News Analysis: Mengistu Departure Viewed in Israel with Mixture of Relief and Concern

The sudden resignation and flight of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam has heightened concern here for the safety of the estimated 18,000 Ethiopian Jews stranded in Addis Ababa waiting to immigrate to Israel.

At the same time, government officials here appear to be relieved to not have to deal any longer with Mengistu, a hard-core Marxist who often seemed to be holding Ethiopian Jewry hostage to the supply of military hardware by Israel.

Asked if any Israeli interests in Ethiopia were imperiled by the departure of Mengistu, Defense Minister Moshe Arens said, “It depends who replaces him.”

Israeli officials expressed hope his successors would value the good will of the West and maintain at least lukewarm relations with Israel.

But beyond that, there was no official reaction here, on the assumption that the less said, the better, while the situation is uncertain with respect to Ethiopian Jews.

Rebel forces were reported to be within 50 miles of the Ethiopian capital and the regular army in full flight.

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported Wednesday that rebel representatives in Washington have promised the Americans they will not harm the Ethiopian Jews.

But Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, called for special prayers for the welfare of the Jews there.

U.S. Ambassador William Brown responded guardedly when asked by reporters to elaborate on American measures to protect their security.

“The situation is delicate. Our role in the past speaks for itself,” he said, adding that Washington is “watching the situation closely.”

YEARS OF UNPREDICTABLE RELATIONS

A Hebrew University expert on East Africa, Professor Mordechai Abir, warned in a Jerusalem Post interview Wednesday that the fall of Mengistu aggravates the danger of social unrest, especially in the capital, where poor living conditions could trigger violence.

On the other hand, he said, Mengistu’s flight could lay the foundations for peace between the government and the rebels. The ex-president was the chief obstacle to a compromise, Abir observed.

Israelis will shed few tears over his fall.

Relations with the Ethiopian dictator, who ruled his country with an iron hand for 14 years, were at best unpredictable.

As the exodus of Ethiopian Jewry became increasingly urgent in recent years, Israel found itself under mounting pressure from Mengistu for military aid.

But Israel has other interests in Ethiopia, dating from the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.

The country is a political and strategic gateway to East Africa. Its Red Sea coastal province of Eritrea is not too far from Eilat, Israel’s trade outlet to East Africa and Asia.

Mengistu reportedly had close contacts with Israelis since the early 1970s, when, as a junior officer, he met Israeli military advisers helping the imperial army combat Eritrean rebels.

After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Haile Selassie broke formal diplomatic relations with Israel, under pressure from the Arab states. But informal relations continued.

When Mengistu took power in 1977, he severed relations with the United States and courted the Soviet Union, but continued informal ties with Jerusalem.

Contacts were finally halted in 1978, after Moshe Dayan, the foreign minister at the time, let slip in an interview that the two countries had military ties. Israelis were ordered to leave.

But in 1989, when the Soviet Union and East Germany signaled Mengistu he could no longer count on their help to fight the rebels, the Ethiopian ruler turned to the United States.

Israel was a natural intermediary. Formal diplomatic relations were restored in November 1989 but have suffered from periodic strains.

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