The African Union (AU) suspended yesterday its debate concerning Israel’s status as observer state. A group of countries have been demanding for the past few months to put up for vote a decision taken last July by Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat, to grant Israel such a status. These countries were hoping to reverse the decision via a general vote at the annual AU summit in Addis Ababa. Suspending the debate means that the issue will be brought up again for discussion next year, at the AU summit of 2023.
Newly elected Chairman of the AU Senegalese President Macky Sall said after the meeting that a special committee has been set up for this issue. The committee will consult with member states, with the goal of establishing a consensus on the matter. “It will be composed of eight heads of state and governments, and will present its recommendations at the next summit," he noted.
The suspension of the debate presents yet another victory for Israeli diplomacy. Israel held observer status at the Organization of African Unity that preceded the AU. But when it was dissolved in 2002, making room for the new organization, Israel did not regain the same status. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi led the campaign against Israel, threatening to withhold Libyan financial support from the body, if such a move was advanced. Israel submitted two official requests to become observer — one in 2003 and one in 2016 — but was rejected on both.
Then, following the signature of the Abraham Accords with the Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and when a new government took place in Jerusalem last May, Israel decided to try again. Ambassador Aliza Bin Noun, who served at the time as head of the Africa division at the Foreign Ministry, engaged personally in this mission. With the blessing and encouragement of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli diplomats were instructed to raise the issue at every meeting they held with African counterparts.
The combination of a new diplomatic set-up and renewed Israeli diplomatic efforts paid off. On July 22, the office of Faki announced that Israel was granted observer status. The announcement surprised even Israel. Hours after the announcement, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia was summoned to Faki’s office in Addis Ababa, to present his credentials.
The decision to accept Israel angered the Palestinians, who have enjoyed for a couple of years now the status of observer to the organization, as well as several permanent members of the group. Chief among the objecting countries was Algeria, already furious over the Abraham Accords. In 2020, in order to convince Morocco to join the normalization agreements with Israel, and in a blow to neighboring Algeria, the Trump administration agreed to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the controversial Western Sahara region. Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra pointed a finger at Israel at the time, blaming it for the growing divide between Rabat and Algiers. When Israel received the status of observer, Lamamra launched a diplomatic campaign against it, enlisting some 13 other AU members and claiming that Faki had no authority or ideological justification to offer Israel accreditation.
Another country active in this anti-Israel campaign was South Africa. Jerusalem and Pretoria entertain diplomatic ties, but relations have been sour for three decades over South Africa’s strong support of the Palestinian cause. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa presented himself at the forefront of the campaign to vote Israel out of the AU. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh arrived Feb. 5 to Addis Ababa for the summit, urging member states to withdraw Israel’s accreditation. Instead of focusing on political and security instability in the continent, the latest military coups in Mali and in Burkina Faso and the coronavirus-generated economic crisis, the AU summit was suddenly dominated by the Israel issue.
Faki had kept a rather low profile on the issue since July. Still, Israeli diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor that in recent months he had been in contact with several African countries, which assured him they fully supported Israel and his July move.
This was evident in the long address of Faki to the African leaders Feb. 6, defending his decision. “As I received the request for granting Observer Status to Israel … I carefully considered the number of States that recognized the state of Israel in the Continent. The number does not leave any doubt. 44 members of our Organization recognize Israel and have established diplomatic relations with that State. 17 have opened Embassies in Tel Aviv. 12 have opened General Consulates there, not to mention that a large number of African States has opened their markets and economic space to Israeli enterprises and signed Cooperation Agreements in fields as varied and sensitive as: Education/Training, Defense, Security, Intelligence, Nuclear Cooperation, Agriculture, Technological Innovations, Health, Economy and Finance etc.," Faki stated.
A statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry said, “Israel’s acceptance as an observer in the African Union is a clear interest for us all — for Israel, for the African Union, and for the Union’s members. It will facilitate increased cooperation between Israel and African countries. Israel attaches great importance to expanding the dialogue and cooperation with the African Union in line with changes in the Middle East, and views it as an important expression of our shared activities for the continent’s next generation.”