Israel at the African Union: Not in, but not out

The logo of the African Union (AU) is seen at the entrance of the AU headquarters on March 13, 2019, in Addis Ababa
7 min read
10 February, 2022

Frantic lobbying, leaders more concerned about watching the AFCON final, and head-spinning back-tracking characterised discussions on Israel’s accreditation to the African Union (AU) when leaders gathered at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on 5-6 February during the continental body’s Heads of State summit.

A 22 July decision by AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to unilaterally accredit Israel has split the AU. South Africa and Algeria are leading opposition to Israel’s accreditation, while most west and east African nations have defended Mahamat’s Israel accreditation.

Those fault lines are now cracking open, and the issue of Israel’s accreditation risks tearing the AU apart and permanently damaging its integrity.

Israel's accreditation suspended

In October, the AU’s executive committee postponed a decision about Israel’s accreditation until the heads of state meeting. On Sunday morning, debate and voting about the divisive issue were suspended out of fear that it could collapse the entire summit – the first in-person meeting of African leaders since the Covid-19 pandemic began two years ago. 

Instead, delegates unanimously agreed to appoint a committee to investigate Mahamat’s decision to grant Israel accreditation.

"The issue of Israel's accreditation risks tearing the AU apart and permanently damaging its integrity"

The committee would consist of South Africa, Algeria, and Nigeria – all opposed to Israel’s accreditation – and Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Cameroon, all pro-Israel. The new AU chairperson and Senegalese president, Macky Sall, who is also pro-Israel, will co-ordinate the committee.

The meeting also agreed that until the committee makes its final recommendations, Mahamat’s decision to accredit Israel would be suspended. It was a principled, sensible conclusion, reached through consensus - the AU’s preferred method of decision-making.

Crucially, it also helped avoid a split in the AU. The issue was, by all accounts, resolved. The decision would be drafted and a resolution presented in the afternoon.

The Palestinian delegation at the AU was informed, and by lunchtime, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release welcoming the decision and declaring it a ‘victory’ for Palestinians. Other Palestinian political factions, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also released similar statements.

South African minister of international relations, Naledi Pandor, even confirmed to South African journalists that Mahamat’s decision “is suspended and it will not be implemented.” Both Israeli and Palestinian media soon began reporting that Israel’s accreditation to the AU had been suspended.

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Israel's lunchtime lobbying

Israeli delegates, however, used the lunch break to frantically lobby members to re-open discussion on the issue.

Sources who were at the AU summit confirmed to The New Arab that Israel had promised additional military, surveillance, and intelligence assistance to several African leaders in the hopes that they would demand the issue of its accreditation be revisited in the afternoon.

Israel’s back-channel diplomacy was successful, and the matter was tabled for debate again - betraying the spirit of consensus-based decision-making at the AU.

Chaotic final session

The issue of contention was not the establishment of the committee, but the suspension of Mahamat’s decision. Under the chairmanship of Macky Sall, the ensuing debate that took place was seen as shameful by many.

Sall and other leaders called, on more than one occasion, for the discussion to be curtailed so they could watch the AFCON final.

Delegates from South Africa, Algeria, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia, Namibia and several other nations argued strongly that the earlier decision should stand, and that Israel’s accreditation be suspended

However, Morocco, Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda, Cameroon, Chad and the DRC, amongst others, argued that Israel’s observer status should remain valid.

Shockingly, Sall suddenly ended the meeting with a declaration that Mahamat’s decision to accredit Israel be upheld, pending the deliberations of the committee.

African Union HQ [Anadolu]
For the time being, Israel isn't out of the AU. But it's not officially in either. [Getty]

Palestine: A foreign issue?

“Africa should not be divided by something even which is foreign to Africa,” Sall said in response to a question on the status of Israel’s accreditation from the South African Broadcasting Corporation during the final press briefing soon after the chaotic debate ended. It’s an assertion that African activists have strongly rejected.

“How can Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Zionism be regarded as a ‘foreign issue’ when the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) explicitly makes fighting Zionism an AU responsibility?” asked Dialo Diop of the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN) - a coalition of African civil society groups from across the continent mobilising support for Palestine.

Dialo is correct. Allowing Israel to be accredited to the AU actually contravenes the continental body’s own guiding document, the Constitutive Act. The Constitutive Act commits the AU to “promote and protect human and peoples’ right in accordance with the ACHPR.”

The African Charter itself makes a commitment on behalf of Africans to “eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, [and] Zionism”. Far from being ‘foreign’, Israel and its occupation of Palestine is a part of the African Union’s DNA.  

Perhaps a more pertinent question for African diplomats lobbying for Israel’s accreditation is this: how is it possible to give Israel observer status when the AU is supposed to be committed to opposing Zionism - the foundational political ideology of that state?

"In the last decade, Israeli military exports to Africa have increased by 309%, including the export of invasive spyware to several authoritarian regimes in Africa to be used against their own citizens and even heads of state"

Shouldn't we be discussing the coups?

During the discussion on Israel’s accreditation, some pro-Israel delegates argued that it was a waste of time spending energy discussing Israel’s AU accreditation when Africa has - in the time since Africa’s leaders last gathered physically at the AU - experienced six coups or attempted coups.  “This is something which isn’t even an internal issue,” lamented Sall.

But Israel is very much an African problem – particularly its supply of weapons and spyware to some of Africa’s most brutal regimes.

In the last decade, Israeli military exports to Africa have increased by 309%. Israel’s Ministry of Defence allows the export of invasive spyware to several authoritarian regimes in Africa – to be used against their own citizens and even against other heads of state.

Israel: Not in, but not out

The Israeli government, meanwhile, has been reluctant to celebrate Sunday’s debacle at the AU as a victory. Although Mahamat’s decision to accredit Israel still stands, the vote to confirm its observer status at the AU didn’t happen. So, for the time being, Israel isn’t out of the AU. But it’s not officially in either.

With no official confirmation of its accreditation, Israel still has not entered into a formal relationship with the AU. More importantly for Tel Aviv, though, is that as the apartheid label is increasingly used to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the political and diplomatic recognition that comes with attaining observer status at the AU still eludes it.  

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The fallout continues

The acrimony from the discussions around Israel’s accreditation has continued long after diplomats returned home.

In Addis Ababa, Mahamat defended his decision to grant Israel observer status. One of the reasons he provided was that 44 out of the 55 AU member states have relations with Israel.

Calling it a “double standard”, Mahamat said he found it difficult to understand the rejection of Israel’s observer status by AU members who have representation in Tel Aviv “and which hoists, in the heart of its own capital, the Israeli flag while organising in its honour a grand ceremony of presentation of credentials.”

This was a thinly-veiled reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent acceptance of credentials from the Israeli ambassador to South Africa – a move that angered Palestine solidarity activists in South Africa.

Mahamat’s remarks were not well-received in Pretoria.

On Tuesday, South Africa’s Parliament said that its international relations committee will be meeting with South African Foreign Minister, Naledi Pandor, to address some of the statements about South Africa contained in Mahamat’s speech at the AU.

“This issue can divide us… Africa cannot be divided,” Sall told journalists on Sunday night. But many would argue that Israel’s back-channel diplomacy has already undermined Africa’s fragile unity.

Either way, African leaders squandered a valuable opportunity to show that they really are in solidarity with Palestine and are committed to fighting colonialism and apartheid. In doing so, they also missed a chance to present themselves as principled and consistent.

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

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo