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Israel’s battle to retain observer status

South Africa’s rise to become Africa’s voice

A major schism or disagreement is uncommon within the African Union (AU), with the majority of member states either unanimously approving or rejecting a proposal entirely. Yet, last week’s episode over Israel’s observer status in the AU resulted in contradicting claims from both the chairperson and the AU spokesperson regarding how the wrong Israeli envoy attended the AU meeting.

Sharon Bar-li (Amb.), Israel’s deputy director general for Africa division, was escorted by security from the AU conference in Addis Ababa on February 18, 2023. The Ambassador attended the meeting on the basis of a non-transferable invitation extended by the African Union to Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi, and Chad, Aleli Admassu.

Following the unfortunate episode, the AU suspended Israel’s observer status until a final decision is made, according to AU Commission chairperson Mousa Faki. “We did not invite officials from Israel to our summit.”

AU communication officers, on the other hand, declared that Bar-li was accredited.

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In July 2021, Faki granted Israel observer status.

Prior to the formation of the African Union, Israel participated in OAU meetings as an observer. In 1975, the OAU explicitly condemned Israel for its harsh treatment of Palestinians.

When the OAU was reconstituted into the AU in 2002, Israel was excluded and Palestine was granted observer status. Over the previous two decades, Israel has been knocking on the door, with bids denied in 2013, 2015, and 2016, until Faki declared otherwise in 2021.

Algeria has been advocating for an amendment to the AU charter that specifies that no country is eligible for observer status if it occupies the territory of another country. Israel, which occupies sections of Palestine, is automatically denied observer status.

The 2005 Sirte Criteria document of the AU grants the AUC chairperson the authority to grant observer status to a non-member country without a vote or even discussion with member states. Faki applied the criteria to grant Israel the status unilaterally.

The AU’s Constitutive Act, on the other hand, emphasizes that observer status should only be awarded if the country promotes the AU’s international interests.

China, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Kuwait, Palestine, and Greece are among the non-member countries with observer status in the AU.

So far, similar privileges have been granted to over 70 countries and organizations, including the EU and UNAIDS. Countries and organizations with the privilege are allowed to participate in AU activities but cannot vote or propose resolutions.

However, member countries, particularly South Africa and Morocco, promptly opposed the chairperson’s decision. To break the impasse, the Union established a committee of six heads of state to reach a final decision this year.

The committee includes the leaders of South Africa, Algeria, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Israel’s proposal is opposed by at least 21 of the AU’s 55 members, which include South Africa, Algeria, and certain SADC members.

This is partly due to Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians.

Furthermore, owing to Israel’s support for apartheid, South Africa has irreconcilable differences. Israel was a major supplier of weapons to the apartheid state, whereas Palestine was one of the few countries that supported the anti-apartheid movement.

Following Bar-li’s removal from the AU, Israeli officials and the foreign ministry blamed South Africa and Algeria for the incident.

The AU, according to a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, is being held captive by a “small number of extreme regimes, such as Algeria and South Africa, who are driven by hatred and directed by Iran.”

Ethiopia, Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and Malawi, on the other side, support Israel’s bid for AU observer status.

Nonetheless, there are two primary reasons why the committee would vote against Israel.

The first is the increasing war between Israel and Palestine that has been going on since last year. Israel employed excessive force in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, as is usual in Palestinian occupations, killing nine people.

The second factor is South Africa’s increased assertiveness in international affairs. Its stance against the West has hardened since the Ukraine-Russia conflict erupted. It also did not compromise its neutrality when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in August 2022 as part of the US campaign to encourage Africa to back Ukraine.

“Just as much as the people of Ukraine deserve their territory and freedom, the people of Palestine deserve their territory and freedom,” Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations, told Blinken. “From some of our partners in Europe and elsewhere, there has been a sense of patronizing bullying.”

For Samson Hailu, an independent analyst, South Africa is becoming the voice of Africa more than the AU.

“South Africa is becoming more assertive and is not afraid to challenge the US for control of Africa. At a time when even the AU is in deep sleep because the leaders of its member states are in deep sleep, South Africa is becoming the voice of Africa. They are maintaining the principle, at least,” Samson said.

He believes South Africa would not dare unless it was a member of the BRICS and had strong backing from Russia and China.

South Africa also recently completed a joint military exercise with Russia, sending a chilling warning to the US.

But, according to former AU anti-corruption commissioner Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD), it is more about the AU’s legacy than South Africa’s power dynamics.

“Africa has been formally objecting to Israel’s human rights violations over Palestine. Ethiopia was another African country that had previously expressed strong opposition to Israel’s activities in Palestine. This concern for Africa has been pending since the 1960s, and that issue is still not resolved.”

Constantinos believes Faki is wrong to offer observer status until Africans reach an agreement on these human rights issues.

Experts argue that the Union is betraying its own values by abandoning its earlier stance of condemning the eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine and granting Israel membership in the AU. Others are concerned that debates over Israel’s issue may widen the AU’s divide between the English and Francophone camps.

Many saw Israel’s move as an attempt to enhance relations with Africa, but others say that Israel required the status to represent its diplomatic interests. This is a big worry, especially as the western and eastern camps fight to keep Africa on their respective sides of the global geopolitical divide.

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