Ethiopia and Israel’s Pivot to Africa
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia visited Israel for a two-day visit in his first visit to the country since he came to office in 2018 to hold talks with top Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Netanyahu on bolstering existing bilateral ties between the two countries and expand them to new areas. The Ethiopian prime minister will also visit Israel’s National Cyber Directorate in the course of his visit according to some media reports. Before he became prime minister, Abiy was the country’s deputy cyber chief.
According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the visit indicates how much Israel “attaches a great importance (to the bilateral relationship) as it will contribute to the enhancement of the relationship and strengthens cooperation between the two countries.” Netanyahu started the talks by focusing on his goal to increase bilateral trade by tenfold. Currently, Ethiopia’s trade volume with Israel is nearly $300 million. Boosting security ties was also emphasized by Netanyahu in areas that include counterterrorism cooperation. The two leaders signed a joint declaration.
Relations between Ethiopia and Israel have improved over the last three decades with the restoration of diplomatic ties in 1989 after Addis Ababa severed relations with Israel as a result of the Arab-Israel war in 1967. Ethiopia is an important country for Israel, both politically and strategically, as Israel is also important for Addis Ababa both in terms of Israel’s military and economic assistance, but also offering technological know-how to Ethiopia, as Addis Ababa is beginning to open up its markets for foreign investors. But Cold War politics and Israel’s conflicts with its Arab neighbours had an impact on developing a strategic partnership between the two countries.
In the words of Michael B. Bishku, a professor at Augusta University, relations between Ethiopia and Israel continued to be “stable but still not special” in the post-Cold War period. Although Ethiopia is a critical partner of Israel in East Africa, one of the reasons the bilateral relationship has not improved into a “special level” is because of Egypt’s concerns on the nature of the two countries relationship. Egypt currently enjoys a peace treaty with Israel as well as mutual security concerns but is in a geopolitical struggle with Ethiopia over water usage of the Nile River, which for Cairo is a matter of “national security.” The Sisi government has attempted to improve ties with Addis Ababa and settle any Nile disputes through negotiations, and Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed tried to reduce the prospect of a conflict over river usage. But negotiations have not succeeded yet to achieve an outcome that is acceptable to both sides.
Israel’s deepening ties with Ethiopia is part of its strategy throughout Africa. In 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a new Africa policy called “Return to Africa” to expand its ties with states like Ethiopia and to explore new ones. As a result, Netanyahu paid several state visits to countries in East Africa, while exploring new ones in West Africa. But as other countries like China, Japan, India, the U.S., and Russia have succeeded in creating forums for African heads of states to meet with their counterparts regularly, Israel has faced a setback to hold a summit that would have brought together leaders from both African countries and Israel, which was an Israeli goal from the days of Theodor Herzl.
Attempts to hold a summit in October of 2017 failed due to domestic political turmoil in both Togo and Israel, although there were major diplomatic attempts by other African states, namely Morocco and South Africa, to halt the possibility of this summit. A new date has not yet been set, but Israel has not given up its goal of improving bilateral ties with individual member states of the African Union. There have been some successes as some African countries have restored ties and other countries have at least signaled a desire to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. One reason some African countries are considering improving ties with Israel is because they consider Israel a “pathway to Washington” as Herb Keinon from the Jerusalem Post argues. Other countries are considering decoupling ideological preferences or longstanding conflicts from strategic interests. Israel also offers an opportunity for lucrative arms deals.
New commitments or agreements were not announced during the Ethiopian premier’s trip to Israel, but for Ethiopia, reenergizing existing strategic ties, while exploring new ones is part of Abiy Ahmed’s foreign policy as the country begins to open up its markets for foreign capital and investment, but also as domestic turmoil have plagued Ethiopia recently, it was a moment for Prime Minister Abiy to demonstrate his foreign policy successes as he concluded a three-state visit to South Korea, Japan and then Israel.