Israel continues to shore up its growing engagement in Africa. On 22 July 2021, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the country will become an observer state at the African Union (AU). Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Aleleign Admasu, has submitted the country’s credentials to the AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Mahamat, for his part, emphasised support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two agreed that combatting Covid-19 and counter-terrorism should be areas of collaboration. And Admasu invited Mahamat to visit Israel. “This is a day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

“This corrects the anomaly that existed for almost two decades and is an important part of strengthening of [the] fabric of Israel’s foreign relations. This will help us strengthen our activities in the continent and in the organization’s member states.”

Former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk tweeted: “Excellent, logical news for the @_AfricanUnion and for Israel. We are neighbors and need a deeper interaction.”

In a media statement, Rowan Polovin, national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, said: “The SAZF welcomes the establishment of Israel’s observer status at the African Union (AU). This positive development is a corrective step to the anomaly that has prevailed for two decades … Israel already has diplomatic relations with 46 of the 55 member states of the AU, and continues to strengthen her ties with the African continent. The SAZF is hopeful that African Union members will work more closely with Israel on fighting the coronavirus, improving regional security and implementing water technology for the benefit of all.”

Israel and Africa have a long and complicated relationship. The fledgling Jewish State had excellent relations with newly-independent African countries in the 1950s and early 1960s, with thousands of Israeli aid workers working in agriculture and industry across the continent. All this began to change after the Six Day War in 1967, and definitively after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, as a result of a largely successful campaign by states like Egypt and Libya to sever ties. Israel went from over 30 embassies in Africa to having formal diplomatic relations with just four states (Malawi, Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland). Relations with other states were conducted unofficially and off-the-books.

While new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will no doubt claim some credit, the foundations were laid by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu put a great deal of effort into cultivating ties with Africa, including its Muslim-majority states. In 2016, he made the first visit to Africa by an Israeli prime minister since 1987, to Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Another trip in 2017 took him to Liberia for the summit of the Economic Community of West African States. He made at least five trips to Africa. Reciprocal visits by African presidents and ministers have also flourished.

Today, Israel has diplomatic ties with 84% of the AU’s member states, including rekindled relations with Guinea (in 2016), Chad (2019) and Morocco (2020), plus first-time relations with Sudan (2020).

Israel previously held observer status at the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity founded in 1963. Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi managed to have it formally revoked in the transition to the AU in 2002. His demise changed this dynamic considerably.

Professor Hussein Solomon at the University of the Free State said, “Gadaffi … had actually stopped it in the past. But I also think that things have changed, the dynamics have changed. You would remember that Gadaffi actually paid the AU dues of various countries and then they voted his way on various issues, including in terms of Israel.”

He adds that the accession of Morocco to the AU – whose government is more accommodating towards Israel – has altered the AU calculus on Israel further.

Against this background, Israel has seized a valuable opportunity. Besides business imperatives for spreading Israeli technology and innovation in fields like agriculture, ICT and security, the outreach to Africa has diplomatic dimensions. Jerusalem aims to splinter the almost unanimous anti-Israel positions taken by African states in the UN and the AU. It seeks to dilute the diplomatic influence of the Palestinians (AU observers since 2013) in these bodies. Senior Palestinian leaders are regular features at AU Summits, and declarations routinely drip with anti-Israel rhetoric.

“This is symbolic mostly, but it confers some subtle advantages on Israel,” said Terence Corrigan, political analyst at the Institute of Race Relations. “For most of Africa, Israel has become ‘normal’. Status at the AU won’t mean a lot in terms of cooperation, since that is mostly through bilateral (and to some extent regional) engagement. The AU is in any event an organisation with more form than substance. It has not produced anything like the degree of coordination that, say, the EU has managed. Still, being able to engage with the AU gives it a critical tool in engaging with Africa that it previously lacked. Remember the proposed Africa-Israel summit some years ago? One of the procedural attacks was that this needed to be organised through the AU. Well, it’s able to start working towards that now.”

In a similar vein, Solomon adds that what is happening is a change in attitudes towards Israel that sees engagement as valuable and is not entirely focused on the geopolitical side of things. “Even after this recent violence, still the Abraham Accords held. I think the world may be moving away from ideological dogma and adopting a more pragmatic point of view. And that move away from ideology is also reflected in terms of this AU observer status for Israel.”

Closer and more pragmatic ties between Africa and Israel do not mean a smooth or easy relationship ahead. Corrigan cautions that Israel’s opponents are resolute and often driven by ideology. It’s unclear how this will play out in future relations, but he considers Israel’s position strong. “Israel’s opponents – and here one can probably include South Africa – will do what they can to keep criticism flying thick and fast,” he says, “But on the other hand, I suspect that even if that does happen, the AU is a less influential body [than the UN]. And for many of Africa’s countries, the Palestinian issue is not definitive for their relationship with Israel. They may remain critical of that, but their influence over it is limited and the benefits of ties with Israel outweigh those considerations.”

When I asked a friend why Israel wants to join a somewhat dysfunctional and ineffective club, he quipped, “Yes, but when that club is in your neighbourhood and keeps playing loud, awful music until two in the morning, you need to get inside to try clean up a bit.”

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Steven Gruzd is Head: African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). He is the co-author of a recent study on Israel-Africa relations, which can...

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