Ethiopia backed an Israeli bid for observer status at the African Union (AU) as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the country as part of a four-nation tour of East Africa. 

"Israel is working very hard in many African countries. There is no reason to deny this observer position to Israel," said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, as Netanyahu began the last leg of his tour this week.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has also offered his support for the proposal. 

Israel PM Netanyahu in historic East Africa visit

Observer status is granted to some non-African countries that wish to engage with the AU, allowing them to follow proceedings and address its gatherings.

Several countries including Palestine, Turkey, Haiti, Serbia and Ukraine currently hold the status. 

Israel had been an observer at the AU's predecessor organisation, but its status was not renewed at the AU's founding in 2002.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has used his country's observer status since 2013 to attend AU summits, deliver addresses and shore up diplomatic support in the long-running dispute with Israel.

The 54-member organisation, headquartered in the Ethiopian capital 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.

Speaking in Addis Ababa, Netanyahu bemoaned the "gap between what is happening in practice ... and in multilateral institutions".


READ MORE: Benjamin Netanyahu begins East Africa trip in Uganda


"Africa for us is a major strategic effort," he said, repeating a mantra heard in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda in recent days.

"All African countries can benefit from renewed cooperation with Israel. Israel is coming back to Africa."

Relations between several African nations and Israel have previously been strained. In the 1960s the Arab-Israeli conflict drove a wedge between some African countries, many of which were embroiled in liberation struggles, and Israel.

Later, wars between Israel and its neighbours in 1967 and 1973 led North African nations to urge sub-Saharan African states to cut ties with Israel, which many did.

Israel's support for the apartheid regime in South Africa - which ended in 1994 - also soured relations with much of the rest of the continent.

Though their relations later deteriorated, Israel helped establish the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970s. 

Hailemariam said differences could be overcome "by engagement, not isolation. 

"Israel needs to come to Africa, and we need to engage with Israel," he said.

Netanyahu, who was accompanied by a 70-strong Israeli business delegation, praised the economic potential of Ethiopia and the continent. 

"For too long Africa was treated like an afterthought by much of the world," he said. "Many focused on its problems, few saw its opportunities. No longer. We are clearly seeing Ethiopia's potential and Africa's potential." 

At least 17 people were arrested on Sunday as hundreds of Ethiopian Jews protested against Israeli police brutality in Tel Aviv, according to local media reports. 

Last year, Israeli Ethiopians staged massive protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere after a video emerged of an Ethiopian soldier in the Israeli army being beaten by several officers. 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies