Israel Should Rethink Aid to Mengistu

THERE is now strong evidence that Israel has become a major military ally of President Mengistu Haile Mariam's brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia. To date, it has supplied Ethiopia with cluster and white phosphorus bombs, several types of machine guns, and other types of lethal weapons. More importantly, Israeli advisers have almost totally replaced those from the Soviet Union as trainers and politico-military strategists.

Israel has given two official reasons for supporting Ethiopia at this time: Ethiopia's consent to the emigration of Falasha (Ethiopian Jews) to Israel, and apprehension that an independent Eritrea will be allied to its Arab enemies.

Israel, of course, wants to guarantee the first and to prevent the second. The end, if not the means of the first, has its merits; the second concern is baseless and unwarranted.

The Eritrean liberation struggle has not, since the establishment of a military government in Ethiopia 15 years ago, received military assistance from any Arab state. On the other hand, President Mengistu's self-proclaimed Marxist regime has entered into several open and secret military alliances with Arab countries directed against the liberation struggle in Eritrea.

The government of Ethiopia benefited from financial and military assistance from Libya to conduct its infamous Red Star Campaign (1982); acquired arms, pilots, and tank crews from South Yemen, which also served as a transit for Soviet military supplies to Ethiopia (1977-84); and received logistic support from Nimeiri's Sudan (1980-82).

In return, Ethiopia had to condemn Zionism and Israel in all treaties and agreements with these countries. Most recently, Mengistu paid a state visit to Syria where he was awarded that country's highest decoration.

Ethiopia also had - and presumably continues to have - a close working relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In fact, close observation shows that Ethiopia has had many more Arab friends than Eritrea.

None of the Eritrean liberation fronts have ever expressed a desire ``to turn the Red Sea into an Arab lake.'' Eritreans are fighting for one cause - self-determination - and their attitudes and policies toward other countries or parties have always been molded by the attitudes of such countries toward their cause. The official documents of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) make it clear that an independent Eritrea wishes to live in harmony with all its neighbors on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Surely, this can never be construed as a threat to the strategic interests - let alone existence - of Israel.

Eritreans are not Arabs. There are as many Christians, mainly Coptic Orthodox, in their country as Muslims. Ethiopia, too, has a population which is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. In fact, Ethiopia has the third largest Muslim population in Africa after Nigeria and Egypt.

Yet this has not been construed as a threat to Israel, since Ethiopia continues to be viewed as that proverbial ``Christian island in a sea of Islam.''

Israel feels more secure with Ethiopia than with Eritrea only because Ethiopia has always considered Arabs and Muslims as historic enemies while Eritreans have lived - and expect to live - in peace with all their neighbors. After 30 years of war, Eritreans have no desire to involve themselves in other people's conflicts. That, too, is a stated objective of the EPFL.

Israel's officials openly state they are against Eritrean independence only because it will be against their country's national interest. But Israel's apprehension is unfounded. Its interests weren't threatened by the loss of the Dahlak Islands, where it had bases in Emperor Haile Selassie's time, to the Soviet Union, an Arab ally, after the Ethiopian revolution. A small country like Eritrea, even if it allies with Arab states, won't change the balance of forces in the region.

Finally, the moral norms by which Israel judges the policies of other states and organizations are at stake. The essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict is, according to Israel and its allies, has been Arab refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist as an independent state. The Arabs, of course, have seen Israel's existence as against ``Arab national interests.'' So how can Israel, without being accused of holding a double standard, employ its enemies' logic against Eritrea?

Supporters of Israel reproached Nelson Mandela, during his recent tour of the US, for the African National Congress's association with Cuba and Castro, Libya and Qaddafi, and the PLO and Yasser Arafat. Are Ethiopia and Mengistu Haile Mariam any worthier of association and assistance, given their genocidal war against the Eritrean people?

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