Revived in early 90s the ties that bind Israel and Ethiopia have several levels of depth; from religious passion and Ethio-Jewish families to geopolitical interests. The relationship between Israel and Ethiopia has been improving over the last three and a half years especially with economic cooperation and investment, says Oded Ben-Haim, Israel Ambassador to Ethiopia.
In an interview with Capital’s Kirubel Tadesse, in addition to ties between Addis Ababa and Tel Aviv Ambassador Ben-Haim also discussed the ongoing conflict with Palestinians, an alleged Israel spying network in Africa being blamed for the crashed Ethiopian Airlines ET-409 flight and other pressing matters. Excerpts;
Capital: You will soon leave your post here in Addis Ababa after staying for almost three and half years. What trends do you see in the relationship between Ethiopia and Israel?
Ambassador Oded Ben-Haim: There has been a progressive trend lately and people are really starting to take notice. Not only in Addis Ababa, if you go to Dire Dawa, Mekelle, Gonder [I was in Gonder last Timket], Hawassa and other places you can see development and progression all over the country.
The bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and Israel is also progressing. If you speak about economic trend, for example Ethiopia is in the black. We have about 50 to 60 million dollars of annual exports from Ethiopia to Israel. On the import side, Ethiopia only imported 12 million dollars last year from Israel; so the balance of trade between Israel and Ethiopia is positive for Ethiopia. But these are only numbers. When I came to Ethiopia I really wanted to focus on bringing international corporations here which meant looking at what sectors we would build capacity in and for the last five years we have been focusing on this. Last year, the work became more intense especially in Agriculture, which should not be surprising when you see how important farming is here. In the Ethiopian economy the Agriculture is almost half of the GDP and 83 percent of people live in rural areas. Because most agriculture is still small scale farming here a little investment can make a huge difference. And if we help farmers we are helping the family because they will be able to educate their children. In the Jewish tradition education is vital and I was very happy to see that in Ethiopia the government has a goal of enrolling 100 percent of 1st graders. Ethiopia is diverse and you cannot compare the pastoralist region with cities but from what I understand enrollment is increasing.
In the near future there will be 31 universities graduating 100,000 students. I’m very happy to see such a strong emphasis on building human resources. Of course this will greatly enhance development.
I can give you an example from Israel. Today in Israel less than 2 percent of the population deals with agriculture; we are in total about 7 million people. So this amounts to around 70,000 people but the export is two billion dollars of agriculture products. What we did is we took high tech and we implemented into agriculture; this is one of the things I foresee happening in Ethiopia.
Necessary for a development of an economy is urbanization; it means agriculture should be more efficient. For this we have to reduce the number of people who make their living off agriculture. Instead they should move to other sectors of the economy. And you can see the initial steps for industrialization in Ethiopia.
Capital: What are the initiatives Israel is undertaking in Ethiopia and how do they work?
Ben-Haim: It goes both ways; we send trainees to Israel and we bring in experts. The capacity building programs can be both short and long term courses and trainings as well; the longest course we have for foreign students is a public health course which takes one year. But most courses are shorter; from six to eight weeks.
I think it is more efficient to bring in Israeli experts to Ethiopia. They can teach people who can then train others. For example we had a long term irrigation expert here and one dealing with tissue culture nurseries. We also had shorter classes in Butajira in the Southern Nations. We have a center there that people can visit and study agriculture. We also cooperate with I-TECH to send medical professionals from Ethiopia to Israel for training. Optometry is another area we are working in. We were in the Southern nations and in March we will have surgeons going to North Ethiopia around Gondar to help treat blindness caused by cataracts. Two months ago we saw people who once were blind be able to see after a 20 minute procedure. Now we have a goal to treat 1,000 people in the area. My hope is that Debark will be free from blindness caused be cataracts.
By accident the Israeli surgeons met a girl who had a tumor on her eyes in their previous visit. And for about two months they assessed the situation with different experts in Israel to see if the girl can be helped. Now, I got an email today that says different experts will team up to try to help her so that she doesn’t die.
Capital: Is there a significant investment flowing from Israel to Ethiopia?
Ben-Haim: I believe that Israelis were the first to invest in commercial farming; flowers in particular. There are more investors in herbs, and vegetables. I know that recently a number of Israeli companies have been looking for investment opportunities; especially those companies who used to work a lot in Ethiopia in 1970s. Some, construction companies for instance, have been active all over Africa and they are trying to come back to Ethiopia and take part in tenders. The last company I know of entering a tender, if awarded, will be a huge investment. And they will come with a finance package; the government of Ethiopia doesn’t have to do anything because these international companies based in Israel are dealing with international financers. I hope they are going to win the tender; it is a matter of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Capital: What can be done to bring more investment from Israel?
Ben-Haim: I believe they [the Ethiopian Government] have already started doing it because they have started promoting investment even as extension to the diplomatic service. Not long ago, all ambassadors were called back to Ethiopia and had an economic seminar. And one of the work plans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem is to emphasize economic diplomacy; how to attract investment to Ethiopia and how to have markets open to Ethiopian produce.
We have to expose Ethiopia better to the international community. Even in Israel which is only four hours away, there are a lot of misconceptions we need to correct. When I told colleagues I was coming here they told me that I would suffer from the heat, but now I tell them that if weather could be exported Ethiopia has the best in the world. We have to expose Ethiopia and show foreign investors how things are really like here. Then we must streamline the procedures for investors to come in. Foreign investors in Israel had to pass about 25 stations in different governmental offices and authorities before they could put a corner stone in the ground. Then we had a strong minister who said I want all foreign investors to have to make only one stop, this stop will take care of all the necessities and coordinate things. Ever since then foreign exchange began to flow fluently to Israel.
Capital: What sectors do you think have the most potential for Israeli investors?
Ben-Haim: There are lots of good prospects. Over the last seven years, the economy has been steadily growing at over 11 percent, which is hard to imagine in any country. Even though people are arguing if the economy will grow at eight or 11 percent, it is still growing. And you can see all these potential strengths like human resources, water, fertile land and minerals.
Also large-scale farming, around 100,000 hectares, like they did in South America, I saw this Argentina and Brazil; the same thing could happen here.
When I got here, electrical capacity was less than 800 mega watts and in a few years it will go up to 10,000 from today’s 2,000. Telecom, coffee and food processing sectors also have huge potential. Israeli companies have built food processing factories in Russia and Brazil; why don’t we have one of them here in Ethiopia? The potential is there. This past month we passed Timket [Epiphany] and Christmas holidays and the article in the paper was ‘Why can’t we afford to have Doro Wot?’ We have the technology to produce chicken in mass; in Israel what I pay for chicken is half of what I pay for meat here, this is affordable to everyone. Why not bring this type of technology to Ethiopia? It can meet the demand of the local market but also be a good base for export because you have a good location. Nearby there are lot of countries who import a lot of fresh produce from Ethiopia. I saw an American company in Mekelle; they have great success but it is still in a small scale; we need to go after large scale initiatives like in other countries.
Capital: Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Riad Malki in an interview with Capital predicted that African countries including Ethiopia will support the Palestinian bid for membership in an event it becomes an agenda item before votes at the United Nations. What is your expectation?
Ben-Haim: I met Riad Malki in 1994 but he will not remember; last time we met for Iftar (dinner during Ramadan) which I arranged. He is a very nice person, but I am a career diplomat and he is a politician; two different things. In 1994 we had arguments with Palestinians on how to reach peace and a goal of two states. Now unfortunately the Palestinians, as somebody said it, ‘never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. They could not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they could not agree that when we sign an agreement it will be the end of all conflicts, which is very important and also it will be the end of any demands. This means once we create two states, that is it and they have to live a normal life, and not any more one of the peoples say the others’ territory belong to us, otherwise we cannot have a permanent peace but like the ongoing sometimes high fire and other times low fire conflict. Once the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish State, to end the conflict and not have any other demand, tomorrow we can have a two state solution. Because they could not reach it, because of ideology and may be because of Islam; if one says you can only have an Islamic state, we cannot accept because we are Jews and we want to be independent and don’t want to live under any other religious domination. So when they cannot reach it by negotiation, they want to force us to accept it. And they geared it last September. Fortunately to Israel the majority of the international community understood that you cannot force a solution while the two sides have to negotiate and come to terms by themselves; so they were rejected by the Security Council. African countries which are friends of Israel will not support it. This was the way it was in September and I hope it will continue so that the Palestinians know that they cannot come to the international community to force us without recognizing Israel.
The Palestinians have to reconcile themselves; Hamas, which Israel recognizes as a terrorist group doesn’t even want to allow Riad Malki’s people to enter Gaza area which it controls; this is why I say instead of talking, which I know Malki can do, we better take actions. He is only giving lip service but we need real actions for peace. For peace we need to compromise.
As long as the Palestinians recognize Israel, nothing will happen because there is no one who can force Israel to dissolve and to alienate itself. I don’t think the Palestinians can do that expect causing harm to the international community; when they brought this kind of thing to UNESCO many countries have stopped budgeting UNESCO. It is not the oil-rich Arab countries which give money to the international organizations; they can talk but nothing else. See what happens in Syria, Egypt and Libya after the so called Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has brought more radical political Islam and in Syria you have a bloodbath and none of the Arab league members can do nothing about it because they are impotent; they are very good in words and talks but when it comes to actions they cannot put their actions together and act. The Palestinians are part of this Arab world, if they want to harm the international community they can do whatever they like to do but if they want to achieve a peace agreement they have to behave differently.
Capital: One of our reporters has been following a claim that some 4200 square meters of land is going to be leased to the Israeli government either for investment or even possibly for military purposes; is this something you are aware of?
Ben-Haim: No. This is the first time I have heard this speculation. Although I am a diplomat I always deal with facts. Maybe this is a speculation from an interested party that wants to defame Ethiopia.
Capital: As you probably read in our newspaper Mauritanian authorities blame an alleged Israeli network of spies for bringing down the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET-409 that crashed in Lebanon in 2010.
Ben-Haim: I don’t want to react to it. It is so farfetched and false, it just cannot be. We never would do such a thing; in whatever we do we don’t harm innocent people. This is one of the lies the Arabs maybe spread; if you buy it I am sorry. It is a completely pure lie. After the accident I was very much in communication with Ethiopia because it was a tragedy. Later on there was an investigation done without the Israelis involvement; there was no shred of evidence, nothing to do with us. They do such things to defame Israel.
Capital: Any final comment?
Ben-Haim: I want to say one thing; I asked to be sent to Ethiopia because of my childhood memories. Even the meat we ate when I served in the military came from Ethiopia. We had a lot of cooperation then; our embassy in Addis Ababa was second in size to our embassy in Washington. Also the long history -3000 years of mutual relations between the two peoples are there. I don’t regret I came to Ethiopia because of the love and affinity that was bestowed by Ethiopian people; it made my job very interesting. I tried to reciprocate the love I got from the Ethiopian people; I hope I was successful.