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Israel stays accredited to African Union, dividing opinion in Africa

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 22 October 2021 15:58

A pro-Israel supporter holds Israeli flags on May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Israel is set to remain accredited to the African Union after a meeting of foreign ministers of member states failed to find consensus on whether to retain this status or not. The issue has divided the continental body after African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat in July accepted the accreditation of Aleli Admasu, who is also Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi and Chad.

It is the first time that Israel is accredited to the AU after a previous accreditation lapsed with the dissolution of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2002.

Decision postponed

The two-day meeting of the AU’s executive council ended on Friday, with chairperson Christophe Lutundula, foreign minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, postponing the decision until the heads of state summit in January, pending further investigation. This means that Admasu will be able to attend the summit as an accredited ambassador.

In a communiqué issued following the accreditation, Faki – who was re-elected for a second term in February – pointed out that he has the power to decide who to accredit, and over 70 non-African states and organisations have thus far been accredited to the AU without much controversy.

“The decision was taken on the basis of the fact of the recognition of Israel and the restoration of diplomatic relations with it by a majority of more than two-thirds of AU member states and at the express demand of member states to that end,” he said.

Israel promises easy access to military, security and surveillance technologies.

He added that the AU remains committed “to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to establish an independent national state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, within the framework of a global, fair and definitive peace between the state of Israel and the state of Palestine.”

According to him, only “a few” AU member states expressed reservations about Israel’s accreditation. In total, 22 states formally objected to this.

However, the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN) says in a statement that they believe Israel’s accreditation is a contravention of the AU Constitutive Act, which commits the AU to “promote and protect human and people’s rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights”.

The charter points specifically to the commitment of member states to “eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, [and] zionism”.

“How is it possible to give Israel observer status when the AU is committed to eliminating Zionism, the foundational political ideology of that racist state?” PAPSN says.

“Not only does Israel represent all that the AU (and the OAU before it) claims to be fighting against, it also treats African migrants to Israel with racist disdain, undermines African governments, and [perpetuates] violence [on] the just struggles of African people through its arm exports to Africa, the expansion of the use of its surveillance and repressive technologies, and so forth,” the statement says.

Countries supporting Faki’s position on Israel include Morocco and Rwanda, as well as the DRC, which holds the AU chairmanship this year. Due to its membership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has taken a stance against Israel, and due to the fact that its allies are pro-Israel, the DRC did not express an opinion in last week’s meeting.

Meeting dynamics

The DRC isn’t the only one to deviate from SADC’s official stance. Eswatini, Malawi and Zambia appear not to agree with the regional position either, but Zambia was the only country that spoke out at the meeting.

Unlike those opposed to Israel, Zambia agreed that the issue should be postponed to January and that Israel’s accreditation should stand until then. South Africa and Algeria disagreed with this stance.

How is it possible to give Israel observer status when the AU is committed to eliminating Zionism…?

One of the issues that complicated the outcome was the decision not to vote on the matter, but rather work on the basis of seeking consensus.

“Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia spoke at the meeting,” the source says, but both support Israel. Uganda was the only country in the East African to speak out in favour of Israel in the meeting.

Power shifts

Israel’s accreditation to the AU signals a change in the power balance within the continental body after the country’s two previous attempts to be accredited – in 2013 and 2016 – were rejected.

South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was AU Commission chairperson at the time, and went with a legal opinion issued by the AU’s legal affairs directorate that Israel’s accreditation would legally fall foul of the union’s Constitutive Act as well as various other charters and resolutions on the basis of Israel’s violations of international law and colonial practices.

South Africa’s current position is still based on this view, and a diplomat points out that decisions taken by the OAU and the AU in the past have recognised Palestine’s rights to self-determination, liberation, independence and full sovereignty.

This diplomat also questions the quality of Faki’s leadership.

Although South Africa is one of more than three-quarters of African countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, it has strongly opposed Israel’s accreditation and was at the forefront of SADC’s recent opposition to it.

Another important power shift in the AU has been Morocco’s re-joining in 2017, following a controversial vote at the heads of state summit. A number of countries, including South Africa, opposed this due to Morocco’s dispute with Western Sahara, which it annexed in 1975, and where a referendum promised under a UN-brokered truce in 1991 is yet to take place. Western Sahara is recognised by the AU as a member state and many countries consider Morocco a coloniser.

“Many of the states that support Israel’s accreditation hope to continue benefitting from this [easy access to military, security and surveillance technologies].”

Morocco was, however, an important addition to the continental body at a time when its focus turned to finding ways of being less dependent on foreign funding. Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Algeria and Nigeria account for 48% of the AU’s total assessed contributions, making it one of the major players.

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Its presence has played a role in the decision to grant Israel accreditation, as the two countries normalised relations in December 2020 in an agreement announced by the United States. This was in exchange for the US agreeing to recognise Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Convenient position

In recent years, Israel’s relationship with other African countries has focussed on development and trade. In 2016, then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Ethiopia – the first by his office in three decades, promising cooperation in agriculture, digitisation and the fight against terror.

Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, says a partnership with Israel is particularly attractive for countries at war, or authoritarian states who need it to keep dissent in check.

“Israel promises easy access to military, security and surveillance technologies,” he says. According to him, the recent exposé about the use on the continent of Pegasus spyware, manufactured by an Israeli company, is a good indicator of why some countries deem the relations important. “Many of the states that support Israel’s accreditation hope to continue benefitting from this,” he says.

In turn, Israel stands to benefit from the support of African countries in multilateral fora. The AU accreditation could also help the country expand its various operations on the continent. “These include extractive businesses, as well as the export of weapons, military and surveillance technology, and security services,” he says.

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