Freeing Jews cost Israel $35 million --and cigarettes

May 29, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- If he could not get arms from Israel, Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam wanted money to let thousands of Jews leave his country.

The money was delivered eventually -- possibly as much as $35 million -- although the Ethiopian leader, described here as "a moron," apparently never got it. At the height of the extraordinary evacuation from Addis Ababa, it even took 50 cartons of American-made cigarettes to keep the operation going.

Mr. Mengistu demanded cash either personally or through aides throughout the lengthy negotiations with Israel, according to Uri Lubrani, the chief Israeli negotiator.

Israel eventually paid -- but not Mr. Mengistu.

After Mr. Mengistu fled Ethiopia early last week, Mr. Lubrani successfully completed negotiations with his successors, allowing Israeli aircraft to ferry more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a 33-hour airlift.

Mr. Lubrani was asked yesterday whether Israel indeed paid a bribe.

"Positive," he said.

Was it paid to Mr. Mengistu?

"Not to him. He was out."

He added, "Basically, at the end of the day -- I haven't used this word yet -- he was a moron."

Other officials have said Israel paid $35 million before Ethiopian officials allowed the airlift to begin, but they have given differing accounts about when the money was paid and to whom.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official who flew to Addis Ababa a few hours before the evacuation was to begin said the money was paid after Ethiopian forces surrounded the plane carrying the Israelis who were to run the airlift.

The Israelis, including the army deputy chief of staff, feared that they were about to be taken hostage.

"We were trembling," Chaim Divon, the Foreign Ministry official, said on state radio. "We didn't know if this was malice or because of a technical hitch, until it became clear there was an understanding having to do with a deposit of money."

Mr. Lubrani called Mr. Divon's account "poppycock" but declined to describe the circumstances under which the payment was delivered.

Other, lesser bribes were made while the operation was under way. Israelis in Addis Ababa asked the military to load 50 cartons of American cigarettes on one of the planes coming from Tel Aviv. When the cargo arrived, according to one account, the cigarettes persuaded Ethiopian officials to "hasten the process."

As portrayed by Mr. Lubrani, Mr. Mengistu was an exceptionally hard bargainer who never abandoned a strategy of using Ethiopian Jews as hostages to persuade Israel to supply arms. His government changed its demands only when Mr. Mengistu fled last week, allowing Mr. Lubrani to open talks with his successors.

Mr. Mengistu was consistent during talks in Ethiopia and in talks during a secret visit to Israel in June 1990. He stayed "hours, not days," Mr. Lubrani said, "wanted to see how much assistance he could get out of Israel," and asked for arms and money. Israel gave neither, he said.

"A worse government than the Mengistu government, I can't imagine," Mr. Lubrani said. "This guy, Mengistu, held the Jews for ransom. They were hostages, in the true sense of the word."

Haggling apparently continued even after Israeli transport planes landed in Addis Ababa to begin the airlift last week. According to Mr. Lubrani, Ethiopian officials wanted some of the Jews to remain until peace talks began in London, in order to assure U.S. sympathy for the government. The Israelis eventually prevailed, flying most out.

Israel's ambassador in Addis Ababa, Asher Naim, told a radio interviewer that the Jews who failed to get out in last week's airlift had been moved to "a central hiding place."

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