Ambassador Raphael Morav is a career diplomat who has served Israel for the past 30 years on the diplomatic front. French born Israeli citizen and Ambassador of Israel to Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda residing in Addis Ababa, Raphael Morav, was also an Ambassador to Liberia from 1988 – 90; Brussels-EU from 1990-92; Italy 1994-98; Finland 2000-04 and has served in many other diplomatic missions. The Ambassador completed his three and half year’s Ambassadorial tenure in Ethiopia. Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter sat down with the outgoing Ambassador in his final weeks of retirement as an ambassador to Ethiopia, discussing various economic and political issues vis-à-vis the two nations. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have completed your ambassadorial tenure in Ethiopia and are about to head back home. What has been the highlight of your time in Ethiopia?
So, I have spent over three fascinating years here in Ethiopia. I arrived in November 2017. I am very pleased that the relations between the two countries in this period reached new heights. Especially, high level visits such as the visit of the President of the state of Israel in Ethiopia in May 2019, and the visit of Israel by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in September 2019, facilitate and of course strengthen the relationship. However, the next step is to implement the discussions and agreements that have been made, and I am very pleased that during my tenure we have completed the 13-year project on avocado. That was our Flagship project of cooperation in development with Ethiopia and we have handed it over to the Ethiopian authorities.
This 13 year avocado project includes a network of six nurseries, where we graft high-quality varieties of avocado from Israel to what you call mother trees of Ethiopia and today these nurseries are producing about over half a million siblings annually that are distributed to smallholder farmers. And this has really revolutionized smallholder farmers, changing the livelihoods of the farmers from subsistence into commercial farmers. Famers currently can sell the product to the local market or even export it to the international market and earn income to reinvest in more crops.
Through the avocado project, we have also introduced high advanced techniques from Israel to the agriculture sector in Ethiopia. Such techniques include deep irrigation, the use of hybrid seeds, the use of how to apply fertilizer with the water system, and techniques of the whole chain of growing avocado for exports, which is a different approach than growing for the local market.
In the past one-year, with the coronavirus pandemic, we have been quite busy focusing on humanitarian activities and providing medical equipment and personal protection equipment to the medical staff in Ethiopia, federal police and schools. Two years ago, we sent a mission to extinguish the fire incident in Semen Mountains and it was quite unique and very successful mission, which I am proud of.
Last year, we also sent an expert mission to help Ethiopia in the fight against the locust swarm, by not only bringing equipment but also the knowhow for an efficient and less costly way of combating the locust swarms.
You have stated that your country has sent a mission of experts to combat the locust swarms. Do you think the experts mission was effective in combating the locust swarm?
We are very practical people. We do not play or just come to show and speak about theories. No. Hence, our experts went to Jigjiga, spent 5-days and trained hundreds of people with the techniques like a military operation. You have the forces that are monitoring the drones. We have the others who are on the back and you have the logistics people who are carrying the pesticides and they go and back and forth to fill the blower operations. So it was not in theory; rather was an organized practical operation.
And I think that we had hundreds of people trained with this method and our idea is that these people would be able to train others. Which means it was a training of trainers.
You have spent three and half years in Ethiopia. What impressed you the most during your stay in Ethiopia?
I did not know much about Ethiopia before I arrived here in 2017, of course I prepared myself, but I never traveled here before or never knew Ethiopians. We do have a big Ethiopian community in Israel. But I knew few people and I wasn’t really close.
So what impressed me here is the deep and close relations between the two nations that dates back to Biblical times and have this special link to the Jewish people and to the Jewish traditions. It’s all so well rooted in the religion if you see what I see. I saw several religious festivities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and I found many similarities with the old traditions of the Jewish faith during the times of the first temple.
The beauty of the landscape and the nature of this country also impressed me. It is a very big country. You still have many differences between the north and the south. You have a high plateau of the Semen Mountains and the lowest of the rift valley; you have the desert of Afar and the tropical weather of Gambella region. I was lucky to be able to travel around the country until the COVID pandemic happened. So, I did not see everything that I wished to see. However, what impressed me the most was the character of the Ethiopian people that I learnt a lot from in terms of their resilience, spirituality, faith, dignity and being a sovereign country.
Though Israel is located amid the desert characterized by shortage of rainfall, your country is among the top exporters of fruits and vegetables to the world market and one of the top in agricultural technologies and innovations. What could Ethiopia learn from this in order to cultivate its vast fallow land effectively?
I think what you have to learn today is that agriculture is becoming high-tech and Ethiopia has a huge potential in agriculture. It has lots of fertile land, water, abundant sun, and I think it has the potential to develop advanced method of irrigation.
Actually, we are now in the process of engaging in the irrigated wheat culture in Ethiopia, which is something the government of Ethiopia is very keen to develop as a substitute to imports. I had already brought two expert teams in order to conduct a survey on its potential, traveling with them to the Afar region. I saw there the pilot project at the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture and it was very impressive.
You can really increase the surface wheat cultivated in Ethiopia by many folds, by using irrigation because the water is already there. Afar is suitable for irrigation farming as it is located along the Awash River that gives plenty of water all year round. So all you need is to install an irrigation line and you can produce the wheat. So this is an example among others.
Farmers are by nature conservative people and in order to convince them and effect changes in this regard, you should be innovative, and you have to demonstrate and show them practically that it also works here. We, Israeli people, learn from our own experience because we are bit in the same situation. We don’t have much rain; much less than that of Ethiopia.
We learned that if you want to grow in efficient way, you must irrigate. That entails trying to demonstrate to farmers that the new method of irrigation, which means drip irrigation, sprinkler and others, are more efficient and less costly than the traditional flooding system. The flooding system causes erosion of the land and therefore in the long term the land becomes poorer.
Recently, you held discussion with the Deputy Mayor of Addis Abba, Adanech Abiebie. What was the point of your discussion?
Addis is the capital of Ethiopia and the political capital of Africa. So, I need to develop cooperation and good relations with the city Administration. I also worked on that with the previous Mayor. This was my first visit with the current mayor and we discussed several issues that have to do with the beta Israel residents of the city and the quest for a place for burial as well as a place for worship.
The mayor was very positive about that and said that there was no question, as a citizen, that they enjoy the same religious rights as any other, and would work in order to accommodate the demand for a place.
Furthermore, among the issues that we discussed were the setting up of a memorial for the Holocaust victims in Addis Ababa with the theme of Ana Frank and a visitor’s center for transit passengers, showcasing what Ethiopia has to offer. It can be any tourist attraction, the cultural heritages, religious traditions, craftsmanship and metal works fit for tourists.
So, the mayor was very positive about this. That is definitely one of the sectors the city wants to develop. I will transfer the complete proposal from the Israeli side and then she said that she would make sure that it could be realized soon. The area could be a 15-minute drive from the airport area depending on how fast things move.
Since we think that the Federal Government could also be involved as it is a place to showcase Ethiopia not only Addis Ababa, I had also a discussion with the Minister of Culture and Tourism earlier. The issue of location has delayed the project, so I mentioned it to the Mayor and she said it is going to be okay.
How many Israelis live here in Ethiopia?
You know it is a tricky question because many of these people prefer to hide their faith because of history of segregation, of hatred and prejudice. But we have 100,000 only in Addis Ababa. Many of them live in a place called Kechene Medhanialem area.
How does the trade relation of the two countries look like?
The trade relations have improved and I believe it can improve to a much higher level if we have more investment and there are quite a lot of new investments to bring. Actually, I hope to be able to announce very soon the conclusion of a huge investment in the field of geothermal electricity here in Ethiopia; all the details of the agreement have already been agreed. We just expect the signature to be signed by the board of the Electrical Corporation. The first negotiation was initiated just a year and half ago. It is USD 2 billion worth of investment and the project will be commencing depending on how the agreement is finalized.
Why do you think is the project delayed this long?
As far as I know, it had to go to the Board of the Electric Power that is expected to approve the agreement and get it signed between the Israeli company, and the Minister of Finance, Ministry of Water and Irrigation and I think the Oromia Regional State is also part of it. So, at the federal and regional level, agreement is concluded, but the client is the electric power company and we expect them to sign the agreement soon and get into operation as soon as they do so.
What areas of cooperation should the next Ambassador focus on?
I think agriculture is the key sector in Ethiopia. This is where we should focus as 70 percent of the population makes a leaving from agriculture. It should represent 70 percent of the GDP, but it is not the case. It represents about half. So I think this is where we should continue to concentrate.
I think we should also give importance to the health sector, first for COVID-19. In this regard, we can share our experience in that and we have also developed several treatments for the disease. This is something different we could do; furthermore, we can work on the areas of medical activities including trauma and emergency treatment medicine and scaling-up the eradication of non-communicable diseases. We have an Israeli NGO called Naila that is very successful here in managing to eradicate bilharzia, a disease found in northern part of the country. The health sector needs a good cooperation and Israel has a lot of potential to contribute to the sector.
The third sector that we have already started to engage and hope my successor will continue is the innovation sector. Israel is labeled as the hub for startups. We made this shift from traditional industries to high-tech industries and today the major sector for exports from Israel is the high-tech sector. I think Ethiopia has a huge potential because I learnt that every year Ethiopia has about 20,000 Engineers coming out of universities.
Hence, in collaboration with the Minister of Innovation and Technology, we started work on the creation of an ecosystem about a year ago. The approach must be holistic. It is important to have engineers; but if you don’t have an entrepreneurial spirit, you won’t be able to develop new technologies.
And then if you have good entrepreneurs but there is no microfinance, there is no policy for startups; it is difficult. Israel has managed the synergy between all the stakeholders and actors in this ecosystem for innovation. That is how it works when all players are speaking with each other and they all have a common vision on where to go in the field of innovation.
What is your perspective on the law enforcement operation of the government in Tigary region?
This is an internal affair and I do not wish to comment on it. But certainly Israel and Ethiopia are partners in the fight against terrorism where both countries face common threats of terrorism. Recently, 15 members of listed terrorist cells were arrested while preparing an attack on the UAE Embassy. The threat is very real. So to say our two countries have an interest to cooperate in the exchange of information, capacity building related to terrorism is crucial.
I think that the Ethiopian Army is based mainly on Russian platforms and it happens that Israel has experience in upgrading ex Soviet platforms. And that is something the Minister of Defense and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces are interested in modernizing, especially with Ethiopia involved in the fight against Al-shabab in Somalia.
So, this is the way I see the potential between the two countries. And a contact has been made by the Minister of Defense and some Israeli industries to make this shift in modernizing the Army.
Numerous reports allege the involvement of Eritrean troops in the ongoing war in Tigray. What is your view of such allegations?
I haven’t been in Tigray since the operation started. So, I cannot confirm the information of Eritrean involvement in Tigray. We heard a lot of rumors and fake news during this operation. So, you have to take it as a piece of information with grain of salt and I prefer to relay at the end of the day on the statements of the Federal Government because they can’t spread fake news. I think the information they spread is responsible. May be they don’t want to share everything and I can understand when there is a military operation, you have to keep some information for yourself. So, I have no information that can confirm this rumor.
What is your stance on the disagreement surrounding the Great Ethiopian Renaissance dam?
With the issue of the GERD, on one hand, we are definitely supporting the right of the Ethiopian government and people to develop their economy and access to electricity. So, in this sense, we see the dam as an important source of development for this country.
At the same time, common practice according to international law, dictates to consider the countries along the river. The Ethiopian position as I see is they are not going to act in a way that will cause a significant harm to Sudan and Egypt in terms of water provision.
I think the problem is not a technical one; it is more political and psychological because the issue of the GERD became an internal political issue in each country and therefore, it is very difficult for each country to compromise on what is perceived as national asset, pride and issues of sovereignty. We all wish and hope for an amicable solution.
How about the conflict around the Ethio-Sudan Border?
We are following it closely, but there is no reason why the two countries that have had long amicable relations cannot solve the issue of demarcation. There is an already agreed process to resolve this issue of demarcation. But I see it as something temporary and really hope that the two leaders contain the tension. I am quite optimistic that it would be resolved in the near future.
Ethiopia is navigating through political storms. How do you see the ups and downs of Ethiopian politics?
We are very much encouraged by the declaration and intention to hold a free and democratic multi-party election on the 5th of June 2021. I am convinced that democracy is the key for good governance and for bringing prosperity to the people of Ethiopia. I long for this election to be conducted and be perceived as fair and just so that the new government will receive the legitimacy of the people of Ethiopia.