For the African Union, disunity on Israel’s observer status is just the tip of the iceberg
Earlier this month, the annual summit gathering of the Africa Union’s 52 countries weighed the contentious issue of granting Israel “observer status.” The dispute was sparked when the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, granted Israel accreditation to the organisation last year.
For months, Africa Union (AU) heads of states dithered, hesitated, and wrangled on the decision that threatens to cause a rift in the bloc, before ultimately postponing a vote on the issue to the next summit in 2023.
Now, the question on Israel’s “observer status” will be delegated to a “new committee” tasked to work on a consensus on the matter, announced Mr. Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and new chairman of the AU.
The AU’s postponement of its decision points to a fiery diplomatic tussle beneath the outward show of unity and calmness among Africa's heads of state. The Palestinian question simply provides a taste of this underbelly of a simmering global diplomatic turf war that stretches from within Africa to Tehran, Tel Aviv, Washington and beyond.
"The Palestinian question simply provides a taste of this underbelly of a simmering global diplomatic turf war that stretches from within Africa to Tehran, Tel Aviv, Washington and beyond"
A geopolitical tug of war
On the eve of the summit, Palestinian Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Tamar Almassri, went on the offensive and publicly lobbied the AU to scrap plans to give Israel observer status because, he said, that would be a reward for Israeli “apartheid-like” policy towards Palestinians.
“We are pinning our hopes on Zimbabwe to reject a unilateral decision to grant Israel observer status,” Ambassador Almassri was quoted by local media.
Palestine Prime Minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh also addressed the AU heads of states and beseeched them to throttle Israel’s accreditation as a rebuke to“Israel´s racist treatments of the Palestinian people.”
But Palestine itself was not the only external actor lobbying to scrap Israel’s observer status. Stephen Chan, a former British diplomat in Africa and professor of African affairs at the School of Oriental and African Studies says there is a great deal of lobbying behind the scenes of this simple-looking decision. “Both Israel and other states were actively lobbying to obtain observer status for Israel,” he says.
It's safe to assume that Iran, which has huge diplomatic, military and financial ties to many African states, has their diplomats covertly working to convince friendly African nations to decline the vote to give arch-enemy Israel any additional influence on the continent.
Over the last three decades, Iran has built a fairly sophisticated diplomatic machine across Africa as a bulwark against isolation in the Arabian Gulf. From long-standing oil deals to more recent weapons and drone sales to clients in conflict-ridden nations like Ethiopia, and heavy agriculture and machinery sales to the likes of Zimbabwe, Iran's goal has always been to match Israel pound for pound in Africa.
Iran's suave diplomatic machinery likely worked hard in the shadows to scuttle Israel’s observer status bid, and its failure to be accredited by the AU has likely left Tehran gloating from ear to ear.
However, arraigned on the other side of the table is Israel’s equally intricate diplomatic machine, along with the US and newly-friendly Arab regimes like the UAE and Bahrain, who all have committed financial and military ties with a dozen other African states, are pulling their strings to see Israel granted observer status.
From armoured personnel carriers to UAVs, Israel arms exports to unstable African nations like Cameroon, Chad, and South Sudan are on the rise, after a staggering 70% increase from 2015 to 2016, to a lucrative $275 million. Israel has been implicated in undermining democracy across the continent, allegedly supplying election rigging gear to rogue regimes like Zimbabwe.
Given Israel's presence in Africa, Israeli diplomats were surely fighting tooth and nail to get Israel accorded observer status at the AU summit, in an attempt to legitimise its influence on the continent and prove that its growing détente with newly friendly Arab regimes is part of a larger trend towards normalisation.
South African resistance
One member state that has been vocal in its protest of Israel’s accreditation is South Africa. The two nations have had a turbulent past. Under South Africa’s apartheid regime, the two nations shared close ideological and military ties, as Israel sold arms and was the one of the last countries to maintain its support for the apartheid regime.
At this time, South Africa’s apartheid regime was shunned from the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, for its discriminatory practices. Today, support for Palestine is strong, and South Africa has even taken the extraordinary steps of shunning beauty contests from competing in Tel Aviv, downgrading the embassy’s importance in Tel Aviv, and dispatching diplomats to confront Israeli forces who were reportedly hindering Palestinians olive harvesters this season.
As a diplomatic heavyweight on the continent and the outgoing chair of the AU, South Africa will work a persistent offensive to make sure Israel is not allowed to challenge it on its own turf.
Whether Israel will be accredited observer status at the AU remains to be seen, but a decision that would normally be a straight procedure has become a diplomatic proxy war likely ensnaring Israel, Iran, the US, South Africa and various Gulf Arab regimes. The AU, the decision maker, is now merely the theatre of the catfight.
Kudakwashe Magezi is a freelance journalist, poet and political analyst. His work appears in Daily Maverick and New Internationalist.
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