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Israel’s New Observer Status and the Ruffled Feathers at the African Union

On 22 July 2021, the Israeli Ambassador to Addis Ababa, Aleli Admasu, presented a letter of credence for admission into observer status to the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. Israel was subsequently granted observer status to the body. Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister expressed optimism that the admission will be favourable for both parties noting that the efforts of the Israeli foreign ministry to re-establish diplomatic relationship with the AU will correct the anomalies that has existed in the country’s relationship with Africa.

Israel has previously held an observer status at the defunct OAU, but was long thwarted in its attempts to get it back after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU. And after nearly 20 years of intense diplomatic efforts, Israel was finally able to re-attain its observer status at the African Union (AU). 

According to the official statement, the formal re-establishment of Israel’s observer status with the AU will enable stronger cooperation between the two parties on various aspects, including the fight against the coronavirus and the prevention of the spread of extremist terrorism on the African continent.

Israel had repeatedly requested observer status in the AU since it was lost with the dissolution of the union’s predecessor in 2002. However, those requests have been denied. The former AU Commission’s South African Chairperson refused since 2012 to consider granting Israel observer status at the African body. But Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat being appointed Chairperson of the AU Commission in 2017 and Israel restoring relations with Chad in January 2019 changed the equation.

Palestine was granted observer status in the AU in 2013 with President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents the Palestinian Authority regularly speaking at the annual African summit to mobilize African support for the Palestinian cause, events that are usually followed by AU statements stressing the need to bring about peace and stability in the region by ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israeli diplomats have often criticised recent AU statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as jaundiced and imbalanced.

Read Also: Conflict in the Middle East: When Will This Bloodbath End?

For decades, African countries have supported the Palestinian liberation struggle against Israel, seeing in it parallels with their own anti-colonial movements. Likewise, the African Union has not hesitated to criticise Israeli violation of international law and occupation of Palestinian lands. The AU has maintained this sympathetic stance to the plight of Palestinians who, they believe, have suffered undue injustice and maltreatment from Israel and its allies in recurring bitter hostilities. The most recent of such occurred in May 2021 when tensions between Israel and Hamas (the group governing the Gaza Strip) over the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem escalated into an 11-day assault on Gaza. The Israeli offensive killed at least 260 people, including 66 children, in the besieged enclave, while 13 Israeli people died due to rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups. The African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned the Israeli air strikes on civilian areas and violence against Palestinian worshippers at the time, calling them a violation of international law; two months later, however, he unexplainably granted Israel an observer status at the AU.

The decision of the African Union (AU) to accept Israel as an observer has been met with opposition from some member-states with some of them condemning the sudden move that was made without wide consultations with member states and relevant stakeholders.

The Algerian government condemned the decision to grant Israel an observer status, saying that Israel’s practices and behaviour are totally incompatible with the values, principles, and objectives enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union. It went further to state that before any such re-admission of Israel was to be considered, the AU should have demanded that Israel complies with many UN resolutions hanging over it. That would also be a perfect opportunity to put pressure on Israel to withdraw from all lands that it occupies in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, and ensure the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.

The South African government has also criticised the development, describing the move as “inexplicable” and that the actions committed by Israel offended the letter and spirit of the Charter of the African Union. It maintained that the move was even more shocking in a year in which the people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of the land by Israeli forces. It further stated that it firmly believes that as long as Israel is not willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions, it should not have been granted an observer status in the African Union. South Africa asked Mahamat, the AU Chairperson to provide a briefing to all member states on the legal basis and political rationale for the granting of accreditation to the state of Israel so that it can be discussed by the AU Executive Council and the Assembly of Heads of Government.

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s international relations minister, has also said the approval did not meet the basic principles of the AU. Over the years, Namibia has accused Israel of occupying Palestine illegally against international protocol. It therefore said that Namibia was rejecting that approval because it does not meet the basic principles of the African Union, which includes the right to self-determination.

In the same vein, Botswana rejected the African Union’s decision to grant observer status to Israel. The government of Botswana said the decision to receive credentials from the Ambassador of Israel is worrisome because the continued occupation of Palestine by the State of Israel goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

The Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and other organisations have said that the 11-day Israeli military onslaught on Gaza in May this year constituted “war crimes” and that the re-admission of Israel is wrongly-timed and improperly done.

A number of political parties and social movements on the continent have joined forces to demand that AU member states reject Israel’s accreditation, and that the matter should be placed on the agenda of the next session of the AU Executive Council. 

The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in Botswana, the Economic Fighters League of Ghana, Guinea’s All-African Revolutionary People’s Party, the Pan-African Renaissance group in Uganda as well as grassroots movements in Zimbabwe and Namibia have all vehemently rejected the AU Commission’s move. The Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network, which has members across the continent, have said that Mahamat’s decision was “undemocratic and unilateral”, sidestepping the AU’s norms of procedure, and “risks undermining the stability and credibility” of the AU.

For years, Israel has been concerned at the consensus within the UN General Assembly against its military occupation of Palestinian land, with the US often being the only country in support of Israel. One of the priorities of Israel’s foreign policy establishment has been to win over more countries, particularly in Africa, so that it could reverse its near total isolation in the UN General Assembly, while tightening its grip on the occupied territories and continuing its land grab by expanding Israeli settlement construction. It has also prioritised diluting criticism of Israel’s actions. Israel is now hailing its re-admission as a political and economic victory after it had engaged in intense lobbying of African governments, promising economic and security cooperation.

The benefits that come with observer status in the AU gives opportunities to the country in developing mutually beneficial trade and economic relations with African countries and help to promote its foreign policy initiatives such as strengthening peace through regional and global security in the international community. Observer status in the AU will also make it easier for the country to initiate bilateral relations, deepen diplomatic ties, harness opportunities for cultural diplomacy, be in a position to have exchange of resources with other African countries, and finally open opportunities for interregional cooperation between their geographical zone and Africa.

There are many countries and organisations with observer status in the AU, and being a largely routine function to entrench wide partnerships, the power to grant this observer status rests with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, which arises from Part II of the Criteria for Granting Observer Status and for a System of Accreditation within the African Union.

But this one is particularly sensitive by nature and consultation with member states should have been undertaken before a public decision was made. Taken without the benefit of prior broad consultations or agreeable consensus with all member states, this decision has neither the unanimity nor the capacity to legitimize the practices and behaviours of the said new observer.

There are ongoing efforts to mobilize a counter-vote among AU member states, to dissuade the AU Commission from its decision and suspend the matter until the AU Foreign Ministers Summit slated for October. An objective is to prevent this development from affecting the positions of African countries on any vital and strategic matter, especially peace, security and dispute resolution in Africa. Moreso, the decision of the President of the Commission of the African Union (AU) to welcome a new observer who falls under its administrative prerogatives is not likely to alter the constant and active support of the continental organisation to the Palestinian cause.

Collaborations with countries and unions from other continents for the betterment of Africa in areas of trade, commerce, infrastructure, social welfare, security, governance and healthcare is part of the mission of the AU. But actions or policies which may be construed as politically-motivated or morally insensitive is the least of what Africa needs at the moment. It cannot afford to be a pawn in the power tussle between the Israel-US alliance and the other global blocs in support of the Palestinians/Arabs. Balance must be established and a position taken must be one which will only be in the overall interest of the continent.

To move forward together as a continent is the building block of AU’s existence; therefore, any matter of this nature that may bring unnecessary rancour, diplomatic strains and public divisions is definitely detrimental to that foundational objective. The Chairperson exercised his discretionary authority to re-integrate Israel back into AU, exploring an unpopular decision that has been rejected by his predecessors since 2002. This is equally disturbing considering that an absolute majority of African states have only recently renewed their trust in Mahamat’s leadership, re-electing him for another four-year term.
While his motives may be to gain more international partners for the African project or even a springboard towards necessary concessions by Israel geared towards an amicable resolution of their longstanding conflict with Palestine and other aggrieved territories, the manner of execution has left much to be desired. 

AU’s Executive Council and the Assembly of African Heads of Government are integral to the functionality of the Union and they must be effectively carried along in all key decisions through intensive deliberations, thorough consultations and a multi-dimensional analysis of positive or negative effects and consequences of any major policy.

The AU must not be unilaterally administered; it goes against the acceptable democratic norms behind its creation. The upcoming AU Foreign Minister’s Summit in October will provide a veritable platform to dissect the development and hopefully arrive at an amicable agreement on the complicated issue.

As Africans and people of African descent continue to suffer from discrimination and prejudice all over the globe, the sentimentalism is understandable. The Union is the umbrella body for the continent and its policies can be interpreted to portray the position of the entire continent on critical issues. It must therefore continue to be at the forefront in the fight against racism in all its forms, including religious bigotry, colour racism, national chauvinism and settler colonialism.

The African Union Commission has a moral and political responsibility to lead such a fight against racism, not undermining it through cynical appeasement and declarations of covert support for unrepentant warmongers in the name of building economic alliances.

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