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How Israel Can Help Resolve The Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict

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

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.

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Review overview
  • Hazo July 15, 2016

    There is a lot of best wishes to the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia here and I thank the good teacher. My fear is that this is a bit complicated because the problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea is mainly the clash of personality of the elite ruling classes.

    • Fana July 16, 2016

      You know what Mr. Hazo,ask your good teacher why till now Israel is mute about the prisoner Abraham Mengestu? Should he was a white Jewish as Shalit Netanyahu should have destroyed Gaza but unfortunately Abraham is BLACK Jewish. On the case of Shalit This racist country was speaking threatening day and night and finally they destroyed Gaza but Shalit was released on Exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

    • Senai Berekhet July 16, 2016

      Abraham Mengestu black Jewish and Gilad Shalit white Jewish to release Gilad destroy Gaza to release Abraham ask Ethiopia to make pressure on Hamas what a double standard racist decisions.

  • zeray July 16, 2016

    Regarding the Ethiopia – Eritrea conflict or the no war no peace situation; I read that the Ethiopian PM was calling for direct peace negotiations even in Asmara without preconditions. A proposal that was rejected by dictator Isaias.
    This shows that it is not in the interests of the Isaias regime to end the no war no peace conflict or situation. Because it has been unjustifiably using this situation not to abide by rule of law, and not to respect the human rights of the Eritrean people.
    This shows the regime doesn’t care about the plight of the people, it only cares to stay in power indefinitely at the expense of the people. The Israelis are too smart not to waste their times with useless Eritreans Enkilil politics.

    • zeray July 16, 2016

      please add ‘valuable’ and read as The Israelis are too smart not to waste their valuable times….

  • The question we should all be asking about Esraeli's policies toward Eritrea’s refugees July 16, 2016

    This question that will clarify it all. Have the Esraeli been treating fairy the refugees that are stranded and languishing in a HalotPrison? My guess is no. So let us stop discussions about Esraeli’s until those refugee’s rights are been respected and the rest would follow.. until then, it is the wagon before the horse.

  • tesfaldetabraha July 16, 2016


    • wedi Toronto July 17, 2016

      Same old HGDEF zombie Tesfaldet Abraha of Canada – Seraye. We thought you were dead after eating so much Canadian humburgers but sadly you are same old kebti hatela tesfaldetabraha.
      Tesaldet Kebti you suffer so much from cow disease that you have to cut on your humburgers.
      Go back to eating Seraye’s grasses or organic Canadian grasses and you would be back to normal human quickly, otherwise you would be a shame for the Seraye region.
      You are a coward and a hypocrite double faced as you have been bending your back and beliefs to please and obey your masters deki Agamino for far too long. Why the double standard and face now you bojbaj old beggar.

  • tesfaldetabraha July 16, 2016


  • haqiyesar Brhan July 16, 2016

    No need a third party to solve the border issue, it is up to leadership of the two countries.

    • Asmerom July 17, 2016

      But poor Eritrea doesn’t have a leadership and that is the major problem to solve the border issue. Otherwise, it would have been solved or sorted a long time ago so wake up Birhan.

  • Berhe Tensea July 17, 2016

    As long as the dictator is in power, there will be no peace with Ethiopia. The dictator in Eritrea is always using wars and conflicts as a means to legitimize his rule.
    Dictators love war and use it to frighten the herd day in and day out.

  • Adgoy July 18, 2016

    This article is confirming that israel has a military bese in Dahlak which the regie in Asmara tries for years to dissmis it as a fabrication of lies.

    • Qantisha July 18, 2016

      Heard this million times from Arab sources who were shouting “Iran has a base in Dahlak”. The truth is that only Arabs such as Qatar, UAE and Saudia have bases in Eritrea.

  • Berhane July 18, 2016

    Getting peace between the two countries is enhancing economic ties and development in both countries. This is clear for everybody, but the point is Isaias is an outlier of this situation. Once the mentality of Iasias is sick, it is not possible to cur it. So, what we should think is beyond him and working to avoid him from the peace equation. The Ethiopian government has also to think behond him and do and contribute to its best to avoid him. The momentum of the Eritrean movement need to consolidate and be framed at a point where the people’s interest met.Now the issue in Eritrea is demand for steilled life, democratic order of all sorts, behaving as a nation of people, living in peace. So, political organizations need to gear their programs and come together, unified their minimum programs and suppress their subsidiary interests. Their motto is one and one only restoring lasting stelled life and peace in the land of New Nation.

  • Gobo July 18, 2016

    Fana read this about our Arab masters and how they love Eritrean girls and kidneys?

    hazo, you hit right man. Similarly, you commented before:

    Read below a news from medrek, see how every Jelfaf and nefaT Arab wanabe Sudanese is treating Eritrean refugees in Sudan now. If one of these human rights violations had happened in Israel, every Abid would have cried “Zionists” but as usual the coward Eritreans will not say a word on Arab crimes nor will they stand in front of the Sudanese consulate or Egyptian Emabssy to condemn the “Arab” Sudan.

    “ኣብ ከም ከሰላ፣ ፖርትሱዳን ገዳርፍን ካልኦት ከባቢታትን እታ ሃገር ተመሳሰልቲ ግፋታት ጸኒዖም ምህላዎም ክፍለጥ እንከሎ፣ ካብ መዓስከራት ስደተኛታት ሰሊኾም ናብ ከተማ ካርቱም ንዘምርሑ ስደተኛታት ንምልቃም እዉን ሲቪላዊ ኽዳን ዝለበሱ ኣባላት ጸጥታ ከም ኣሰጋገርቲን ደለልቲን መሲሎም ናብ`ተን መዓስከራት ተጸንቢሮም ምህላዎም ክርዳእ ተኻኢሉ ኣሎ።

    ኣባላት ጸጥታ መንግስቲ ሱዳን ነዚ ብመንግስቶም ዝድፈኣሉ ዘሎ መደብ ከም ዕድል ወሲድካ ንብረት ዜጋታትን ናይ ምዝርፉን ደቂ-ኣንስትዮ ናይ ምድፋርን ተግባራት ብግህዶ ይቕጽልዎ ከምዘለዉ ፥ ጎድኒ ጎድኒ ናይዚ`ዉን ወተሃደራዊ ክዳን ብምልባስ ተመሳሳሊ ተግባራት ዝፍጽሙ ናይ

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