiopian Jews, cannot be counted on by Likud in the upcoming Parliamentary Elections.
Certainly, the moderate presence of the Ethiopian Prime Minister in his own country also contributes to this: Ethiopia is overwhelmed by the long-running Christian-Muslim conflict and Abiy Ahmed Ali himself may have a Muslim name, but his mother is a Christian Orthodox – a fact that has given a significant boost to his political career and bestowed honors from both his Christian and Muslim compatriots, helping him to win the election and serve as PM since April 2, 2018. His reconciliation speech at an (Ethiopian) level is estimated to have a similar impact on the Ethiopian Jews, who are citizens of Israel.
At the very least, this would be sought by Netanyahu, with the aim of turning this reconciliatory climate into an lure for Ethiopian voters to favor his party. Netanyahu’s attempt to co-opt Ethiopian Israeli voters’ sentiment is illustrated by the program set up for the Ethiopian Prime Minister: Multiple meetings with local Ethiopian community members, and the parents of an Ethiopian Israeli who is allegedly held captive in Gaza by Hamas. The fate of Avera Megisto has been unknown since September 7, 2014, when he crossed the Israel-Gaza border under uncertain circumstances while serving in the Israeli army.
Beyond this dimension, Abi Ahmed Ali’s visit also relates to the position of the – financially and numerically weak – Ethiopian Orthodox Church in East Jerusalem. Every year, at Orthodox Christmas and Orthodox Easter, the Holy Shrines are flooded by Ethiopian pilgrims. As weak as the Ethiopian Orthodox priesthood in Jerusalem may be, no positive voice can be spared for the Israelis when sovereignty issues are raised in every corner of Jerusalem, whether in the eastern, or western sector.
Finally, it is clear that in the last five years Israel has been making particular efforts to renew its presence in Africa, reminding the governments there of Israel’s systematic offerings of know-how through the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s systematic development programs from the mid-1950s through the 1967. In 1967, because of the Six Day War, most African countries cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, and Israeli technical consultants stationed in Africa continent found themselves hurriedly completing the task entrusted to them.
The visit of the Ethiopian Prime Minister substantially boosts his image in his own country, promoting the potential offered by Israel for technical assistance. At the same time, it is promoting Israel’s plan to declare its presence in long-forgotten Africa. It is worth noting that during the previous election period (ahead of last April’s elections), the President of Chad had visited Israel. Chad had absorbed significant Israeli technical and military aid in the 1960s, but was unable to maintain its diplomatic relations with Israel unscathed, after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That visit may not have restored diplomatic relations between Chad and Israel, but it has also contributed to presenting the Israeli public with the image that the management of international relations by the Netanyahu government would bring the country multiple benefits.
Contrary to what the Israeli side might want, the visit of the Ethiopian Prime Minister does not mean that his country’s embassy will be transferred to Jerusalem. For the time being, judging by the statements made by Abiy Ahmad Ali and by what is implied by Israeli media, this issue is not expected to be discussed. However, the purpose of his own visit to Israel is so important at this time – both for Netanyahu and for Abiy Ahmad Ali – that the question of whether Addis Ababa recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state is certainly secondary.