The current split in the African Union (AU) over Israel's observer status within the organisation is emblematic of a larger conflict that has the potential to split the continent's largest political institutions. Africa is currently facing one of its most crucial decisions regarding Palestine and Israel, the repercussions of which could be as significant as the 1975 Resolution 77 (XII) adopted by the Organisation of African Unity – the precursor of the African Union – which recognised Israel's founding ideology, Zionism, as a form of racism. This time around, however, it is Palestine, not Israel, that stands to lose out.
Israel's attempt to gain observer status at the AU began years ago. For decades, most African countries had severed all ties with Israel in solidarity with Palestine and other Arab countries. The African boycott, which began in earnest in 1973, faltered soon after the Palestinian leadership itself signed a series of agreements with Israel, starting with the 1993 Oslo Accords. Seeing Palestinians and other Arab countries "doing business" with Israel, some African countries felt that their solidarity was no longer serving a particular purpose, and so they revived their diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.
Since then, Israel has worked diligently to strengthen its presence in Africa. It is currently recognised by 46 of the 55 members of the AU. Additionally, it has 17 embassies and 12 consulates across the continent. Some of Israel's latest diplomatic triumphs include the cementing of ties with Chad in 2019, and Morocco and Sudan in 2020; all three are Muslim-majority countries.
With Israel's successes in mind, there is little evidence to suggest that the Palestinian Authority has ever mounted a substantial and coordinated counter-campaign in Africa to win back the support of a continent that served as the backbone of international solidarity with the Palestinian people for many years. This solidarity is exemplified in countless statements by past African leaders, such as Tanzania's national liberation leader, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who said, "We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land." This was reiterated by numerous African leaders on countless occasions over the years.
Africa's solidarity with Palestine was itself predicated on Palestinian and Arab solidarity with Africa. Historically, Palestinians saw their liberation struggle within the same context as Africa's own liberation struggles against Western colonialism. This explains the wording of the above-mentioned Resolution 77 (XII), which equated "the racist regime in occupied Palestine" with "the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa" as they were all grounded in the same "common imperialist origin… (and are) organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being."
Much of this has changed in recent years, not only on the part of many African nations, but on the part of the Palestinians as well. A renewed "scramble for Africa", championed by the US and other Western countries, as well as Russia, China and Israel, is forcing many in the continent to pursue "pragmatic" policies as they abandon the old discourse of liberation and decolonisation in favour of grandiose rhetoric about "technological innovation" with a self-serving emphasis on "fighting terrorism". Thus, with Israel posing as a "rising superpower", many African countries are lining up to buy Israeli unmanned drones, and digital monitoring and surveillance technology.
However, the Palestinian leadership has also changed. With continued "security coordination" between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Palestinians are sending confusing messages to their former allies in Africa and elsewhere. Hence, we saw PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh telling the AU Summit on 5 February, "Based on your stated historical positions and your support for the Palestinian right… we call for the withdrawal and objection of Israel's observer status at the African Union." Such contradictions have emboldened the likes of Moussa Faki Mahamat who, as the Chairman of the AU Commission, decided to take it upon himself to grant Israel observer status last July.
African countries that opposed Faki's decision argued at this month's summit that the decision was unlawful and that it did not reflect the collective wishes of African states. Faki suggested that such a view reflected the "double standards" at play. "Is the said State — referring to Israel — (acceptable) at the national level, while it cannot be (accepted) at the African level? Frankly, I would like someone to explain this kind of double standard to me," said Faki on 7 February.
In truth, he had his own reasons to grant Israel the coveted status. The AU Commission Chairperson was Chad's Foreign Minister until 2017. Although Chad did not declare its diplomatic ties with Israel until 2019, the central African country's top diplomat must have played a significant role in paving the way for the N'Djamena-Tel Aviv official relationship.
Faki may have calculated that Israel's diplomatic triumph in his and other African countries in recent years has meant that Africa is ready to embrace the occupation state unconditionally, and that decades of Africa-Palestine mutual solidarity will not be a factor in the AU decision. The February summit, however, has demonstrated otherwise, namely that Africa has not yet succumbed to Western-Israeli pressures and that Palestine continues to command a strong political constituency on the continent, despite the many shortcomings of the Palestinian leadership.
The solid support that Palestine enjoys among an influential block at the AU, in addition to the popular support that the Palestinian cause continues to receive across Africa, indicates that, despite the mistakes of the past, it remains a central issue on the continent. However, in order for Israel not to crown its diplomatic triumphs in Africa with AU observer status, Palestinians and their supporters must move quickly to formulate a counter-strategy. They ought to work hand in hand with African governments that reject the Israeli membership and mobilise the numerous civil society organisations to send a strong, collective message to Israel that it is not welcome in Africa. A region that has paid, and continues to pay, a heavy price for colonialism, neo-colonialism and apartheid has no need to "do business" with another colonial apartheid regime.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.