Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairman of the Commission of the African Union (AU), quietly and unceremoniously granted Israel observer status within the organisation on 22 July. The move surprised and shocked many AU member states who viewed it as a serious violation of the organisation’s charter and founding principles. Israel did have such status before but it was revoked after the AU was established in Sirte, Libya, in 1999 and ratified in South Africa in 2002 to replace the Organisation of African Unity.
In diplomatic terms, observer status means that a country can attend meetings but not vote on any issue. However, such status gives legitimacy for an observer state — Israel in this case — to reach out to African countries under the umbrella of the AU and the permissibility this confers.
Israel has long been seeking this kind of closer ties with the AU. Between 2013 and 2016 its request for observer status was rejected three times.
This prompts me to ask what has changed since 2016; what has Israel done to be eligible for such membership now? In fact much has changed, but for the worse. Israel has become more aggressive in its brutal occupation of Palestine in ways that put it against almost everything that the AU stands for.
Israel’s widening diplomatic reach across Africa has been at the heart of its foreign relations for some time. It has made breakthroughs by establishing ties with Chad and Sudan thanks to encouragement from the former US administration of Donald Trump. This does not qualify it for access to the AU, though.
To stifle criticism from different AU member states, Faki issued a statement to justify his move by saying that Israel already enjoys diplomatic relations with two thirds of AU members. The statement reiterated the AU’s pro Palestinian position through the two state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, as the only peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, that has not satisfied many AU member states which reject Faki’s “unilateral” decision and accuse him of going against the principles, spirit and letter of the AU Charter.
The continent’s four major countries — South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria — have joined with Libya, Tunisia, Namibia and many others in rejecting the move by the commission chairman. They believe that Faki has gone way beyond his mandate and accuse him of not consulting with AU members.
South Africa’s Department of International Relations issued a statement which confirmed that it is “appalled” by the move in a year in which the “oppressed People of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements” by Israel. In May, Israel launched a deadly military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians, including women and children.South Africa is particularly sensitive to the colonial nature of apartheid Israel and its violations of Palestinian rights and its occupation of Palestine. During the apartheid era in South Africa, Israel was one of very few countries which had strong ties with the White supremacist regime in Pretoria. It went as far as cooperating with the apartheid regime in the development of nuclear weapons.
At that time the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its then Chairman, Yasser Arafat, helped the African National Congress and its leadership, including Nelson Mandela. The South Africans empathised with the Palestinians completely, recognising in Israel another apartheid state. Strong bonds were forged during that period, a relationship that was cherished. Mandela did not forget this when he became President of South Africa in 1994. He once said that Arafat is “a comrade in arms and we treat him as such.”
Furthermore, many African countries are suspicious of Israel’s intentions. Just this week, Nigeria arrested three Israeli citizens alleged to have ties to a secessionist movement in the West African country. The Israelis claimed to have come to Nigeria to visit a tiny Jewish community and make a documentary about them. The government deported them anyway.
In the late 1980s and earlier 1990s Israel secretly transported thousands of Ethiopian Jews from their country to Israel in what we might today call people trafficking given that the Ethiopian government of the day did not agree to the mass exodus. Many African observers suspect an Israeli role in the ongoing deterioration of relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the River Nile.
Africa does not need anything from Israel that is not available in the international market. Even the feted Israeli agriculture and irrigation technology is something widely available to AU members from other countries who are happy to offer such support across the continent.
If the former Organisation of African Unity was a vehicle for African liberation, its successor the AU must guard its principles and values of freedom, decolonisation and protection of human rights. It is clear that accepting Israel as an observer state contradicts the AU Charter and its history, even if many of its individual members have their own ties with the apartheid state. A pan-African umbrella body like the AU works for the common good of its members and represents their shared history of oppression and colonisation; Israel is a symbol of oppression and occupation.
Why, I wonder, is the AU willing to suspend its own members for violations of human rights and forceful regime change, and yet accept a country like Israel which treats international laws and conventions with contempt in its endeavour to colonise ever more Palestinian land.
At the same time the AU is more than a symbol of African unity; it is also an inspirational entity for the strength and independence of the continent and its people. The very presence of Israel, even as an observer, is controversial and divisive and should be revoked at the next AU summit.
The other side of the story, meanwhile, points to a failure of the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority for not seeing this coming. The league in particular now has opportunity and wide support for the reversal of this reckless decision made by one individual. Israel should be expelled from the African Union.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.