Israel has long sought to retake its position as an observer state at the African Union (AU). It had this status with the Organisation of African Unity until that continental body became the AU in 2002. AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has now opened the door to Israel again – and not everyone is welcoming his decision.
But how important is this issue for Africa and the AU, and does it suggest any significant changes in the continent’s relations with Israel?
If its accreditation is not overturned, Israel will join a growing list of more than 90 external partners endorsed by the AU. It will have limited access to AU documents and sit as an observer when invited to meetings. Accredited non-African states and organisations are expected to support the AU’s work in the spirit of its founding principles.
Most African governments have been silent on Faki’s July decision. This could indicate Israel’s growing influence on the continent due to changing global dynamics, particularly the normalisation of relations with several Arab countries in 2020.
But the move has upset 21 of the AU’s 55 states, some of which are members of the League of Arab States and Southern African Development Community – so much so that the matter will be reassessed when African foreign ministers meet in October.
Faki has pointed out that more than 40 AU member states have bilateral relations with Israel
Israel’s request for accreditation follows an improvement in its relations with some League of Arab States members, including Morocco and Sudan. But several southern and north African countries object to what they see as Faki’s unilateral decision to receive credentials from Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi and Chad without adequate consultation with AU member states.
Most of the opposition is based on political and procedural concerns. The legal basis for AU accreditation follows criteria for granting observer status, based on a system adopted by the Executive Council in 2005.
This system allows non-African states to participate in open sessions of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the opening and closing sessions of AU summits. States also get limited access to AU documents and may be invited by the commission chairperson to participate in meetings and make statements. They cannot vote, however.
The criteria allow the chairperson to consider accreditation applications, ‘bearing in mind the supreme interest of the Union and the known views and concerns of member states.’ Only if they are convinced that ‘there are no reasons why such a request should not be acceded to’ shall it be approved.
Countries that have criticised Faki’s decision claim that all African member states are unlikely to 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, [and] the independence of the state of Palestine on boundaries of 4 June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.’