Over the past few days, I’ve watched as something unimaginable has happened. Two countries engaged in war for two decades, who have together killed 80,000 of each other’s citizens, have reconciled. It is beyond belief. How can these two nations, both governed by authoritarian regimes undergo such a change of heart? How did this happen? And can it offer any hints for the seven decades of war and hate between Israel and Palestine?
There are interesting colonial historical parallels between Ethiopia-Eritrea and Israel-Palestine. Ethiopia was once a colony of Italy, and fought two wars to liberate itself from colonial occupation. In 1941, it succeeded in ejecting Italy and governing itself as an independent nation. A brutal Marxist dictatorship took control of the country and overthrew Emperor Hailie Selasie in 1974. A decade later, an armed rebellion led to the fall of this regime in 1991 and the current government assumed control. Eritrea, which had been part of the larger Ethiopia fought, as part of this rebellion, for its own independence which it gained in the same year. However, territorial disputes roiled relations between the countries and led to three years of bloody conflict, which is only now seeing its conclusion two decades later.
Compare this to the situation of Israel-Palestine in which Mandatory Palestine was a colony of Great Britain. The Yishuv fought a nearly twenty year conflict to free itself of British control, which ended in 1948 with declaration of the State of Israel. Though the West Bank was controlled by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt at the time, after 1967 Israel conquered both. Since then, Palestinians have fought Israel for their own freedom. Both nations have been roiled by bloody conflicts over territory and resources. Unlike the African situation, Palestine has yet to win its freedom from Israeli Occupation and domination.
Though they are not identical by any means, Eritrea’s position vis a vis Ethiopia mirrors that of Palestine vis a vis Israel. Just as Palestine (or the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine) was a part of a larger nation freed from colonial rule, only to see itself eventually colonized in turn by the newly free Israel; so Eritrea was originally part of Ethiopia, but did not win full control of all its own territory until the latter finally agreed to settle its territorial dispute just this week. If Eritrea can do it, Palestine should too.
Many factors contribute to this week’s massive transformation in relations: partly the ceaseless wars which drained so much capital that neither country could move forward with development and social welfare projects. Feeding the war machine monopolized so many resources there was little left over for human needs. This led to unrest, especially in Ethiopia, which faced riots which led to ousting the prime minister. In turning to a successor, the ruling party named an entirely different brand of politician. Abiy Ahmed didn’t wish to continue iron-fist and the failed approaches of his predecessor. Instead he wanted radical change both at home and abroad. He made known his wish to reconcile with Eritrea and his willingness to solve the territorial disputes which divided them. It was as if a huge boulder disintegrated and a blocked river could flow free for the first time in ages.
The Ethiopian leader has just completed his first trip to Eritrea and both men have agreed to recognize each other’s governments, exchange ambassadors, reopen trade and air routes and borders:
Abiy said the two leaders have “agreed to bring down the wall between us. Now there is no border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. That border line has gone today with the display of a true love … love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles. Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara. From this time on, war is not an option for the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. What we need now is love.”
This advent of harmony has not been without its difficult moments. Recently, at a massive rally in the nation’s capital, unknown forces exploded grenades during the ceremony and caused chaos and one death. It’s thought that those in the old government whose power derived from maintaining the status quo, attempted to throw a spanner in the works. It doesn’t appear to have worked. Though it’s hard to know whether these dark forces will orchestrate other more damaging attacks in future.
What about Israel-Palestine? If two African nations who’ve been at each others’ throats for ages can break such a logjam, can Israelis and Palestinians? That’s a difficult question. First, Ethiopia and Eritrea are both relatively poor African countries. Their resources were limited and their ability to fund the conflict was not inexhaustible. As in the case of South Africa, in which the white leader, F.W. de Klerk, saw the handwriting on the wall and determined to end decades of white rule, that’s what happened in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
But Israel appears different. There is no dawning realization that the Occupation and apartheid is unsustainable in the long-term. On the contrary, both Israelis and their leaders believe the status quo can be maintained indefinitely. Israel’s economy is relatively strong. Its economic outlook is bright. It has a high standard of living (for the top three-quarters of the population, at least). It’s military forces are among the strongest in the region and in the top ten in the world. While Israel has few strong allies other than the U.S., many states are happy to do business with Israel and buy its exports, especially its technology and weapons systems.
It hardly matters that economists project Israel and Palestine would benefit enormously both economically and commercially from a peace agreement. Israelis prefer the thing they know, even if it is imperfect, rather than the thing they don’t.
The key to breaking through the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict was the dawning realization of one leader that his country faced a far brighter future if it compromised, rather than insisted on maintaining long-time demands. I see no hope of that happening in Israel. There is neither a Party nor a leader who has such a vision. Politics in Israel is frozen solid. The national consensus is so strong and so stubborn that any politician who attempted to break it would be made to pay. That’s why political life in Israel is so barren and infertile.
Nevertheless, I retain some hope that a miracle might happen. But most likely the only way peace will ever come to Israel-Palestine is if there is a catastrophic tragedy which compels the international community to act and impose a solution on both parties.
This article was published by Tikun Olam