South Africa leads charge to cancel Israel’s observer status at the African Union

Illustrative image | South African flag (Photo: Supplied) / African Union Flag. (Photo: Supplied) / Flag of Israel. (Photo: EPA / Daniel Irungu)

President Cyril Ramaphosa is leading a continental campaign to cancel Israel’s status as an accredited observer at the African Union (AU) this weekend, prompting the South African Jewish community to accuse his government of an “obsession” and “relentless hostility” to Israel.  African leaders will decide on Sunday if Israel should continue as an observer at the African Union.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is leading a continental campaign to cancel Israel’s status as an accredited observer at the African Union (AU) this weekend, prompting the South African Jewish community to accuse his government of an “obsession” and “relentless hostility” to Israel. 

Israel was accepted as an observer to the AU by the chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat in August last year — joining more than 90 other countries, not all shining examples of democracy — which enjoy that status. Israel’s admission followed energetic diplomatic wooing of Africa particularly by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kenya had been one of the African states pushing hardest for Israel’s acceptance as an observer.   

But South Africa in particular, leading the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Algeria, leading some African members of the League of Arab States, objected to Faki’s decision.  

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor complained then that the AU Commission had taken this “unjust and unwarranted decision… unilaterally without consultation with its member states.”

The decision was inexplicable as the AU had already strenuously objected to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, which “offends the letter and spirit of the Charter of the AU… especially on issues relating to self-determination and decolonisation,” she wrote in The Star

“The world continues to witness some of the most horrific scenes of brutality and violence exercised against Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Faki defended his decision on the grounds that AU rules give him the right to admit observers, but South Africa has pointed out that he was also obliged to take into account the views of member states. 

And so Pandor and others formally objected to the decision at a meeting of the AU’s Executive Council — of foreign ministers — in Addis Ababa last October. But the foreign ministers couldn’t resolve the issue and referred it to the heads of state to deal with at the AU’s ordinary summit this weekend, also in Addis Ababa.

Analysts say the decision is too close to call. The AU generally prefers to decide by consensus, but the Israeli issue is too divisive for consensus and so will be decided by a vote, says Shewit Woldemichael, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa. 

She told an ISS seminar this week that between 21 and 26 of the AU’s 55 member states seemed to be aligned with South Africa and Algeria in pushing for a reversal of Faki’s decision to admit Israel. 

The outcome could depend on technicalities. Woldemichael said if the AU heads of state and government decide to treat the issue as procedural — ie as a matter of overturning Faki’s decision because he went about it the wrong way — then it will take a simple majority either way to decide.

But if the leaders deem it as a substantive issue, it will require a two-thirds majority vote to get Israel admitted, a far higher bar to surmount for the pro-Israel lobby. 

Announcing its admission in August last year, Israel said it would use its position to cooperate with Africa in fighting Covid-19 and the spread of extremist terrorism across the continent. 

But if Israel’s observer status is upheld on Sunday, it will cement something more than that. Observer status confers few concrete benefits. It allows observer states to attend open sessions of the AU’s Peace and Security Council and the opening and closing sessions of AU summits. Observers are also given limited access to AU documents and may be invited by the Commission Chairperson to take part in meetings and make statements. They cannot vote.

But if Israel’s observer status is upheld on Sunday, it will be a “foreign policy triumph”, as Woldemichael said. It would represent Israel’s eventual acceptance by Africa as a whole, after a 20-year battle. Israel enjoyed observer status in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but lost it when the OAU was succeeded by the AU in 2002. It tried and failed to get accredited to the AU in 2013 and 2016. 

So admission would probably mark the start of a new era in Africa-Israel relations, Woldemichael wrote in an ISS Today article last August.  

She noted then that the silence of most AU member states about Faki’s decision to admit Israel seemed to “indicate the growing influence of Israel in Africa as a result of changing global political dynamics. 

“Israel’s AU accreditation request follows the normalisation in 2020 of its relations with some members of the League of Arab States, including Morocco and Sudan.” That, in turn, flowed from the “Abraham Accords” which the Trump administration brokered in 2020, whereby the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognised Israel. 

Defending his decision to admit Israel last August, Faki noted that more than 40 of the AU’s 55 member states had diplomatic relations with Israel. This suggested that they might not — perhaps should not —  object to Israel similarly having diplomatic relations with the AU. 

The proponents of Israel’s admission as an AU observer do not present it as a flawless state. But they do believe that it compares well with many of the more than 90 current observers. 

Some have also compared the situation of Palestine with that of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is occupied by the United Kingdom, though Mauritius wants it back, insisting that it was historically part of its territory. The Assembly of the AU heads of state has consistently called for the “decolonisation” of Chagos, just as it has called for the decolonisation of Palestine.

“However, the UK’s accreditation to the AU has never come under scrutiny. They thus argue neither should Israel’s,” Woldemichael pointed out in her ISS Today article.

It is not clear how the votes will fall on Sunday. Observers suspect that in a secret ballot, some who publicly profess Israel’s cause will vote against it — and vice versa.

If the motives of those opposing Israel centre on the occupation of Palestine, those of the pro-Israel camp are not quite so clear. 

Countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea seem to be driven by pragmatic considerations and perhaps pro-Western sentiments, to back Israel. They may also believe that Palestine is a lost cause and that it’s time to move on. In that sense, the argument about Israel’s admission to the AU as an observer rather echoes the 2017 debate about whether Morocco should be readmitted as an AU member.

South Africa also led the “opposed” camp back then, because of its support for the independence of Western Sahara, which Morocco occupies and claims as its own.

South Africa lost the fight in 2017, but it’s far from clear who will win Sunday’s fight. A seasoned former southern African diplomat, like many others, predicts a close vote. “The accreditation of Israel is politically complicated. The majority of AU members have accredited ambassadors in Israel.

“Diplomatic normalisation between Israel and most Arab countries is an added complication.

“However, I believe South Africa, Algeria and others will win largely because those African countries that support the accreditation of Israel will not have the political courage to say so publicly, all the more so because the African “street” is becoming increasingly restless.

The SAJBD said South Africa had also shown its “inexplicable opposition to efforts aimed at normalising relations between Israel and countries previously hostile to it” when it rejected the Abraham Accords of 2020. 

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) which represents the mainstream of the Jewish community, this week wrote to Ramaphosa and Pandor expressing its “unease and hurt regarding what can only be described as the obsessive manner in which South Africa is attempting to exclude Israel from the African Union. 

“We cannot but wonder at this apparently relentless hostility towards the Jewish State,” the SAJBD said, asking why South Africa “is applying this punitive approach solely against Israel and not to any other conflict regions around the world.”

Pretoria was pursuing a policy that was “wholly inconsistent” with its approach to other international disputes, such as in Burundi, the DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Zimbabwe, where it had been even-handed to enable it to play a meaningful role in conflict resolution by acting as an honest broker.

But the SAJBD said this even-handedness and openness to hearing all sides “has been glaringly absent” in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. 

“Instead, South Africa is choosing to align itself with hardline anti-Israel factions that completely reject any kind of engagement with Israel and seek instead to boycott and exclude it from all international forums.

The SAJBD said South Africa had also shown its “inexplicable opposition to efforts aimed at normalising relations between Israel and countries previously hostile to it” when it rejected the Abraham Accords of 2020. 

It said while the international community’s response to these normalisation agreements had been overwhelmingly positive, South Africa had “aligned itself with anti-peace factions bent on perpetuating a political and ideological war against Israel.”

It mentioned in particular BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) which it called “a fundamentally antisemitic movement that openly campaigns for the elimination of the Jewish state…”

The letter was signed by the SAJBD’s national chairperson Karen Milner and vice president Zev Krengel.

But Israel’s case for admission to the AU would not have been helped by the publication this week of an Amnesty International Report entitled; Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians; Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity.” 

It says; “The organisation has concluded that Israel has perpetrated the international wrong of apartheid, as a human rights violation and a violation of public international law…

“Amnesty International has also concluded that the patterns of proscribed acts perpetuated by Israel both inside Israel and in the OPT form part of a systematic as well as widespread attack directed against the Palestinian population, and that the inhuman or inhumane acts committed within the context of this attack have been committed with the intention to maintain this system and amount to the crime against humanity of apartheid under both the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute.” DM


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  • There is deep irony in that the continent of Africa, that has within its ranks many of the World’s most despotic, most corrupt and least democratic members, is seeking to bar Israel from observer status.

    Most of the World believes that it is Africa as a whole which most deserves close attention by World organisations.

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