Ties with Israel through the lens of Ethiopia’s ambassador

Tsegay Berhe takes the connection between the two peoples all the way back to Moses.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspects a guard of honor at the National Palace during his State visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 7, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspects a guard of honor at the National Palace during his State visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 7, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI)
Talk with ambassadors and diplomats from any number of countries stationed in Israel, and the discussion at some point is likely to touch on the historic ties between the two countries or between their countries and the Jewish people.
Georgian diplomats will talk about the existence of a Jewish community there going back nearly 2,000 years; Guatemalan diplomats will talk about a special relationship that predated the state, when the Guatemalan ambassador to the UN was a key actor in pushing through the 1947 partition plan; and US diplomats will highlight not only President Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared independence, but will also point to the positive predisposition of the founding fathers to the idea of a Jewish state in Judea.
Ethiopia, however, has them all beat.
When Ethiopian Ambassador Tsegay Berhe wants to underline the close ties between Israel and his country, he doesn’t start with the reestablishment of relations in 1992; or with the military ties with Haile Selassie in the early 1960s; or even with the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which tradition holds produced King Menelik I, the first in a Solomonic line that extended uninterrupted – in Tsegay’s telling – to Selassie himself (225 generations).
Ethiopian ambassador Tsegay Berhe (Courtesy)
Ethiopian ambassador Tsegay Berhe (Courtesy)
No, sitting in his embassy office on the eighth floor of an office building in Tel Aviv for an interview timed to roughly coincide with Ethiopia’s national day this coming Monday, Tsegay begins his tale of Ethiopian-Israeli ties even earlier: with Moses’s marriage – as it says in the Bible – to a “Cushite [Ethiopian] woman” (Numbers 12:1).
“Traditionally, Ethiopia and Israel have a long history, starting from the Prophet Moses,” he says, with pictures of President Reuven Rivlin and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome hanging on the wall of his windowless office. “We believe that the Prophet Moses had an Ethiopian wife.
“Of course, you know that his sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aaron, opposed this, opposed that he married a black woman. But God allowed this and blessed the marriage. Then for Miriam, God said that since you hate her because her color was black, you want to be more white? So He gave her leprosy [which turns the skin even whiter],” the ambassador says, sounding as if he was developing his own midrash on the well-known biblical story.
Tsegay launched into this biblical history to explain what he says is a strong sentiment among the Ethiopian people toward Israel and Jews, a sentiment that he says he shared growing up in the Tigray region, which hosted a large number of Beta Israel.
Tsegay eventually rose to become the governor of Tigray, until then-prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed him as national security adviser in 2011, a position he held until coming to Israel as ambassador last year.
“So the relationship between Israel and Ethiopia goes way back, and this all makes you love and be very attached to Israel and its people,” he says, making no secret of his strong sentiments toward this country.
WITH THAT as a preface, the conversation with Tsegay fast-forwards a few millennia from Moses and King Solomon to last Friday’s vote at the United Nation Human Rights Council in Geneva on whether to establish a commission of inquiry into alleged Israeli crimes along the Gaza border during the recent riots there.
That vote passed handily, with 29 voting for, 14 against, two no-shows and only the US and Australia voting against. Ethiopia abstained, along with three other African states: Kenya, Rwanda and Togo. Six other sub-Saharan African states voted for the resolution: Angola, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and South Africa.
For Ethiopia, which is also currently a member of the UN Security Council, this was a change. In 2009, for instance, it voted in the same body for a similar measure to set up an inquiry commission – later known as the Goldstone Commission – to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 against Hamas in Gaza.
“It is good that Ethiopia abstained, because it took a principled position: Israel has the right to live peacefully within its borders,” Tsegay says of last Friday’s vote. “Anything that destabilizes the independence of Israel, Ethiopia opposes – because Israel has the right to live peacefully within its borders.”
Tsegay said it was clear that the Israeli government did not want to see the loss of lives on the border, and also “we are very sorry that these people were injured and killed in Gaza, but what could have been done, because Israel has the right to live within its borders.”
If this is indeed Ethiopia’s position, then why – he is asked – not vote against the resolution as the US and Australia did? Why abstain?
And here, he made clear, is where “geopolitics” comes into play.
“That is too much at this moment,” he says candidly. “We wish [it] to happen, but Ethiopia is a founder of the UN – Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations – a founding member of the UN, a founding member of the African Union, and also the African Union is seated in Ethiopia.”
The UN, he added, has declared Addis Ababa as the UN’s third city – after New York and Geneva – and has already started construction of UN offices there. “So Ethiopia is very careful.”
Tsegay says that Ethiopia did not come under any pressure from other African countries regarding the vote, and asserts that his country “is a very independent country; nobody can pressure it.
“Of course,” he adds, “as a country which is the founder of the African Union, and the capital of the African Union, Ethiopia needs to harmonize relations.”
In other words, Ethiopia cannot stray too far from the UN or African line on Israel. And despite the high-profile relations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged with Africa, not all on the continent are welcoming Israel back to Africa with open arms.
For instance, despite Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s best efforts, the African Union has still not granted Israel the same status in its organization as enjoyed by the Palestinian Authority – that of an observer state. That status would enable Netanyahu to address the body each year, something PA President Mahmoud Abbas is able to do.
While Ethiopia is in favor of granting Israel this observer status, Tsegay says, there are still enough countries in the African Union opposed to keep this from happening.
“We are trying to change their position,” he says, but so far to no avail. Tsegay says that were there serious diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it would make this observer status for Israel much easier to attain.
Another area where geopolitics is having an impact on Ethiopia’s decisions is the question of whether to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Tsegay gave a weary smile and laughed when asked whether this was something Addis Ababa was considering.
“Relations with Israel are not determined by moving or transferring an embassy to Jerusalem. There are a lot of other fields where we can have very good relations,” he says.
Tsegay says that while Ethiopia congratulates the three countries – the US, Guatemala and Paraguay – that moved their embassies, “at this moment” it has no intention of doing the same.
“As I mentioned, Ethiopia is a member of the UN, of the African Union,” he says. “Even with all the cooperation and work with Israel, Ethiopia could not decide to go [move the embassy] at the moment. We have to take into consideration the situation in which Ethiopia is living.”
In this context, Tsegay mentions the massive dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile, which is putting it at odds with Egypt. Because of Egyptian opposition to the project, Cairo objected to a loan from the World Bank.
“Several Arab countries are giving support for the dam,” he says, intimating that this would be in jeopardy were Ethiopia to move its embassy to Jerusalem. “Saudi Arabia has given us support, Qatar has given us support, the Emirates have given. So Ethiopia needs to balance its relations.”
ONE COUNTRY that is supporting the Nile project is neighboring Sudan, and it is in the context of Ethiopia’s relations with Sudan that Tsegay made the most surprising remark in the 80-minute interview: Sudan is not hostile toward Israel.
The ambassador mentions that Ethiopian Airways, which runs two flights daily from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa, flies over Sudan on the way to and from Israel, and maintains that the Sudanese government has no objection to this.
“They don’t care,” he says. “We are working with them; they are very good people. They are very rational.”
Up until three years ago, Sudan was squarely in Iran’s camp and was seen as a key link in smuggling arms to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In the interim, however, Sudan and Iran have had a falling- out, and the Sunni Muslim African state has moved closer to Saudi Arabia.
Since 2016 there have been periodic reports and whispers of contacts between Jerusalem and Khartoum. Asked about those contacts, Tsegay – whose region of Tigray borders Sudan and who worked in close contact with Sudanese officials when he was the governor of Tigray – said he knew of no such contacts, and made clear this was an area he preferred not to discuss.
All he would say, punctuating his remarks with the words “believe me, believe me,” is that “the Sudanese government is not very hostile to Israel.”