Home | News    Wednesday 2 June 2004

Ethiopian PM in Israel to strength bilateral relations

By Herb Keinon

JERUSALEM, June 01, 2004 (Jerusalem Post) — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived in Israel on Tuesday for a three-day visit, a signal of the strengthening ties between the two countries.

"Prime ministerial visits are in general not very common," one Foreign Ministry official said. "This is a serious expression of the importance both sides attribute to the relationship."

Zenawi’s visit, the first by an Ethiopian prime minister since Israel and Ethiopia established diplomatic ties in 1989, comes fast on the heels of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s visit to Ethiopia in January. Likewise, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin was in Israel twice last year.

Diplomatic officials pointed out that Ethiopia was one of only a handful of countries that voted in the UN General Assembly at the end of last year against sending the security fence issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Although one of the reasons for this vote seemed to be Addis Ababa’s concern that its own long-simmering conflict with Eritrea may be sent to the International Court of Justice, its siding with Israel in the UN was viewed in Jerusalem as a positive sign.

Ethiopia, because it hosts the African Union, formerly known as the Organization of African Unity, is considered a significant player in African politics, and - according to Israeli officials - "has taken a relatively positive position toward Israel."

Zenawi met Tuesday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav. He is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Science and Technology Minister Eliezer Sandberg, Labor Party head Shimon Peres, and members of Israel’s 84,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community.

The plight of the Falash Mura, descendents of Jews who converted to Christianity, will surly come up during Zenawi’s talks here, although this issue has ceased to be a source of friction between Jerusalem and Addis Ababa since Israel made it know that it is not planning any massive airlift of the Falash Mura. Instead, the immigrants are arriving here - with Ethiopian government approval - at the rate of about 300 a month.

According to a list drawn up by an Israeli government committee, there are currently some 20,000 Falash Mura eligible to immigrate to Israel.

Diplomatic officials said that the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel has served as an important bridge in developing stronger ties with Addis Ababa.

Shalom will host Zenawi for a luncheon meeting on Wednesday, where the focus of talks will be on bilateral cooperation. Ethiopia is interested in encouraging Israeli investment in its agriculture and telecommunications infrastructure, and in January, Shalom took some 30 Israeli businessmen to Ethiopia with him.

Non-military Israeli-Ethiopian trade amounted to only $25 million in 2003, with $15 million of that being foodstuffs imported from Ethiopia for the Ethiopian immigrants living here. Israel’s exports to Ethiopia increased from $2.5 million in 2002, to $10 million in 2004. No figures were available on military trade.