Africa divided over Israel’s accreditation to the AU

Israel’s announcement that it has rejoined the African Union as an observer has divided member states.

African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat’s acceptance of Israel’s AU accreditation has been opposed by 21 African member states. These include some African members of the League of Arab States and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While these countries are in the minority compared to the total number of AU member states, their number is sufficient to question whether Israel’s AU accreditation is the start of a new era in Africa-Israel relations.

The silence of most AU member states may, however, 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.  

Given the opposition, the outcome will be decided at the next Executive Council meeting, on 13 and 14 October. If its accreditation is confirmed, Israel will join a growing list of more than 90 external partners accredited by the AU. It will have limited access to AU documents and sit as an observer when invited to AU meetings. Accredited non-African states and organisations are expected to support the work of the AU in the spirit of its founding principles.

These partners, however, have multiple and often competing interests in engaging with the AU. Beyond discussing whether Israel should be accredited, therefore, the Executive Council should reflect on the contributions of accredited partners to the realisation of AU priorities. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) should, for its part, review the role and impact of external partners in Africa’s efforts to achieve continental peace and security.

Opposition to Israel’s accreditation

Southern and northern African countries have objected to what they consider as Mahamat’s unilateral decision to receive credentials from Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi and Chad without adequate consultation with AU member states.

Acceptance of Israel’s AU accreditation application has been opposed by 21 African member states

African members of the League of Arab States shared their collective concern through the League’s representative to the AU, albeit opposition from Morocco, Sudan and Somalia. SADC members announced their opposition in a letter addressed to Mahamat following their summit held in Malawi from 17 to 18 August 2021.

The objection to Israel’s accreditation centres on political and procedural concerns. The legal and procedural basis for accreditation to the AU is based on the AU’s criteria for granting observer status and on a system of accreditation adopted by the Executive Council in 2005.

This system allows non-African states to take part in open sessions of the PSC and in the opening and closing sessions of AU summits. States are also given limited access to AU documents and may be invited by the Commission Chairperson to take part in meetings and make statements, but they cannot vote.

The criteria give the  Chairperson the mandate to consider accreditation applications ‘bearing in mind the supreme interest of the Union and the known views and concerns of member states’. Only if he is convinced ‘there are no reasons why such a request should not be acceded to’ shall the accreditation of non-African states be approved.

Accreditation would let Israel observe AU meetings and access documents at Mahamat’s discretion

Member states that have criticised the recent decision claim there are grounds to doubt whether all member states would support Israel’s accreditation given the AU’s political stance on Palestine. The AU, has called for an ‘…end to the Israeli occupation that started in 1967, the independence of the state of Palestine on boundaries of 4 June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital…’

According to those opposing Mahamat’s decision, the AU had rejected two previous accreditation applications by Israel in 2013 and 2016 for this reason. As the situation in Palestine has not changed, they argue, the status of Israel at the AU should also not change. Countries concerned about Israel’s accreditation have claimed that it would be against the AU’s founding principles and vision. However, these countries, including South Africa and Botswana, have bilateral relations with Israel.

Support for Israel at the AU

In response to the criticism in early-August, Mahamat acknowledged the AU’s continued commitment to a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue but argued that accreditation falls within his mandate. He has also pointed out that more than 40 AU member states have bilateral relations with Israel and may not be opposed to Israel’s accreditation, hence his decision.

Israel has, in recent years, normalised relations with a number of AU member states. This has been due to its government’s renewed interest in Africa, and the shift in regional and world politics in its favour. It normalised relations with Sudan and Morocco in September and December 2020 respectively. This followed a series of cooperation agreements between Israel and Arab states, normalising their relations under what has come to be known as the ‘Abraham Accords’, mediated by the United States.

Israel’s accreditation has created a standoff between the AUC Chairperson and opposing member states

Supporters of Israel compare Palestine to Mauritius.  The Assembly of the AU heads of state has consistently called for the decolonisation of Palestine from Israeli occupation and the Chagos Archipelago of Mauritius from the United Kingdom (UK). While the two cases vary, they argue that Mauritius, as an AU member, could have received at least as much attention.  However,  the UK’s accreditation to the AU has never come under scrutiny. They thus argue neither should Israel’s.

Resolving the standoff

Israel’s accreditation has created a standoff between the AUC Chairperson and opposing member states. Both have called for the subject to be included on the agenda of the October 2021 Executive Council meeting. This is in line with the 2005 criteria for granting observer status and for a system of accreditation within the AU. The rules and procedures of accreditation require that if even one member state objects to the accreditation of a non-African state, the Executive Council decides.

In the lead up to the October decision, both opponents and supporters of Israel are lobbying for support. The division within some of Africa’s regional blocks is an indication of what to expect at the Executive Council. If member states having bilateral relations with Israel openly oppose its accreditation, more may do so if the issue is put to a secret ballot in October.

With a clear lack of consensus among member states, the issue will be decided through voting. Whether the Executive Council is discussing procedural or substantive concerns of member states will determine the nature of voting. If it agrees the matter is procedural, a simple majority vote by a quorum of two-thirds of member states will decide the fate of Israel’s accreditation. Otherwise, a two-thirds majority is required. Accreditation to the AU will be a significant foreign policy triumph for Israel.

While the call continues for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, it is plausible to expect Africa-Israel relations to strengthen despite the current uncertainties surrounding Israel’s AU status.

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