Ethiopian Premier Visits Israel, Launching New Phase in Relations

In the midst of a coalition crisis that threatened to weaken his government, Prime Yitzhak Rabin took time out Sunday to welcome Ethiopian Prime Minister Timirat Laynie to Israel, at an official ceremony in the Rose Garden overlooking the Knesset.

Israel attaches particular importance to the four-day visit, which is the first by a ranking Ethiopian official since the government of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was toppled by insurgent forces in May 1991.

As Foreign Minister Shimon Peres put it when he greeted his counterpart at the airport Saturday, Laynie is “the most significant Ethiopian visitor since the queen of Sheba.”

Peres said the visit could help reconfigure the situation along the Red Sea coast, where Israel has good ties with both Egypt and the breakaway Ethiopian province of Eritrea.

A key item on the agenda of the visit this week was expected to be the delicate and unresolved issue of the emigration of the Falash Mora, Ethiopian gentiles who say their ancestors were forced to convert from Judaism.

Thousands of Falash Mora, some of whom have relatives in Israel, are seeking to immigrate here. Israel does not recognize them as Jews, but has said it would allow those with immediate family in Israel to come on a humanitarian basis.

Ethiopian officials have in the past vowed that they would not let the Falash Mora emigrate, saying it could lead to an exodus of “tens of thousands” of citizens.

But the Ethiopian foreign minister was expected to announce this week that his country would allow the emigration of Falash Mora with immediate family members in Israel.

UPS AND DOWNS IN RELATIONS

One hitch could be a statement allegedly made by former Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who was quoted as saying that the Falash Mora were being murdered in Ethiopia because of their Jewish roots.

Haim Divon, Israel’s ambassador to Addis Ababa, was said to have sent a cable to the Foreign Ministry saying that the Ethiopian authorities were “furious” over the remark.

The visit is seen as a reflection of Ethiopia’s desire to open a new page in relations with Israel.

Those relations have had their ups and downs. Ethiopia was once the spearhead of Israel’s presence in black Africa. But that changed in 1973, when the country severed relations in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, along with most of the rest of Africa.

After the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Israel developed strong ties to the socialist Mengistu government, to which it reportedly provided arms and military expertise. Full diplomatic relations were restored in 1989.

Two years later, Israel reportedly paid the Mengistu government some $40 million in exchange for the emigration of over 14,000 Jews in the Operation Solomon airlift of May 1991.

The resistance movements that toppled the Mengistu regime that same month initially adopted an anti-Israel stance. But relations have since improved with both the government in Addis Ababa and the rebels who came to power in Eritrea.

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