Israel boosts diplomatic clout in Africa through regional bloc

Israel was granted observer status at African Union after nearly two decades of diplomacy

The African Union’s decision to grant observer status to Israel has raised the country’s clout on the continent and follows significant diplomatic developments, despite fierce objections from some capitals.

The move by the regional bloc last month was hailed as a “day of celebration” by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, after nearly two decades of diplomacy.

It came months after the country established diplomatic ties with Morocco and Sudan. Decades earlier, Khartoum hosted a conference where Arab states vowed not to recognise Israel.

The US-backed normalisation deals are indicative of Israel’s broader strategy to seek global allies, particularly in the face of criticism from traditional partners in Europe over the treatment of Palestinians.

But while the AU’s decision was seen as a step towards further co-operation on everything from health to counter-terrorism, a handful of the 55 member states slammed the move.

“The government of South Africa is appalled at the unjust and unwarranted decision,” the country’s foreign ministry said.

“[It] is even more shocking in a year in which the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments,” it added, referring to the 11-day war with Gaza.

South Africa said member states were not consulted by the AU, which has so far refused to reconsider its decision.

Naomi Chazan, a political-science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Israel’s involvement with the AU is significant but does not make it immune from censure.

“When it did have observer status, that in itself did not prevent a fair number of criticisms of Israeli policy,” she said. Israel was an observer of the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, until it was disbanded in 2002.

But its involvement in the regional body could help Israel gain support on the international stage, said Galia Sabar of Tel Aviv University.

“If we look at international organisations, like the United Nations … Israel lost the votes of many European countries over the years,” said the African studies scholar.

“Here there is a new [relationship], or going back to old friends within the African continent and having their fingers vote in favour of Israel,” she said.

Alongside its policy of having its voice heard at the regional level, Israel has also been working on its bilateral ties.

This week, Mr Lapid will travel to Morocco as Israel’s new government cements the ties which were formalised in December.

More than 275,000 Moroccans have emigrated to Israel since the country was founded in 1948, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported.

“For Jews of Moroccan origin, it’s [their] roots. But they’re tangible and accessible now,” said Prof Chazan, who was a member of the Knesset for more than a decade.

Rabat closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv 20 years ago and, in the interim years, Israelis had to travel through third countries to visit Morocco.

Israel has been less vocal in recent months about its relations with Ethiopia, from where more than 93,000 people have emigrated since 1948.

Despite the sizeable community, Israel has held back on intervening publicly over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region which erupted last year.

“There is almost silence on behalf of the world. With regard to Israel, I think that we’re joining this crowd of indifference, or who cares, it’s an internal war,” said Prof Sabar.

Addis Ababa is also in a dispute over a dam project with Sudan and Egypt, both of which have ties with Israel.

With the Ethiopian conflict off the agenda for Israel, the government is expected to instead focus on its new diplomatic ties and strengthening its relations at the regional level.

“It’s a great opportunity to change the balance, for Israelis to see the continent as a great potential for the development of the state of Israel,” said Prof Sabar. “We can import goods and knowledge from the continent and vice versa.”

Updated: August 10th 2021, 2:35 AM