‘Israel’s absence from the AU is an historical aberration that is about to be resolved’ – FM Lapid

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Tuesday, 11 January 2022 09:30

Israel FM Yai Lapid
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attends a news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office in London, Britain, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

It has been six months since Yair Lapid became Israel’s foreign affairs minister. From normalising relations with Morocco to security and economic cooperation, not to mention Israel’s reacquired observer status at the African Union (AU), the 58-year-old former journalist discusses his country’s major priorities and its relationship with Africa.

You were appointed minister of foreign affairs a few months ago. What are your plans for Africa?

Yair Lapid: Our country has had a rich history with the continent since the 1950s. Golda Meir, our then foreign affairs minister and future prime minister, outlined Israel’s political, economic, strategic and humanitarian approach to Africa. We continue to follow in her footsteps, expanding our bilateral and multilateral relations.

Over the past few months, I have had a dozen conversations with my African counterparts, and I have been impressed by the trust, respect and interests we share. Israel and Africa are not only connected physically, across our shared land border, but also in all major aspects of life; from health to food security, from climate change to technological innovation, and of course the fight against terrorism and extremism. Our joint efforts have already had significant beneficial impacts for all, and this will continue.

How would you define the state of relations between Israel and the African continent today?

Israel currently has links with 46 countries in Africa. In recent years, we have become significantly closer to Sudan, Chad, with whom we have re-established diplomatic relations, and Morocco, within the framework of our normalisation agreements.

Israel’s significant aid and development activities in areas where the country has real expertise – agriculture, public health, education and innovation – reflect our desire to work very closely with the countries of the continent. Moreover, Israel’s technological skills, as a start-up nation, can help strengthen the continent’s development process, in line with the AU’s proposed Agenda 2063, particularly in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship.

What does it mean for Israel to be granted observer status at the AU?

Given our good relations with the countries and peoples of the continent, it seems only natural that our relationship with the most important pan-African organisation should be formalised by being granted observer status. As I told the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi, the current AU chairperson, during his visit to Jerusalem, Israel’s lack of representation is a historical aberration that is about to be resolved.

I am confident that our vision is now shared by an overwhelming majority of AU member countries, and that they will make this known at the February assembly.

What do normalised relations with Morocco mean to you, and will they affect Israel’s relationship with the continent as a whole? 

Resuming full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco is a major step forward for our relations with the entire region. Last year, a lot of change took place in the Middle East. The diplomatic, economic, security and cultural ties forged through normalisation agreements with Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have strengthened our partnerships, and led to greater prosperity and stability for all.

Not a day goes by without a new agreement being signed, a new cooperation initiative being unveiled or a historic official visit being organised. And not only with our new friends, as we are also deepening our cooperation with our traditional regional partners, like Egypt and Jordan. Israel already has strong and dynamic relations with many African countries.

Because we are building them on solid foundations, we firmly expect that this cycle of peace, with the progress it brings, will extend further as normalisation agreements are signed with other countries on the continent. We are ready for this.

What does the government intend to do to strengthen Israel’s network and influence in Africa?

Following the adoption of the 2021 and 2022 budgets – with an 18% increase for the ministry of foreign affairs – I have asked that we increase our diplomatic representation on the continent. This means, as a first step, increasing the number of diplomats in our existing embassies, before considering opening more.

Consolidating our presence on the ground will have a lasting effect on the strength of our relationships. We are also looking to expand our trade, and to share our practices and experience in the fight against Covid-19. I am personally delighted that Israel recently supplied 1m AstraZeneca vaccines to African countries through the COVAX initiative. This decision is one aspect of Israel’s contribution to the global effort to eradicate the pandemic by facilitating access to vaccines for all.

Is your government working with other Israeli actors in Africa – companies, universities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – to define a common strategy?

Our government encourages non-governmental actors to be active, and we try to find creative ways to support their activities. I am particularly proud of the work done by Israeli NGOs, which have been bringing the best of our country to Africa for years.

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