Lessons from the Peace Process between Ethiopia and Eritrea

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

For those interested in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the current situation may be discouraging. Indeed, the misconception that there is “no solution” is gaining ground among growing audiences. Those who do not want to sink into despair and be misled by the belief that we have already tried everything, are invited to raise their heads, look around, and learn from other conflicts around the world that can give us new insights and hope. Although each conflict is different, we can still learn lessons and be inspired. Such is the peace process that was forged over the past year in the Horn of Africa.

The peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea raises hope, despite the current crisis Ethiopia is facing following the coup attempt. Just a year ago, people in the Horn of Africa felt desperate, just as we sometimes feel, about the long hopeless years of bloody conflict, past agreements that were not implemented, torn societies in ethnic and territorial conflicts, and hope for change that is out of sight. However, in an amazingly fast process, the parties in the Horn of Africa succeeded in changing their reality and get on the path to peace. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed rose to power in Ethiopia, and within a few months the parties signed a peace agreement brokered by the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the UN. As a result, other peace processes started in the Horn of Africa, and hostile relations were replaced by negotiations and new connections.

How did the Ethiopians and the Eritreans succeed in moving within a few months from a state of protracted conflict to a hopeful peace process? It looks like several factors, that can serve as points of reference for Israelis and Palestinians, have helped the parties:

Bold political leadership: A reality-changing leadership is needed in order to change the course of the long-standing conflict. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki made a move which was contrary to popular positions, national mood and narratives that the parties have cultivated over the years, and reached out for peace. The leaders changed the public discourse rather than being led by it. They proved that the leadership must not submit to prevailing patterns and identity perceptions that have taken root over the years, but legitimize reality-changing actions.

External incentives: External incentives are another force that drives leaders and citizens to move toward reconciliation. Leaders can effectively use incentives to mobilize political and economic support in their quest for peace. In the EthiopianEritrean case, apart from achieving peaceful life, landlocked Ethiopia gained an outlet to the sea, renewed its commercial flights to Somalia, and attracted foreign investors who increased their investments in the country. Eritrea, which was in a difficult economic situation, gained economic, media and transportation cooperation with Ethiopia, and the international sanctions that made it one of the poorest countries in the world, were lifted. As a result, the international isolation that was imposed on the country ended.

International support of the peace process: Advancing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea serves the interests of many international and regional players that are involved in the Horn of Africa and are interested in promoting stability in the volatile region. The US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UN have mobilized to mediate, support and guarantee the peace process. The fact that the main intermediaries in the process – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – sided by the weaker Eritrean side, teaches us a lesson when choosing the mediators in our conflict. The Ethiopian diaspora in the US, which politically and economically supported the peace process, made a significant contribution too.

Adapting the peace process to the political reality: The design of the process should necessarily be adapted to the complex and changing political reality, while referring to the structure of negotiations, the pace of the process and its implementation, the coordination of symbolic trust building measures, etc. The parties in the Horn of Africa were able to properly adjust the negotiations structure to the existing political reality in order to reduce risks. For example, the relatively fast pace of the process prevented the formation of an organized and strong opposition, as well as extreme activities that might have harmed the process. Other factors that helped move the process forward were symbolic steps, meetings that are covered by the media, rapid changes on the ground, and leadership that is mobilized to communicate with civil society of the other side.

Promoting internal reconciliation processes, enforcing solidarity and establishing the political system: The transition from a protracted conflict to a peace process is a significant change that disrupts well-established perceptions in society and brings to the surface the internal tensions and disagreements. In order to support change, leaders should build on the resilience of society and the stability of the political system. The parties in the Horn of Africa realized that the in-country situation affected the prospects of reaching a peace agreement between countries. Abiy Ahmed has led extensive reconciliation processes in Ethiopia, including the disarmament of opposition groups and making them a legitimate political party, the establishment of a new and inclusive government that includes a Ministry of Peace that is entrusted with the internal process, and the consolidation of a new ethos for Ethiopia.

Switching back to the Middle East, the absence of a courageous political leadership entails a heavy exasperating toll. When examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against the backdrop of the peace process in the Horn of Africa, there is a reason to be hopeful: in the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Arab Peace Initiative and the promise of a Special Privileged Partnership with the EU, serve as incentives, alongside the security guarantees that the US may offer. Regional and global players who have a vested interest in achieving stability in the Middle East offer themselves as potential mediators and help the sides avoid violence. They can help us garner international support for the peace process. Israeli and Palestinian societies face many challenges related to the rule of law, democracy, human and civil rights, social cohesion, the reduction of violence, and the legitimacy of the leadership. Such challenges should be addressed with no delay in order to enforce solidarity, economic resilience, and trust in government institutions. Civil society and the Diaspora can also play a role since they can promote pro-peace cooperation even in the absence of political will to advance peaceful relations. Similarly, the business community, researchers and government agencies can take advantage of the deadlock in negotiations to examine opportunities and adjust the peace process to the changing political context. Above all, we must continue to believe that a solution is possible.

The case of the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea is not theoretical. Having a success story, in which leaders, civil society and the international community join forces to advance a peace process to solve a protracted conflict that seems hopeless, is politically powerful. It undermines the defeatist argument that “there is nothing that can be done”, and that we are condemned to “live by the sword”. Peace processes can be “contagious”, and the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a good example. Their peace agreement led to a series of peace talks and arrangements across the Horn of Africa. Being infected by the “peace virus” would certainly be beneficial for Israel and the Palestinians as well.

Dr. Roee Kibrik is the Director of Research at the Mitvim Institute. This article is based on a research paper he wrote on the subject, with the assistance of Dr. Moshe Terdiman.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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