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The Necessity of Strategic Vision in the Ethiopian Israeli Relations

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                          July 9, 2016


Strategic vision entails a long-term comprehensive plan and its objective is essentially to promote the interests of a country without making worse-off the other country that is involved in the partnership discourse. The latter concept or policy is facilitated and translated into action via diplomacy, a fine vehicle that manages international relations. Incidentally, Ethiopians are astute diplomats and suffice to read the letter exchanges of Emperors Yohannes and Menelik with foreign heads of states and dignitaries in the late 19th century and early 20th century, not to mention the clever diplomatic ventures of Emperor Haile Selassie. The legacy of these leaders is still visible amongst present Ethiopian diplomats.

Diplomacy among nations implies good relations that could potentially bring about constructive engagement between the representatives of two or more nations in bilateral and multilateral memorandum of understanding/agreement, as well as negotiations and exchanges of information and intelligence; and it is mostly accompanied by conventions and contracts (equal relationship) as opposed to coercion and imposition (unequal relationship). Our interest in this essay is to underscore conventions and contracts (sometimes grossly defined as cooperation) in the new Israeli-Ethiopian relations, but before I delve into the policy matrix in the context of the two countries relations, I will first briefly present a bird’s eye view of the history of diplomacy between Ethiopia and Israel and then proceed by first examining what cooperation is all about.

Israel and Ethiopia first established diplomatic relations in 1956, but then Ethiopia was extremely cautious and maintained a low profile in the relationship of the two countries because it carefully weighed the complicated Middle East politics, the question of Palestine, and the interests of some Arab-speaking African countries like Egypt, and other Arab countries’ reaction. The diplomatic relations between the two countries, however, continued until 1973 when twenty African countries, including Ethiopia severed diplomatic ties with Israel following the Yom Kippur Egypt-Israel conflict and the occupation of Sinai (Egyptian territory) by Israel after the Israel-Arab wars in 1967.

For sixteen years after the Yom Kippur conflict, Ethiopia had no diplomatic relations with Israel until it was revived in 1989 and formally re-established again in 1992. Nevertheless, even before the restoration of diplomacy between the two countries, the Israelis were physically present in Ethiopia and were engaged in military training. For instance, in 1983 and 1984, the Israelis trained Ethiopian marine commando forces and presidential guards. They also trained counterinsurgency units for the Derg’s Division Five, popularly known as Nebelbal; long before the training of Nebelbal, however, the Israelis had also trained counterinsurgency forces at Dekemhara, Eritrea during the reign of Emperor Haile Sealssie for the sole purpose of containing guerrilla wars and/or altogether defeating the Eritrean combatants. For all the training the Israelis accomplished in Ethiopia, especially during the Derg rule, they were rewarded by Ethiopia’s green light to conduct Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in 1984/85 and 1991 respectively and managed to resettle the Bethe-Israel (Ethiopian Jews) from Ethiopia to Israel.                

Four years before the current official visit of Benjamin Netanyahu to Ethiopia, an Ethiopian-born Bethe-Israel (also known as black Jews or Falasha), Belainesh Zevadia, was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia. Belainesh came back to her original homeland in order to cement relationship between Ethiopia and Israel and also perhaps to pave a way for PM Netanyahu’s diplomatic endeavors in Ethiopia. Moreover, Ambassador Belainesh is endowed with a unique belongingness to both Ethiopia and Israel and that by itself symbolically represents a special relationship between the two countries.

With the above backdrop of the Ethiopian-Israeli diplomatic history, it is now important to discuss strategic vision in the partnership context that Ethiopia must pursue in order to promote its national interest without making Israel worse-off and vice versa. The kernel of this strategic vision, as indicated earlier, is cooperation embedded in partnership of the two countries. What does cooperation mean with respect to diplomatic relations?

Cooperation anticipates harmony and/or mutual interests (benefits), but it is a little tricky and complicated. Cooperation cannot simply be attained by a joint wish or eagerness of the parties involved; it requires rather a methodical examination of the psychological makeup and political culture of the diplomats on either side, and as a matter of course, both sides ought to have a refined policy coordination that, in turn, would determine the outcome of the agreements signed by the two countries.

The complex interdependence between Ethiopia and Israel that I have alluded to above boils down to a reciprocal relationship; and if this reciprocity is sustained, it would consistently and constantly exhibit what I like to call ‘Pareto-improving’ (after Vilfredo Pareto), a term designated by political scientists to explain equity in a relationship between organizations, companies, nations etc. Pareto-improving, thus, would enhance the relations of Ethiopia and Israel on an equal footing.

Now, in practical terms, how are the good relations of Ethiopia and Israel manifested? The simple answer to this question is reflected in Israel’s endorsement of Ethiopia to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Ethiopia’s support of Israel’s request for an observatory status at the African Union. Also in practical terms, how do the two countries mutually benefit? Put otherwise, what is Israel going to offer to Ethiopia and what will Ethiopia provide to Israel?

By all counts, Israel is a very small country (with an area of 20,770 sq. km and a population of 8.5 million) and most of its land is arid. By contrast, Ethiopia is a relatively large country with an area of 1.1 million sq. km and a population in excess of 90 million and most of its land is arable and fertile. On the other hand, while Ethiopia is blessed with waters and perennial major rivers, Israel has none of these. The paradox, however, is while Ethiopia has just begun managing its waters and the efforts made at controlling its rivers is at its infancy, Israel is a leader in water technology. It is ironic that Israel, a country known for scarcity of water, boasts $2 billion revenue annually via its water technology.

Other facts and figures that can determine the strategic vision of the two countries is the level or degree of their economic and technological development. While the GDP of Israel in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) is $292 billion, that of Ethiopia is $62 billion, and given the population of the two countries, the per capita income of Israel becomes much larger than that of Ethiopia.

Ultimately, Israel will offer Ethiopia its knowledge and specialty in bio and space science, as well as nanotechnology, not to mention water technology that was noted above. Nanotechnology is advanced interdisciplinary in science, technology, and engineering; it is the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules that could also be applied in agriculture and medicine. This is going to be a great Israeli offer to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia could also make great offers to Israel, especially in agricultural products. Israel’s agribusiness companies can either invest in Ethiopia’s vast agricultural potential or purchase Ethiopia’s agricultural produce such as barley, wheat, coffee, sesame, and a variety of legumes. In the long haul (hence the necessity of strategic vision), Ethiopia could offer industrial products, that are now on the rise; and mining products that have yet to be exploited.

On the diplomatic front, Ethiopia’s offer could be greater in relative terms than that of Israel. Ethiopia has good relations with its neighbors and excellent diplomatic ties with other African countries and the world community. Ethiopia had established diplomatic relations with the United States and the United Kingdom over a century ago and with Japan since 1930; Ethiopia was also a member of the League of Nations and a founding member of the United Nations; that is, long before Israel was founded, Ethiopia was a member of these international organizations. In many respects, Ethiopia is a master teacher of diplomacy in the African continent.  By contrast, Israel has no friends in its vicinity and in order to have good relations with African countries and promote its interests, its best bet would be to use Ethiopia’s good offices and inter-linkage with African countries and enjoy the floors of the AU, which can be facilitated by Ethiopia.

On the knowledge-based economy and education front, Israel’s offer to Ethiopia is going to be greater because Israel has the best universities and higher institutions of learning like Hebrew University, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Israel Institute of Technology (Technion). Ethiopia also has fine universities and colleges like Addis Ababa University, the oldest and leading comprehensive university, known for its social sciences, international relations, development studies, and science and technology; Adama University for science and technology; Arba Minch University for water technology and environmental protection; Haramaya University for agriculture and veterinary science; and Mekelle University, a comprehensive university known especially for arid-zone agriculture and Seed Safety through Diversity. These are some of the thirty plus universities of Ethiopia that can establish partnership with the Israeli universities. Of all the Ethiopian universities, however, it is Hawassa University that has now played an exemplar role in establishing partnerships with multiple universities worldwide, some of which are the Norwegian University of Life Science, the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, the University College Cork of Ireland, the University of Leeds (UK), and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) etc.

Ethiopia will benefit enormously by creating partnership with the Israeli universities and institutions, but as stated above, since it has its own universities it is not going to be a mere recipient of aid and knowledge as in the olden days. Ethiopia, of course, should exploit the enormous intellectual potential of the Ethiopian Diaspora, an idea that I have proposed many times in the past, and the latter should not be undermined by a reticent and selective campaign to attract the Diaspora. Ethiopia should also make a transition from a cadre-type management to a professional long-term plan in engaging Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals in various fields, and this by itself requires a well thought out strategic vision.

Finally, it is of paramount importance that Ethiopia and Israel operate hand-in-glove in the areas of security and intelligence to ward off terrorism and ensure peace and stability in their respective regions. Ethiopia has its own internal problems but compared to its neighbors, it is relatively stable and did very well in thwarting terrorist attacks and for this reason and its foundational economy, it has become one investor friendly country in Africa. Israel can further reinforce Ethiopia’s security endeavors by involving its Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) along with Mossad and Shabak (counterterrorism and protective security department).

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) 2016; Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org            

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