On July 7, 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn held a historic bilateral meeting in Addis Ababa. Following the leaders summit, Desalegn announced that Ethiopia would support Israel’s bid for observer status at the African Union (AU). Netanyahu also urged Desalegn to pressure Hamas to release Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli-Ethiopian who was captured by the Palestinian terror organization for accidently entering the Gaza Strip in September 2014.
Despite these positive developments, Netanyahu refrained from discussing the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea border clashes. These tensions claimed hundreds of lives last month and remain one of Africa’s most intractable frozen conflicts. Due to its close alliance with Ethiopia and destination status for Eritrean refugees, there are three ways Israel can use its leverage over both countries to further the cause of peace.
First, Ethiopia has relied extensively on Israeli military assistance for decades. This gives Israel the leverage to make further arms shipments to Addis Ababa conditional on Ethiopia defusing border tensions with Eritrea. Israel began providing military support to Ethiopia in the early 1960s as Emperor Haile Selassie was attempting to prevent a military coup. Anti-Zionist rhetoric emanating from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) movement and ELF collaboration with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) strengthened Israel’s military alliance with Ethiopia.
Cooperation continued even though Ethiopia suspended diplomatic ties with Israel during the 1973 war. Israel played a vital role in assisting Ethiopia during its three-decade long war with Eritrea, and remains one of Ethiopia’s most important defense partners. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have provided the Ethiopian air force with surveillance cameras and trained Ethiopian pilots. While Ethiopia did not win the 1961-1991 War with Eritrea, Israeli military assistance played a vital role in building up Ethiopia’s current defense infrastructure.
In addition to attaching conditions to arms sales, Israel can also offer Ethiopia enhanced counter-terrorism assistance against Al-Shabaab if Addis Ababa tones down hostilities with Eritrea. To prevent a spillover of Islamic extremist violence from Somalia to Ethiopia that would deter foreign investment, Desalegn has participated in extensive negotiations with Somalia on combatting Al-Shabaab. In 2014, Ethiopia sent peacekeepers to Somalia.
Israel has proven its commitment to resisting Al-Shabaab by agreeing to help Kenya seal off its border with Somalia to restrict the flow of terrorism. As Netanyahu has previously expressed openness to forming an East African coalition against Islamic extremism, Israel could share counter-insurgency techniques with Addis Ababa that could bolster Ethiopia’s security for years to come.
Second, close economic cooperation between Ethiopia and Israel could make Ethiopia’s intransigent policymakers receptive to Israeli pressure to resolve the Eritrea conflict. As Ethiopia has been beset with food shortages stemming from the worst drought since the 1983-1985 famine, Israel could urge the Ethiopian government to consider the severe humanitarian consequences of militarization.
Israel has provided food aid to Ethiopia that could save the lives of 5,000 malnourished children and has offered Ethiopia training in irrigation techniques. Promising to escalate that assistance could appeal to the Ethiopian government, as food shortages have fuelled Oromo unrest in Ethiopia that destabilizes Desalegn’s grip on power.
The ongoing Egypt-Ethiopia Nile River water dispute also increases the likelihood of Ethiopian policymakers acquiescing to Israeli demands for peace. Tawfik Okasha, an Egyptian parliamentarian, controversially called for Israeli mediation in the Egypt-Ethiopia water dispute. Many Egyptian politicians have insinuated that Israel has covertly supported Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.
While offering water to Israel in exchange for mediation has proven to be an unpopular view in the Egyptian parliament, closer Egypt-Israel cooperation under General Sisi’s rule makes Israeli involvement on Egypt’s behalf a plausible scenario. This is an outcome Ethiopia would be keen to avoid. As the symbolic power of Ethiopia triumphing over Egypt on Nile River access far exceeds that of Ethiopia winning skirmishes against Eritrea, Desalegn could be tempted to cool tensions with Asmara to guarantee Israel’s support on the dam dispute.
Third, Israel can convince Eritrea to desist from aggression because it is a major destination for Eritrean refugees fleeing from poverty and President Isaias Afewerki’s highly authoritarian regime. An estimated 34,000 Eritrean asylum seekers live in Israel. This immigration influx has caused considerable social tensions in Israel. It has also posed a challenge for Israeli police officers who do not speak Eritrea’s Tigrayan language.
Eritrean immigration to Israel gives Netanyahu a unique ability to exert leverage over Afewerki’s isolated regime. As Eritrean diaspora communities are often fiercely opposed to the Afewerki regime and reveal human rights violations that deter the international community from providing Eritrea with financial assistance, Eritrea is keen to restrict the outflow of refugees.
Even though Eritrea has publicly taken steps to restrict emigration, Afewerki fears diaspora Eritreans being deported from Israel and returning home with anti-regime sentiments. Eritrea has expelled foreign journalists and according to Reporters without Borders has imposed even stricter state control over the media than North Korea Therefore an influx of Eritreans exposed to foreign media outlets increases the risk of pro-democracy protests.
Current Israeli immigration policy towards Eritreans seeking asylum is restrictive. Many Eritrean illegal immigrants are transported to the Holot detention center deep in the Negev Desert. Once they arrive in Holot, they are faced with the unenviable choice of returning to Eritrea, facing possible incarceration in Israel or being transported to a third country.
Credibly threatening an increase in deportations to Eritrea could convince Afewerki to suspend aggression towards Ethiopia. It could also encourage Afewerki to redistribute scarce resources to improving Eritrea’s dire humanitarian situation. Israel’s naval base presence on Eritrea’s Dahlak Island gives it considerable enforcement capacity should it wish to crack down on Eritrean illegal immigration.
While Netanyahu’s visit to Ethiopia did not address the recently reheated conflict with Eritrea, Israel is uniquely positioned to act as a mediator, and implement an enforceable peace agreement between the two countries. Should Netanyahu make efforts to resolve this seemingly intractable conflict, he would greatly increase Israel’s soft power in Africa and build significantly on the progress generated by his recent four-country trip.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Diplomat amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.