The African Union's muddled position on Israel

Illustration - Analysis - AU/Israel
7 min read
06 March, 2023

Since 22 July 2021 – when African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat unilaterally granted Israel accreditation - duplicity has typified AU policy on Israel’s status at the continental body.

The resulting chaos that followed Mahamat’s acceptance of the credentials of Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Aleligne Admasu, came to a head on 18 February when Sharon Bar-Li, the deputy director general for Africa at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was forcibly removed from the Nelson Mandela Hall during the opening of the annual AU Summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Was Israel invited?

The messaging from the AU’s top brass has been so muddled that they have been unable to answer clearly if Israeli diplomats had been invited and why Bar-Li was removed.

According to an internal AU memo, seen by The New Arab, which was circulated to delegates in Addis Ababa, no accreditation was granted to Bar-Li.

"After working to gain access to the AU for two decades, Israel is still frozen out"

“The individual in question [Bar-Li] is not known to the AU Commission as the duly accredited Ambassador of Israel to Ethiopia,” stated the memo. The memo stipulated that invitations were “not transferrable”, suggesting that it was Admasu that was invited.

At the post-Summit press conference, however, Mousa Faki Mahamat’s response was quite different. “We didn’t invite Israeli officials to our summit,” stated Mahamat. He went on to say that Israel’s observer status was suspended until an AU committee decided on the matter.

When questioned on whether Admasu would have been allowed to stay and observe, Ebba Kalondo, Mahamat’s spokesperson, said “he didn’t attend because he was fully and officially aware of the decision regarding the suspension”.

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Kicking the Israel can down the road

It is unclear when Israel’s accreditation was officially suspended. Much of the confusion stems from the AU’s inability to vote on whether Mahamat’s decision should be upheld or not.

In October 2021, the AU’s executive committee postponed making a decision about Israel’s accreditation until the heads of state meeting in February 2022. At that meeting, debate about the issue was suspended out of fear that it could collapse the entire summit.

Delegates agreed to appoint a seven-member committee to investigate Israel’s accreditation. Until the committee made its final recommendations, Mahamat’s decision to accredit Israel would be suspended.

Pro-Israel AU members re-opened discussion on the issue. After heated debates, Senegalese leader Macky Sall, who was AU chairperson at the time, abruptly ended the meeting, declaring that Israel would remain accredited pending the deliberations of the committee.

It’s unclear when Israel’s accreditation was suspended since the committee has never met.

Israeli officials say they were never officially informed that its status was suspended. So, as far as they were concerned, Israeli diplomats were still welcome in Addis for the 2023 summit.

The logo of the African Union (AU) is seen at the entrance of the AU headquarters on 13 March 2019, in Addis Ababa. [Getty]

A dangerous stalling tactic

“The AU expulsion of the Israeli delegation from the Summit is not emblematic of the AU’s courageousness. Instead, it exposes the deep fissures within the organisation on the question of Israel’s accreditation as an observer to the AU,” Zeenat Adam, Deputy Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) in Johannesburg, told The New Arab.

Adam says that the formation of a committee to decide on the issue is a stalling tactic.

“The committee has never convened and it is quite possible that it may never meet, meaning that the issue may never be resolved. This is an easy way to evade accountability. If African states were truly in solidarity with Palestine, then they would have no problem in voting against Israel having observer status.”

"The chaotic double-dealing at the AU aligns well with Israel's 'middleman' approach to diplomacy in Africa"

Consequences for the AU

“There is little to celebrate about the AU’s handling of Israel’s accreditation,” Na’eem Jeenah, senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) in Johannesburg, told The New Arab.

Jeenah is appalled at the flouting of AU procedures during executive meetings and at last year’s summit by both Mahamat and Sall.

Most concerning for Jeenah is the long-term effects that Israel’s attempted accreditation could have on AU unity, procedures, and consensus-based decision-making.

“There have been far too many instances of unilateralism and double-speak during the entire saga of Israel’s attempt at gaining accreditation. This sets a dangerous precedent at the AU.”

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Important first step

Despite the ambiguities, the suspension of Israel’s AU accreditation has been welcomed by Palestine solidarity activists in Africa.

“This is an important first step towards rectifying the terrible mistake of admitting, in any way, the Israeli settler-colonial and apartheid regime into the African Union,” Dialo Diop of the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN), the largest network of civil society groups across Africa mobilising support for Palestine, told TNA.

Speaking from the Senegalese capital Dakar, Diop says the next step for the AU is to publicly recognise that Israel is perpetrating international war crimes - including the crime of apartheid - against the Palestinian people.

PAPSN is asking African civil society groups to lobby their governments to support the adoption of a resolution at the UN General Assembly reconstituting the UN Special Committee against Apartheid to address Israeli apartheid against Palestinians. PAPSN is also asking the AU to implement sanctions and an arms embargo against Israel.  

Israel flag AFP
Tel Aviv still does not enjoy the political recognition from the African continental bloc that it desperately covets. [Getty]

PAPSN’s campaign has been endorsed by Africans Rising, a pan-African movement of people and organisations working for unity, justice, peace, and dignity on the continent.

Palestine solidarity groups, environmental justice groups, religious formations, and educational institutions from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe have also signed on.

The South African government, which has opposed Israel receiving AU accreditation, is also mobilising support for Palestine. Alvin Botes, Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, announced the launch of a strategic dialogue with Palestine to galvanise support on the African continent and the world.

Botes made the announcement on 2 March at the South African parliament, following a debate about the downgrading of South Africa’s embassy in Israel to a liaison office.

"If African states were truly in solidarity with Palestine, then they would have no problem in voting against Israel having observer status"

Hope for Palestinians

“Israel’s expulsion from the AU and the suspension of its accreditation sends a hopeful message to Palestinians at a time when we are being subjected to continued systematic crimes with impunity,” Ramallah-based human rights activist and researcher, Saleh Hijazi, told TNA.

Hijazi – the former head of Amnesty International’s Jerusalem office and co-author of the human rights organisation’s damning report Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians - has been working closely with African activists and is buoyed by the Palestine solidarity campaigning he is seeing on the continent.

Both Fatah and Hamas also hailed the AU decision.

Chaos suits Israel

However, the AU’s chaotic expulsion of Israel must be viewed with caution.

“Much of Israel’s diplomacy with African governments is conducted through private Israeli companies and intermediaries that leverage their access to African corridors of power to serve Israel,” says South African parliamentarian, Zwelivelile Mandela.

The chaotic double-dealing at the AU aligns well with Israel’s “middleman” approach to diplomacy in Africa.

Mandela says that Israel has “wormed its way” into African structures – like the AU - both overtly and covertly using surveillance, military, and agricultural technology as currency to buy legitimacy in Africa.

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After working to gain access to the AU for two decades, Israel is still frozen out. Despite having bilateral relations with more than 40 African countries, Tel Aviv still does not enjoy the political recognition from the African continental bloc that it desperately covets.

Now, it will attempt to influence the seven-member committee tasked with deciding its AU fate. It will exert pressure on Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Senegal who have all supported Israel’s presence at the AU. Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa are the other members of the committee and have opposed Israel’s accreditation.

The AU has been one of Palestine’s most loyal allies. Uninhibited criticism of Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine is common at AU meetings, and its declarations even call on AU member states to cut ties with Israel. Yet, the actions of the AU contradict its words.

Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo