African Union: Governments divided over Israel’s observer status

By Marième Soumaré
Posted on Monday, 9 August 2021 21:47

African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat arrives for a meeting at the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 10 February 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri - RC2QXE9URX5K

"We learned it like you, by reading the press release distributed on the website of the organisation!" said a diplomat in Addis Ababa who had been asked how he found out that Israel had been granted observer status in the African Union. "How can the chairman of the commission take such a decision without even consulting the member states?"

Since Israeli ambassador Chad Aleli Admasu presented his credentials to AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat on 22 July, several members of the organisation have denounced what they term as a ‘unilateral’ decision by the Chadian diplomat.

South Africa, which was the first to issue a statement, expressed its “dismay” and criticised the decision by the commission as “unjust and unjustified”.

Request for explanations

“Israel continues to illegally occupy Palestine in defiance of its international obligations and UN resolutions. The decision to grant it observer status is even more shocking in a year when the oppressed people of Palestine have been persecuted by destructive bombings and continued illegal settlement on their land,” the statement said. South Africa, a historical supporter of Palestine, also called on Moussa Faki to explain his decision.

There have been complaints that there was no consultation with the 55 member states before the accreditation of the Israeli ambassador was accepted. According to our information, several African countries – including South Africa, Lesotho, and Algeria – have also written directly to Moussa Faki to express their discontent.

Israel had asked for this status several times, without success… How can we explain that the member countries have not been involved today? Is Moussa Faki so powerful?

In a letter dated 2 July, Namibia said it was surprised not to have been informed of the request for Israel’s accreditation.

Emilia Mkusa, Namibia’s ambassador in Addis Ababa, said as a formerly colonised country, the country believes that “this statement […] is a statement of principle. If Israel wishes to be an observer member, it must be in conformity with the Constitutive Act of the Union.”

The AU statutes ensure that “the aims and objectives of non-African states wishing to be accredited to the AU must be in conformity with the spirit, objectives and principles of the consultative act of the African Union.”

It is up to the chairperson of the commission, who receives the request from interested countries, to examine this request. However, the text states that he must have in mind “the best interests of the Union as well as the known views and concerns of member states.”

“The main reason why Israel was not granted observer status in 2002 has not changed. This decision gives Israel full legitimacy to continue to occupy and aggress the Palestinian people,” Windhoek wrote to the commission’s chairman.

Israel lost its observer status in 2002 when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) became the African Union. The country subsequently made several requests to the commission to regain its status – without success.

Moussa Faki’s entourage argues that Israel’s accreditation is a simple “administrative procedure” that “does not depend on the member states,” but the reality is obviously more complex.

Diplomatic offensive

Behind the scenes, an observer mentions how Aliza Bin-Noun – the deputy director of African affairs at the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs – has been lobbying in Addis Ababa, Paris and with Israeli embassies on the continent.

Israel currently has 12 embassies in Africa. This is half the number of embassies it had before the Yom Kippur War. During the time that African countries started gaining independence (from the 1950s onwards), the Israeli government – in search of international legitimacy – had nurtured relations with the continent, in which it had been able to open 33 diplomatic representations.

The discussions at the next summit will be interesting to watch… It is likely to be explosive, especially if South Africa manages to mobilise Southern Africa on this issue.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, African countries had all – at least officially – broken off their relations with Israel. Foreign pressure on the OAU, which was largely influenced by the Arab and Gulf countries, was not uncommon.

Since then, ties have gradually resumed and normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf and Arab countries at the end of 2020 could pave the way for other countries to do the same. Some 40 African countries have renewed bilateral relations – whether economic, diplomatic, or military – with Israel.

In Cameroon, for example, former Israeli military personnel remain in charge of President Paul Biya’s security and advise the country’s elite Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide. In Morocco, the resumption of diplomatic relations has revived economic exchanges in the private sector, which had never ceased.

Israeli’s foreign minister Yair Lapid welcomes the decision for entry into the AU. “This corrects an anomaly that has lasted for nearly two decades and is an important part of strengthening Israel’s foreign relations,” he said, even as the country’s desire to reposition itself quickly on the continent remains no secret.


Recalling that “the modes of operation of the African Union do not allow any possibility for the 87 non-African observer states to influence the positions of the continental organisation”, Algiers denounced Israel’s entry as a “non-event” without strategic potential.

“The recent decision of the chairperson of the African Union Commission to welcome a new observer, which falls within its administrative prerogatives, is not likely to alter the constant and active support of the continental organisation to the just Palestinian cause and its commitment to the realisation of the inalienable national rights of the Palestinian people,” the Algerian government said.

An observer member since 2013, Palestine also has a position that allows it to address member countries at each summit. Non-African observer states are invited to each summit, allowed to attend open sessions only and may speak, if invited to. A case in point is Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas, who was the guest of honour at the organisation’s summit in 2019.

In accepting the Israeli ambassador’s credentials, Moussa Faki recalled the AU’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its commitment to a two-state solution. This decision did not reassure Palestine’s supporters within the organisation.

“Israel had asked for this status several times, without success,” a diplomat from Southern Africa who was previously posted in Addis Ababa says. “How can we explain that the member countries have not been involved today? Is Moussa Faki so powerful?” he said, citing a “lack of transparency” at the commission.

According to some diplomats, several reasons could explain Israel’s success at regaining its observer mission status:

  • The departure of South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the head of the commission in 2017. She had always firmly rejected the attempts of rapprochement of Israel with the AU;
  • Support from Moussa Faki and Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi, who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the organisation;
  • Weaker opposition from Algeria.

“The discussions at the next summit will be interesting to watch,” says an African ambassador based in New York. “It is likely to be explosive, especially if South Africa manages to mobilise Southern Africa on this issue.”

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