Israel has been reinstated to the African Union two decades after it was ousted from the 55-nation pan-African bloc shortly after the union was formed in 2002 under pressure from the then Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.
Today Israel celebrates what it considers a “diplomatic achievement” by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid after two unsuccessful attempts to return to the bloc over the last 19 years.
Adopting a pro-Palestinian stance in its official statements, over the years the AU has rebuffed Israel and slammed its actions against the Palestinians. In May it condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Al- Aqsa Mosque and the evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah.
For its part Algeria which refers to Israel as “the Zionist entity” and does not maintain diplomatic ties with it strongly condemned the move and vowed to continue support to the Palestinian people.
By rejoining the bloc Israel, which maintains relations with 46 out of 55 African countries, will be able to establish ties with a number of African states. In 2016, Israel renewed ties with Guinea for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. Three years later, it did the same with Chad, which had severed relations in 1972. In 2020, Israel normalised relations with Morocco, and announced the beginning of such a process with Sudan.
In recent years, Israel has tried to woo Africa, the second largest continent globally, to extend its influence within it. In 2017, the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first non-African leader to address the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government Summit in Liberia.
According to Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa news editor and currently senior research fellow at Kings’ College London, “Israel has worked hard for many years to try to engage with African states, but its treatment of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have been an obstacle in the past. Egypt and Morocco, for different reasons, maintained low key, but positive, relations with Israel.”
There was no doubt that Israel, as it normalised ties with Sudan through the Abraham Accords, sent signals to other countries in the Horn of Africa to consider the move by establishing relations with more countries.
“The policies of president Trump opened the way to further developments. They paved the way to Israel signing the so called Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, allowing Africa to look more favourably at relations with Israel,” Plaut told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Besides being of economic interest and a region rich in natural resources such as water, which is scarce in Israel, Africa represents a region where Israel can establish a wider diplomatic infrastructure and boost some political, strategic and security elements to fight terror groups in the Horn and West Africa.
Israeli officials had also indicated the political significance of keeping contacts with Africa especially since 2016, after Netanyahu’s historic visit. Arieh Oded, Israel’s former ambassador to a number of African countries, thought “one of the goals of the visit is to change the situation, so that they won’t automatically vote against us, or that they’ll at least abstain.”
“If Israel uses its observer status to influence discussions within the AU on the Palestinian issue, this could have an impact on the approach individual African states take to Israel in other international institutions,” said Yotam Gidron, a researcher and the author of “Israel in Africa: Security, Migration, Interstate Politics.”
On the level of its membership as an observer country, Israel will be able to follow up with the AU agenda especially regarding issues related to Palestine as the move will give Israel a chance to vote against Palestine or create an African lobby to support its own vote.
“Having access to the AU will create more room for Israel to lobby for its political objectives and curb Palestinian influence in Africa. The AU has long maintained a critical stance towards Israel, and African states tend to follow the position coordinated between them under the umbrella of this institution when they cast their votes in other international fora, such as the UN General Assembly,” Gidron added to Al-Ahram Weekly.
Israel is a source of security knowledge and equipment to African countries, which makes the bigger part of its influence in the region besides investments and development plans in the region’s developing countries through MASHAV (the Foreign Ministry Agency for International Development Cooperation), but the extent of Israel’s influence in the AU is still to be discovered.
“How significant Israeli influence will be within the AU remains to be seen, but it is important to note that there is also a symbolic weight to its inclusion in this institution. Not all AU member states have diplomatic ties with Israel, but its acceptance as an observer state may make it easier for more African countries to normalise ties with it in the future,” Gidron noted.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.