The scene, muscular, launched the African Union (AU) summit and for a time eclipsed the agenda. On Saturday morning, February 18, a representative of Israel’s Foreign Ministry was expelled manu militari from the AU General Assembly while talks between the continent’s heads of state were taking place at the organization’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Video posted on social media shows Sharon Bar-li, Israel’s Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Africa, being escorted out of the plenary session by security officials from the continental organization. Israel was quick to accuse Iran of being behind this “serious” displacement, and in the same statement regretted that “the African Union [soit] being held hostage by a small number of extremist countries such as Algeria and South Africa”.
According to several diplomats present in Addis Ababa, the Algerian delegation threatened to leave the summit if the Israeli representatives stayed in the plenary hall. In an attempt to put the incident into perspective, the African Union claimed a protocol issue. Ebba Kalondo, spokeswoman for the AU Commission, which acts as the organization’s secretariat, told Agence France-Presse that one person “was asked to leave the premises” because she was not invited to the meeting.
In any case, this case represents a setback for Israel, while the normalization of its relations with African states is one of the priorities of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. In recent years, Israeli diplomats have scoured African capitals in search of recognition. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was still in Sudan at the beginning of February to warm up relations with Khartoum. Of the 54 African countries, 46 now recognize the Jewish state.
In July 2021, the commission’s chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, granted Israel observer status with the organization. But Tel Aviv’s presence in the AU remains a major source of controversy within the institution. Accreditation has created such a chasm that the debate on the Jewish state’s observer status was adjourned during the 2022 summit to avoid bringing disagreements to light.
Although she had a year to deal with this sensitive issue, the commission set up for this purpose never met. “This is another example of the African Union’s inability to resolve disputes between countries,” notes Paul-Simon Handy, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. On this issue, the AU simply decided not to decide. »
Battle between two blocks
Indeed, the continental body could have moved to an open vote on Israel’s observer status: two-thirds of the countries would have voted in favour. But South Africa, both an economic partner of the Jewish state and historically opposed to its presence in the AU, had discreetly threatened to suspend its institutional funding in 2022. “This shows how influential minorities can silence a less powerful majority,” concludes Paul-Simon Handy.
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The case background illustrates the struggle between two competing blocs, in particular the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco. The Kingdom of Cherifian, which recently signed a security cooperation agreement with Israel, is one of that state’s bridgeheads on the continent, like Rwanda and Uganda.
Conversely, Algiers, a staunch supporter of the Palestinians, has historically opposed any normalization with Israel. Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra estimated in 2022 that Tel Aviv’s accreditation could lead to “a deep division among member states” within the AU.
Incidentally, the dispute over Israel’s status is not the only point of contention between Rabat and Algiers within the institution. Of late, the two Maghreb nations have been bickering behind the scenes over the appointment of first vice-president of the AU assembly, a strategic responsibility that usually leads to the next year’s rotating presidency of the continental organisation.
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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, present at Saturday’s opening ceremony of the summit, used the platform he was offered to criticize the Hebrew state’s “terrorism” and “land confiscation” policies.
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Israel may have trouble making its case in the coming year. The Comoros, the new leader of the AU, are a pillar of Palestine. In 2021, Moroni declined to be granted observer status by the Jewish state.
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