African double-speak on Israel’s observer status at the AU

African double-speak is responsible for Israel’s observer status at the AU
6 min read
05 Aug, 2021
Opinion: The African Union has granted observer status to Israel, echoing many African countries' support for Palestine while engaging in "economic diplomacy" with Israel, writes Suraya Dadoo.
In July, African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemned Israel's bombardments of the Gaza Strip then, two months later, granted Israel observer status at the AU. [Getty]

On 11 May, African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemned Israel's bombardments of the Gaza Strip, and its attacks against Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Mahamat reiterated that the continued evictions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem "are in stark violation of international law."

However, Israel's behaviour hasn't changed since Mahamat's statement.

In this context, Mahamat's 22 July acceptance of the credentials of Aleleign Admasu, Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, was shocking. Ostensibly, Mahamat had unilaterally granted Israel observer status at the AU, sidestepping the continental union's norms of procedure as laid out in its Constitutive Act.

The South African government called the decision "incomprehensible." Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, and Algeria issued similar statements, rejecting Mahamat's decision. Granting Israel observer status - they argued - offended the anti-colonial letter and spirit of the AU's Charter. 

The matter is to be placed on the agenda of the next AU Executive Council meeting in mid-October.

"Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel"

While Palestinians may be shocked and outraged that Israel had been granted observer status, the brutal truth is that they should have seen it coming. Israel was an observer state at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) but was denied this status when the OAU was disbanded and the AU founded in 2002. Ever since Israel has been plugging away to achieve AU observer status.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, has embarked on an aggressive campaign to win lost alliances in Africa, touching down almost a dozen times on African soil since 2016. "Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel," Netanyahu warned.

Did Palestinians take African support for granted?

There are deeply-rooted bonds between African and Palestinian anti-colonial struggles, along with deep-seated historic solidarity between Africa and Palestine.

But have Palestinians have taken Africa's solidarity with the Palestinian cause for granted and ignored realpolitik on the continent?

Several African countries with proud anti-colonial legacies and histories of fighting global injustice are now focused on pragmatic "economic diplomacy" rather than historic solidarity.

Perspectives

Take Tanzania as an example.

Tanzanian liberation icon, Julius Nyerere, was among the first to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and in 1973 Dar es Salaam became home to the first PLO embassy in Africa. Nyerere's Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) - both as a liberation movement and as a ruling party - supported Palestinian liberation movements. Yet a CCM-led government failed to condemn Israel for its massacre of 60 Palestinian protesters during the Great March of Return in 2018, and opened an embassy in Tel Aviv soon thereafter.

"The price tag attached to these projects is neutrality on Palestine and normalisation with Israel"

When questioned about this at a parliamentary debate, Foreign Affairs Minister Augustine Mahiga insisted that the government's position on Palestine had not changed, but emphasised the need for Tanzania to embark on "economic diplomacy" to create relationships with partners who will support the country's industrialisation strategy. Tanzania regards Israel as one of those partners.

Less than a month before the 2018 Gaza massacre, the Tanzania-Israel Business and Investment Forum (TIBIF) took place in Dar es Salaam, bringing together investors, entrepreneurs, government officials, and private sector executives. The president at the time, John Magufuli, publicly hailed Israeli support in investments, security and healthcare in Tanzania. The price tag attached to these projects is neutrality on Palestine and normalisation with Israel. Mahiga is wrong: the government's position on Palestine had changed.

The same scenario has played out in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Mozambique, Angola, and almost everywhere else in Africa.

Has the Palestinian Authority - which has embassies and a diplomatic presence in most of Africa - developed a targeted, coordinated Africa strategy aimed at countering Israel's effort to dissolve Africa's support of Palestine? 

Is there meaningful, critical engagement with African governments about their Palestine support?  

Or are Palestinians happy to simply accept increasingly empty platitudes of support for statehood?  

AU observer status: the jewel in Israel's Africa strategy

Israel's Africa-based diplomats portray the state as a positive country, keen to share its technologies with African friends. But it is the gaining of observer status at the AU that has been central in Israel's Africa strategy. Support for Israel's AU observer status has featured in every discussion with African leaders and diplomats.

In June 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Africa in 30 years when he toured East Africa. Netanyahu wasted no time in getting Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopia's prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to publicly pledge their country's support for Israel's AU observer status.

Fromer Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta after a joint press conference on 5 July, 2016 in Nairobi. [Getty]
Former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta after a joint press conference on 5 July, 2016 in Nairobi. [Getty]

A year later, Netanyahu became the first non-African head of state to address the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. On the sidelines of the summit, Senegalese President Macky Sall promised Netanyahu his support for Israel's AU observer status bid.

During a February 2020 meeting with former Israeli president Rueven Rivlin and sixteen ambassadors and Charges d'Affaires of African countries, Ghana's ambassador Hannah Ama Nyarko pledged that her country would take up Israel's cause at the AU. Tanzania's ambassador Job Daudi Masima said that the issue of Israel regaining AU observer status "had been dragging on for too long."

Israel's increasingly warm relations with Egypt, along with its recent normalisation with Sudan and Morocco have also bolstered support for its AU observer status bid.

Why is observer status so important to Israel?

There are more than 40 non-African states that have observer status at the AU. While largely symbolic, it does bring those countries into a formal relationship with the AU whose 55 member states represent 1.3 billion people. This is a formal recognition and acceptance that Israel desperately craves as its pariah status grows.

Observer states can sit in on AU meetings and debates, and address the annual Heads of State and Government Summit. Palestine was granted observer status in 2013 and Mahmoud Abbas is regularly given the opportunity to address the organisation's summits.   

"This is a formal recognition and acceptance that Israel desperately craves as its pariah status grows"

Strong, uninhibited criticism of Israel's occupation of Palestine is a regular feature of AU gatherings. At the last summit in February, the summit's final statement highlighted the Israeli military's use of lethal, unlawful force against Palestinian civilians and reiterated the illegality of Israeli settlements. The AU also called on its members to refrain from moving their embassies to Jerusalem.

By being part of AU meetings and debates, Israel can now justify its occupation and apartheid policies against Palestinians in order to dilute AU criticism. This begs the question: would the AU have allowed South Africa's apartheid regime the opportunity to defend itself at its meetings?

Israel also believes that gaining observer status will enhance its relationship with African states and possibly allow it to influence their voting at multilateral institutions - particularly at the UN on resolutions critical of Israel.

Come October - when Israel's observer status will be discussed and voted on at the AU executive council meeting - many African states, whose relations with Palestine have been characterised by mixed messages and double-speak, will finally have to come clean. 

Regardless of whether the vote will be secret or not, Palestinians deserve to know where they stand with African countries.

Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.