Terrorism and security, including military training and border controls, were a main focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Africa, where he met this week with seven African heads of state.
Islamic extremism is rising in Kenya, one of Natanyahu’s stops on his four-day trip, along with Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda. It’s the first African visit by an Israeli prime minister in 30 years, and the first ever to Ethiopia.
Amid security concerns, some African countries hope to grant Israel African Union observer status, a move previously blocked by Libya and South Africa, Jewish Policy Center reported. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta backed the move saying Africa needs “to engage Israel on a more positive basis” in a push for global peace and security.
Kenyatta talked about Israel’s technological expertise as one of the most powerful ways A.U. member states can benefit from their relationships with Israel.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn also said he’d work to upgrade Israel’s position at the African Union, and give it observer status, indicating an effort by the countries Netanyahu visited to overcome South African and Algerian opposition to the move, Jerusalem Post reported.
Even if there are countries in Africa that disagree with Israel on certain issues, they should not be able to veto the continent’s cooperation with the Jewish state, Hailemariam said at a press conference.
Hailemariam thanked Israel for supporting Ethiopia’s successful bid for a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, and said Ethiopia will reciprocate by helping Israel in international forums. Ethiopia begins a two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2017.
Observer status is granted to some non-African countries that want to engage with the A.U. They can follow proceedings and address gatherings, according to Business Standard. Israel was an observer at the Organization of African Unity (OAU), predecessor to the A.U. Its status was not renewed when the A.U. was established in 2002.
“Israel is working very hard in many African countries,” Hailemariam said. “There is no reason to deny this observer position to Israel.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has used his country’s A.U. observer status since 2013 to attend A.U. summits, make speeches and get diplomatic support in the dispute with Israel.
Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the following predominantly Muslim sub-Saharan countries, according to Jerusalem Post: Mali, Chad, Niger, Guinea, Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania, Djibouti and Comoros.
Delegations from Mali and Chad visited Israel recently, and some reports this week claim that Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met secretly with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in recent months, according to Jerusalem Post.
“The Eastern African corridor has the potential of huge cooperation with Israel, and we need to engage Israel,” Hailemariam said, at a press conference after meeting Netanyahu.
Asked whether Ethiopia would support a Palestinian statehood bid in the U.N. Security Council, Hailemariam wouldn’t commit, saying that his country would judge each issue on its merits. Sometimes Ethiopia votes for Israel, sometime it abstains, and sometimes it votes against, he said.
Netanyahu discussed with Hailemariam the plight of Avera Mengstu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent detained by Hamas in Gaza. Hailemariam said Ethiopia would do what it could to get his release.
Relations between Africa and Israel have been strained over the years, Business Standard reported. In the 1960s the Arab-Israeli conflict alienated African countries, many of which were engaged in liberation struggles.
Wars between Israel and its neighbors in 1967 and 1973 led North African countries to pressure sub-Saharan Africa to cut ties with Israel, which many countries did.
Israel’s support for apartheid South Africa — which ended in 1994 — affected its relationship with much of the rest of the continent.
Hailemariam said differences can be overcome “by engagement not isolation. Israel needs to come to Africa and we need to engage with Israel.”
About 130,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, population 8 million. In 1984, about 7,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during a famine and political instability under the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime. Another major airlift in 1990 flew 14,000 more Ethiopians to Israel.
Netanyahu said that 9000 Ethiopians who claim Jewish ancestry will be reunited soon with their families, Africa News reported.
‘‘Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community that are still here, we are doing so, we have a commitment, we are fulfilling it on a humanitarian level of family reunification. It will not happen in the future, it will happen now under the current budget,” Netanyahu said.
Ethiopia was one of the first countries in Africa to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, with ties dating back to the 1960s. It severed those ties with Israel on numerous occasions including during the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. Diplomacy was restored in the 1980s after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty.
Historically, Ethiopian-Israeli ties go back thousands of years. The Ethiopian royal family, which was overthrown in 1974, based its right to rule on a dynastic line reaching back 3,000 years to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Netanyahu talked about historical bonds and similar values between Israel and Ethiopia, according to Jerusalem Post.
“You resisted foreign rule and live as a free people in your ancestral homeland, and we too live as a free and independent people in our ancestral homeland,” Netanyahu said. “The struggle for freedom unites our two nations.”
Netanyahu and Hailemariam attended an economic forum with 300 Israeli and Ethiopian business people. The 54-member A.U. is based in Addis Ababa.
Netanyahu is scheduled to fly back to Israel early Friday morning.