Ethiopian leaders sought to trade Jews for safety

May 27, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- By allowing 14,000 Jews to be evacuated by air to Israel, Ethiopia's beleaguered government sought to protect itself from rebel forces nearing the capital and win United States support at peace talks in London.

As outlined by senior Israeli officials, the 33-hour airlift of Ethiopian Jews became possible only when Ethiopian leaders determined that their own survival was at stake.

After trying for months to trade Jews for Israeli arms, the Ethiopian government changed tactics in an attempt to preserve itself, the officials said.

Ethiopian leaders settled for letting the Jews go in exchange for U.S. and Israeli goodwill and a pledge by Ethiopian rebels not to try to overrun the capital, Addis Ababa, until the Jews were safely out.

It remains unclear whether Ethiopian leaders were also given cash, or whether the aircraft involved in the airlift carried out Ethiopian officials or their families.

"We entered a very tough, quick negotiation with them in which they raised demands we couldn't accept," said Uri Lubrani, Israel's negotiator in the talks, which continued almost until the moment the airlift began on Friday. "As the noose tightened around them, the more they were prepared to compromise."

Mr. Lubrani declined to say whether Israel paid money for the right to conduct the operation.

Israel's state-controlled radio and TV reported Saturday that Israel paid Ethiopia as much as $35 million, a report the broadcasting service later dropped. A military spokesman spoke of a $35 million payment in remarks to reporters. But existence of the payment could not be confirmed.

Yesterday, Israelis were finishing their count of the Ethiopian Jews brought on 40 flights. The final figure was 14,087, two-thirds of them under the age of 18.

Government ministers began to debate what to do about people left behind in Addis Ababa, including an estimated 3,000 Ethiopians whose identity as Jews was questioned.

Most of the 3,000 were said to be Ethiopian Jews who had converted to Christianity. Under strict application of Israeli law, they would not be eligible for citizenship under the measure that reserves a "right of return" to Israel only to persons who can establish they are Jews.

Rabbinic authorities offered conflicting advice, most urging that the remaining Ethiopians be brought to Israel. Army officers involved in the airlift said that many people begging to be taken aboard the Israeli aircraft had been turned away, including Ethiopians who said they already had relatives in Israel.

Ministers said as many as another 2,000 Ethiopians accepted as Jews were still in rebel-held areas. The Cabinet appointed a special committee to decide what to do about those left in Addis Ababa, while the government pledged that it would work "diligently" to bring to Israel any Ethiopian who could establish that he was a Jew.

For those brought here in the past two days, the most immediate concern was to find relatives already in the country. A government radio station announced that it would broadcast two hours a night in the Ethiopians' native Amharic -- devoting its first program to reading the names of new arrivals.

As described by Mr. Lubrani and other officials, military commanders had determined early on that they could not carry out an airlift without Ethiopia's agreement. Swooping into the country without permission from its government was deemed to have little chance of success.

Israel also needed the consent of the main rebel groups battling the government. Without the rebels' approval, Israel feared, the Jews awaiting evacuation -- and the planes carrying them -- would become targets in the civil war.

Mr. Lubrani, a former ambassador to Ethiopia and a past emissary to Iran, is in charge of Israel's policy in Lebanon and is the government's senior trouble-shooter.

Until almost the last moment, he said, Ethiopia's leaders sought to trade Jews for Israeli guns. The Ethiopian president, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, wanted Israel to fill the gap left by the Soviet Union as Ethiopia's military patron.

"It was very difficult to convince him he would not get any arms from Israel," Mr. Lubrani told reporters.

Mr. Lubrani was authorized to offer agricultural and economic aid, help Mr. Mengistu accepted without dropping his demand for military equipment to help his army fight a two-front civil war.

Mr. Mengistu had been allowing an average of 300 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel each month. When the war began to turn against him, Mr. Mengistu stopped the emigration.

The Bush administration dispatched a former Republican senator, Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, to Ethiopia. Mr. Boschwitz failed to persuade the Ethiopian president to allow the Jews to leave.

The deadlock was broken when Mr. Mengistu fled the country last week. Talks resumed with government leaders who were increasingly anxious about their survival.

"Fortunately, Mengistu left the country when the rebels were not close enough to Addis Ababa to actually threaten the city," Mr. Lubrani said. "From this point began a race against time, to try to get the agreement before the rebels defeated the regime."

Agreement was reached Thursday. On Friday morning, the Israeli army deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak flew to Addis Ababa and established a control center at the airport. He was back in Israel a day and a half later, along with the 14,087 Ethiopian Jews.

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