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Why African countries are against Israel’s new African Union role

A man holds Israeli flags outside Jerusalem's Old City.
Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
Israel has waited for almost 20 years to become an AU observer.
By Carlos Mureithi
Published Last updated

Last month, Israel announced that it had joined the African Union as an observer state, a position it had held in the previous Organisation of African Unity until 2002 when the body was disbanded and replaced by the AU.

This news was not met with enthusiasm by some members states of the African Union who have protested the continental body’s granting of observer state status to Israel, citing the country’s occupation of Palestine. This signals a division in the union and polarizing views on the Middle Eastern country’s attempts to gain support and influence in the continent.

For almost 20 years since the disbandment of the OAU, Israel’s attempts to join the AU had been futile.

“This is a day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations,” Israel’s foreign affairs minister, Yair Lapid, said in the announcement. “This corrects the anomaly that has existed for almost two decades and is an important part of strengthening the fabric of Israel’s foreign relations.”

To formalize the move, Aleli Admasu, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi, and Chad presented his credentials to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, at the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Observer states have limited participation

Observer status grants a country the ability to participate in the organization’s activities. These countries don’t have the ability to vote or propose resolutions. AU observer members include Palestine territory, China, the UK, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Kuwait, and Greece. In its announcement, Israel said it will use the role to cooperate in the fight against Covid-19 and the prevention of the spread of extremist terrorism throughout the continent.

Israel’s new observer status in the AU is largely seen as part of its continued effort to normalize diplomatic ties in Africa. In recent years, it has successfully done this with Chad, Sudan, and Morocco. But it’s also viewed as an attempt to influence the continent on diplomatic issues.

African countries have objected to the AU’s accreditation of Israel

Several African countries—including Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Algeria—have opposed its accreditation. They say AU member states weren’t consulted, and that the decision is in opposition to the body’s support for the Palestinian cause. Seven predominantly Muslim, Arab-speaking countries—Algeria, Egypt, Comoros, Tunisia, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Libya—reportedly delivered a verbal protest note to Mahamat in Addis Ababa.

“The government of South Africa is appalled at the unjust and unwarranted decision of the AU Commission to grant Israel observer status in the African Union,” South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement. The country openly backs the Palestinian cause and has formal relations with the territory. The conditions of Palestine under Israel are often compared to those of apartheid, the racial segregation and discrimination policy that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s.

The objections show a division among countries in the continent, says Munene Macharia, a history and international relations scholar in Nairobi. However, he adds, many African countries may be silent on the matter because they are very friendly to Israel as “a matter of tradition.”

“The one that [has] no problem with accepting Israel, can be explained either in terms of pressure from the west or religious affiliation because most of the African countries claim to be Christian, which means Judeo-Christian of the European variety, and so we have a soft spot for Israel.”

Private Israeli companies have also received negative press on the continent in the recent past with certain countries relying on Israeli surveillance to snoop on its citizens while others have been accused of using similar surveillance to spy on other African governments.

AU chairperson defends the decision to give Israel observer status

In response to the pushback by AU member states, Mahamat said last week that the decision “falls within his full sphere of competence, without being tied to any preliminary procedure.” He added that it was based on Israel’s restoration of diplomatic relations by “a majority” of AU member states “and at the express demand of many Member States to that end.”

Still, he said the AU supports the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and that he hopes the Israel’s AU accreditation will contribute to the intensification of the advocacy of the AU for the fulfillment of the principle of two states and the restoration of peace between Israel and Palestine.

The AU Commission chairperson said the issue will be discussed at the next AU Executive Council meeting in October.

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