ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday met with his Ethiopian counterpart in Addis Ababa and asked him for assistance in securing the release of Avraham Mengistu, an Ethiopian Israeli held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Mengistu, who entered the Gaza Strip in September 2014, is one of two Israelis held captive by Hamas, which also holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. Mengistu’s family and the families of the two soldiers have protested outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence demanding action to ensure Avraham’s release and the return of the soldier’s bodies.
“We always raise the issue of our citizens at various opportunities, including here, of course,” Netanyahu told reporters after meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The prime minister has come under fire in recent weeks for not securing Turkish assistance to pressure Hamas to release Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, the second Israeli held in Gaza; and the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul. Israel signed a reconciliation deal with Turkey that dealt with aspects of its policy on Gaza but did not touch on the issue of the Israelis held there.
Netanyahu also said Israel was working to bring the remaining 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
In November, the government approved the immigration of the remaining community that didn’t previously qualify despite their fervent Jewish identity. The decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget. It was eventually approved in April, and was supposed to begin in June. But as Netanyahu flew to Africa on a four-day tour this week, his office refused to comment on reasons why the process has not started.
“We have a commitment and we are honoring it on a humanitarian and family reunification basis,” he said. “This will be carried out under this budget. We are obligated and we are dealing with it.”
Netanyahu arrived in Addis Ababa earlier on Thursday for the final stop of his four-country state visit to East Africa, which aimed at strengthening diplomatic and economic ties. He and Hailemariam discussed bilateral cooperation in the fields of water, agriculture, communications, tourism, and education, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Netanyahu said he wanted “integrated teams that are working on a government to government level but also the businesses that have created their own abilities in this field, proven abilities, in Israel and worldwide, to work with you and Ethiopian companies.”
While the prime minister didn’t discuss military cooperation or the defense industry, the head of Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defense contractors, was reported to be accompanying him on his visit to Ethiopia.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s push for Israel to be granted “observer status” at the African Union gained Ethiopia’s backing.
“Israel is working very hard in many African countries. There is no reason to deny this observer position to Israel,” Hailemariam Desalegn said.
The position of observer is granted to some non-African countries who wish to engage with the AU, follow proceedings and address its gatherings. Israel had been an observer at the AU’s predecessor organization but its status was not renewed at the AU’s founding in 2002.
The 54-member organization, headquartered in Addis Ababa, would be an important diplomatic ally for Israel, as is Ethiopia which begins a two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2017.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has used his country’s AU observer status since 2013 to attend AU summits, deliver addresses and shore up diplomatic support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“You said Israel has a special place in Ethiopia and Ethiopia has a special place in Israel,” Netanyahu said in his joint statement with Hailemariam. “And that’s absolutely true. In fact, it goes back 3,000 years to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and I suggest that we don’t wait another 3,000 years to cement this extraordinary relationship.”
Addressing the Ethiopian parliament in Addis Ababa, Netanyahu was greeted by loud clapping, and extended “greetings from Jerusalem, the city I grew up in and where King Solomon met the Queen of Sheba.”
“You in Ethiopia, you fought for your freedom for millennia. We respect you, we admire you. You resisted foreign rule and lived as a free independent homeland. We too live as a free independent homeland,” he said.
Before concluding his week-long trip across eastern Africa and heading back to Israel, he told lawmakers that he is already planning his next visit to the country.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.