Israel’s Africa Conundrum: Bilateral Relations, Multilateral Opposition
Samir Bhattacharya

In the first week of February, the annual summit of the African Union (AU) took place in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union. The principal objective of the meeting was to evaluate AU's achievements over the past one year. There were several key issues in the agenda of the meeting including the recent surge of military coups and the ways to recover from the COVID pandemic. However, the whole meeting got disrupted because of disputes among its Member States over Israel’s observer status in the African Union.

With the looming risk of an unprecedented rift in the 55-member body, the union decided to postpone the debate till next year’s meet. Meanwhile, the newly-elected chairman of AU, Senegalese President Macky Sall announced the formation of an eight-member committee, consisting of eight Heads of State. In the coming year, the committee will confer with numerous stakeholders with regards to Israel’s candidacy and submit a formal report before the next year’s annual summit[1]. Based on the report the union will take its final decision. While the move has helped the union to defer the conflict, the decision over Israel’s inclusion could lead to a schism in the otherwise solid African unity. As of now, Israel’s observer status in AU hangs in delicate balance among the African Union's split members.

What happened in the current AU Annual Summit?

On 5th and 6th February, the AU convened its 35th Ordinary Session and annual Heads of State summit under the theme of "Building Resilience in Nutrition on the African Continent: Accelerate the Human Capital, Social and Economic Development"[2]. As the 34th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the AU took place virtually in February 2021, the current meeting bore special significance[3]. Moreover, as the meeting took place exactly five months ahead of 20th anniversary celebration planned for July, it was crucial to discuss its strength and shortcomings in the promotion of continental peace and security[4]. During the meeting, Senegalese President Macky Sall took over the chairmanship of AU from President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Felix Tshisekedi and an agreement was made to work together on common challenges such as radical Islamism, climate change and COVID-19.

To recall, the year 2021 has been extremely turbulent for democratic governments across the continent as there were five attempted coups, with two being successful[5]. As a matter of fact, Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso were not allowed to participate in the meeting because of their undemocratic government resulting from the military takeovers[6]. The Sahel region of West Africa, particularly Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria are the most vulnerable from the threat of radical Islamism where Islamists are attacking security personnel and civilians on a regular basis[7]. The civil war in Ethiopia has taken more than a thousand of lives with million others displaced[8]. Finally, there were other emerging issues to be discussed ranging from COVID-19 vaccines to climate change. While all these issues were discussed in its due course, the issue of Israel’s accreditation as an observer state surprisingly took the centre stage and split the block.

What is the history of Israel in Africa?

Historically, Israel has a religious and theological connection to the African country of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian holy book, the Kebra Nagast, describes that hearing the stories of Israel's King Solomon’s fame, Ethiopian Queen of Sheba visited Israel for trade purposes with gold and other precious jewels along with an enormous quantity of spices[9]. According to legend, Ethiopia was created by King Menelik1 who was the son of Ethiopian Queen Sheba and Israeli King Solomon[10].

Two countries have traditionally had good relations as a result of historical ties. It was further solidified due to Ethiopia’s regular need of military assistance from Israel to help it defend itself against its Arab neighbours[11]. Today, about 140,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel while another 6,000 stayed back in Ethiopia.[12]

Israel’s diplomatic relations with Africa goes back to mid-1950s when African countries started getting their independence. Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, considered relations with African countries as means to reduce Israel’s diplomatic isolation beyond the Middle East[13]. Golda Meir, Israel's Foreign Minister later adopted the same stance. Close connections with Africa, she believed, were essential to bolster Israel's international image and obtain legitimacy of its national boundaries and demographic integrity[14]. Her 1958 visit of African countries Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal underpins the importance of Africa in Israel’s foreign policy during her time. For the record, she was the first Israeli Minister to visit Africa.

Previously, Ghana was the first African country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1956. Israel recognised the independence of both Mali and Senegal in 1960 and developed diplomatic relations with several African states[15]. Within the next ten years, Israel had firmly established diplomatic relations with more than 33 African countries[16].

However, everything changed with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the ensuing oil embargo declared by the Gulf monarchies. Motivated by cheap oil and attractive financial aids, most African countries except Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland severed their bilateral relations with Israel[17]. Then OAU (Organization of African Unity) the predecessor organisation of AU, backed by Egypt, passed a resolution to oust Israel from the organisation. The expulsion of Israel, largely under the influence of Arab countries, is a negative chapter in the history of Africa-Israel relationship. As a consequence of that event, Israel became distrustful of Africa’s attitude forever.

In this context, it would be instructive to use the example of India, which faced the same fate as Israel after losing the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Despite strong support for non-violence policy of Gandhi and later Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of Nehru, losing the war against China severely dented India’s image as a leader[18] and majority of the African countries backed China after the war.

Currently, Israel has relations with 46 African countries at bilateral level[19]. However, 44 African countries have recognised Israel and established diplomatic ties, and merely 17 of them have established Embassies in Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital and 12 have opened General Consulates there[20]. Furthermore, most of the African countries have opened their markets and economic space to Israeli companies, signing Cooperation Agreements in fields as diverse and sensitive as: Education/Training, Defence, Security, Intelligence, Nuclear Cooperation, Agriculture, Technological Innovations, Health, Economy and Finance[21]. Indeed, at this point, the formalisation of relationship at the continental level would have led to better cooperation on fight against both the pandemic and terrorism.

Israel was accredited observer status at the Organization of African Unity, which preceded the AU. However, when in 2002, OAU was dissolved and AU was created, Israel lost its observer status[22], following pressure from Muammar Gaddafi, late ex-Libyan leader[23]. Israel submitted two official bids for observer status, in 2003 and 2016, but both the times got rejected[24].

There were a few changes in the circumstances which led to the fresh application of Israel. In 2020, as Trump administration mediated the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan[25]. And in May 2021, a new government was formed in Jerusalem. Encouraged by these two events Israel opted to attempt afresh. After a nearly two-decade wait, the application of Israel, led by Ambassador Aliza Bin Noun got accepted in July 2021[26]. Consequently, Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Aleleign Admasu, submitted Israel's charter as an observer member to the AU[27]. While Israel currently has bilateral diplomatic relations with 46 nations, the AU's observer status was eagerly awaited. Yair Lapid, Israel's Foreign Minister, while expressing his joy formally declared the day as historic[28].

When and how the turnaround for Israeli-African relations took place?

It was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who worked on Israel's connections with Africa, especially to the numerous Islamic nations on the continent, particularly during the latter half of his 12 years career. There were several motivations behind his African rapprochement. He wanted to explore fresh markets for Israel’s agro-industry as well as defence sector. The ex-Prime Minister was also determined to improve African countries' standing on Israel-related issues in international platforms such as the UN Security Council and UNESCO.

When Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia in July 2016, he became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit the continent in decades[29]. The following December, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and Mashav, Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, co-sponsored an agricultural conference in Israel, which brought together seven ministers and many other top officials from over a dozen Western African countries[30].

In June 2017, Netanyahu made history by becoming the first non-African leader to attend and speak at the 51st Summit of ECOWAS and resolve the past issues between Senegal and Israel[31]. The meeting was held in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city. He then completed the hat trick in November 2018, as he made the visits to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé and late Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno[32]. Finally, he visited Kenya to attend the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi in November of that year, along with leaders from other African countries, and held many bilateral meetings. Although he met the Kenyan President, due to security concerns, he could not attend the lavish ceremony, attended by the heads of many African nations[33].

What is the current dispute?

On 22nd July 2021, the office of current chairman of the African Union Commission, Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat announced the decision of granting Israel the observer status[34]. The sudden announcement came as a surprise, including to Israel. Earlier, Faki had condemned the attacks by Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem and criticised Israeli army’s actions, including the continued displacements of Palestinians in East Jerusalem[35]. He has also maintained the two-state solution as only possible direction towards a peaceful co-existence[36]. At the same time, in recent months he was in discussion with several African countries in order to build consensus over Israel issue. This was evident when on the last day of the summit he delivered a long address outlining various benefits that Africa will derive from its relationship with Israel[37].

His unexpected decision sparked widespread outrage and condemnation, particularly in Algeria and South Africa. Algeria has already expressed its dissatisfaction with the Abraham Accords. In 2020, the Trump administration, in a blow to Algeria, agreed to acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory in order to persuade Morocco to join the normalisation talks with Israel[38].

Ramtane Lamamra, the Algerian Foreign Minister at the time, blamed Israel for the widening split between Rabat and Algiers. Lamamra initiated a diplomatic campaign against the African Union's decision to grant Israel observer status, calling it a "double mistake."[39]. Backed by 13 other AU members, He accused Faki of granting Israel recognition without valid reasons.

Another country active in this anti-Israel campaign was South Africa. During Apartheid, South Africa was one of Israel’s few allies and voted in favour of the 1947 UN resolution that resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel. However, it changed under the ANC and Nelson Mandela over South Africa’s strong support of the Palestinian cause. Most recently, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vehemently led the anti-Israel campaign to vote Israel out of the AU[40]. Despite the fact that their relations have been strained over the past three decades, the two nations continue to maintain diplomatic relations, and South Africa remains one of Israel's most important African commercial partners. South Africa expressed its displeasure with the AU's unilateral decision to award Israel observer status, calling it unjust and unnecessary[41].

Finally, the Palestinians were enraged by Israel's admission to the AU. In 2013, during the 21st summit of the AU, Palestine was granted observer status. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh arrived in Addis Ababa on February 5 for the conference, pushing member states to de-accredit Israel. In his remarks, he stated unequivocally that Israel should never be honoured for its violations and the apartheid regime it imposes on the Palestinian people[42].

Way Forward

The meeting's agenda included various critical concerns such as political unrest in several nations, Islamist insurgency, military takeovers, and the economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus. However, the fact that all of these issues were overshadowed by the Israel issue demonstrates the subject's gravity. Africa and Israel have had a rocky relationship in the past, but in the age of rising terrorism, many African leaders have realised that they can no longer afford to stay unfriendly to Israel.

With the waning United States' influence, Israel, similar to countries like China, India, and Turkey, seeks to assert its place on the continent. While Africa may greatly benefit from Israel, Israel's diplomatic reconciliation with Africa is centred on Africa's support for Israel in international forums. This would help Israel to counter Palestinian offensives and scale down its international isolation. Africa is a continent made up of 54 nations. A strategic shift in Israel's international stature is the prospect of them changing their posture and attitude toward Israel. For the past few decades, however, Israel's strategic interests have remained devoid of any distinct strategic agenda. On the contrary, Israel provided armaments and diplomatic support to various dictators, including Hissene Habre (Chad), Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo/Zaire), Gnassingbe Eyadema (Togo), as well as the apartheid state in South Africa. Not surprisingly, the trade was dominated by specifically defence and military sector where Israel exported its military weapons and expertise to Africa[43]. Other than that, Africa received much less interest in comparison to Asia and America.

Surprisingly, increasing rapprochement with Africa was facilitated by the Arab Spring and the fall of previously powerful regimes more than Israel's technological prowess and counter-terrorism strength. Although lacking specific direction, at least since the Netanyahu years Africa started to receive adequate attention in Israel's foreign policy. It was he who coined the tagline "Israel is returning to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel" in February 2016[44]. At the moment, Israel is definitely looking to Africa as a strategic buffer against its hostile neighbours.

Surely, pro-Palestine language has long been a prominent part of the AU's yearly summits. From that perspective, the failure of AU to revoke Israel’s observer status is also a significant positive step in normalisation of their relationship. Earlier, in 2015, Israel resisted an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution demanding it open its undeclared nuclear facilities to UN inspectors, partly because several African states abstained or voted against it[45]. Even though small, it was indeed a diplomatic success of Israel given so many African nations voted in favour of Israel in an international forum.

While most of the countries have been warming their relationship with Israel, forming a consensus for the African bloc's collective backing will not be so easy and take considerably longer time due to the numerous hurdles that remain, mainly due to resistance from the countries influenced by the Arab Gulf states,[46] as well as selected regional giants such as Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria. In addition to vehement opposition from Algeria and South Africa, many other countries didn’t express their position explicitly, most notably Nigeria. Nigeria, Africa's largest economy and most populated country was also absent during the 2017 ECOWAS summit. In fact, Kenya and Ethiopia are the only two countries who have openly supported Israel's membership in the AU.

It’s part of a long-term strategy, the fruits of which might become visible only years from now or even decades. For Israel, it took thousand years to become a country. In comparison, these are minor roadblocks on the path to an improved Israel-Africa relations. However, the current determined efforts reflect the vast potential Africa holds for Israel. As the former Prime Minister said before his trip, Israel is returning to Africa in a big way and there is no stopping[47]. For the moment, even the adjournment of the debate can be considered as a diplomatic victory for Israel. Until then, Israel's Africa policy might be summarised as stronger relations at the bilateral level and antagonism at the multilateral level.

Endnotes :

[1]The Jerusalem Post, February 6, 2022. “Vote on Israel’s African Union ouster deferred for a year”.
[2]UN chief calls for accelerating investments into Africa. ANI, February 5, 2022.
[3]CTGN, February 7, 2021. “The 34th African Union summit begins virtually”.
[4]Hooper Imogen, The East African. February 8, 2022. “As AU turns 20, it’s time to look at its capacity to prevent and resolve conflict.”.
[5]African Business, February 5, 2022. “President Macky Sall of Senegal, Takes Over as the New Chairperson of the African Union (AU) for 2022”
[6]Bhattacharya Samir, “Africa: Looking Back at 2021 and Likely Trends in 2022.” VIF India, January, 2022.
[7]DW, February 7, 2022. “African Union summit raises more questions than answers”.
[8]Bhattacharya Samir, “Taliban Triumph in Afghanistan and India’s Counter-Terrorism Policy against Islamist Extremism in Africa”. VIF India, September 6, 2021.
[9]The New York Times, November 5, 2021, Why Is Ethiopia at War with Itself?
[10]The Jewish Experience, December 10. 2021. “How Did the Queen of Sheba Come to Be Seen as Black?”
[11]The Nation, February 10, 2022, “The Ethiopian crisis.”
[12]Legese Fasil, The Jerusalem Post. November 22, 2021. “Israel must back democratic Ethiopian gov’t – opinion”.
[12]Voice of America, November 28, 2021, “Israel to Allow 3,000 Ethiopian Jews to Immigrate”
[13]David Rodman. 2020. Israeli foreign policy: a people shall not dwell alone, Israel Affairs, 26:6, 982-988,
[14]Bermant Azriel, Foreign Policy. “Has Israel Pushed Realpolitik to Its Limits?”. March 26, 2021.
[15]Nahmad Ezra. Orient XXI. September 19, 2017. “Israel’s Triumphant Return to Africa”.,2006
[16]Besliu Raluca. Scroll. April 7, 2018. “Why Israel is trying to expand power in Africa”.
[17]Eurasia Review, April 6, 2018. “Israel Seeks to Expand Power in Africa – Analysis”.
[18]Beri Ruchita, IDSA, 2003. “India’s Africa Policy in the Post-Cold War Era: An Assessment”.
[19]Al Jazeera, February 5, 2022. ““Palestine urges African Union to revoke Israel’s observer status”.
[20]African Union Statement, February 6, 2022. “Remarks of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on the granting of observer state to the State of Israel”.
[22]France 24. February 1, 2022. “African Union girds for fight over Israel's status”.
[23]Auge Benjamin. IFRI, November 2020. “ISRAEL-AFRICA RELATIONS What Can We Learn from the Netanyahu Decade?”.
[24]Al Monitor. February 7, 2022. “Efforts fail to revoke Israel's observer status in African Union”.
[25]Guyer Jonathan, Vox, January 29, 2022. “Why an Israeli comedian went viral in the Arab world”.
[26]Al Monitor, July 23, 2021. “Israel’s AU observer status paves way for normalization with African states”.
[27]The Times of Israel, July 22, 2021. “Israel returning to observer status at African Union”
[28]RFI, July 29, 2021. “South Africa slams African Union's decision to grant observer status to Israel”.
[29]The Times of Israel, July 8, 2016. “In Africa, Lion King Bibi begins to outroar the Palestinians”.
[30]The Times of Israel, May 26, 2017. “Netanyahu to travel to Africa for second time in year”
[31]Africa News, June 4, 2017. “Senegal, Israel quash diplomatic crisis at ECOWAS Summit”.
[32]Caslin Olivier, The Africa Report. January 4, 2022. “Israel builds up its networks in Africa to ensure Red Sea outlet, African Union status”
[33]Burke Jason. The Guardian, November 28, 201. “Kenyatta sworn in for second term as Kenya's president amid protests”
[34]Dadoo Suraya, The New Arab. February 10, 2022. Israel at the African Union: Not in, but not out.
[35]Al Jazeera, May 11, 2021. “Death toll at 35 as Israel bombardment of Gaza escalates: Live”.
[36]Al Jazeera, July 23, 2021. “Israel granted official observer status at the African Union”.
[37]The East African, February 7, 2022. “Faki accuses AU members of 'double standards' over Israel status”.
[38]Africa News. January 16, 2022. “UN launches renewed bid to resolve conflict in Western Sahara”.
[39]Daily Sabah, February 5, 2022. “Algeria slams African Union over Israel’s observer status”.
[40]Daily Maverick, February 2, 2022. “South Africa leads charge to cancel Israel’s observer status at the African Union”.
[41]The Times of India, July 28, 2021. South Africa 'appalled' by Israel's African Union observer status
[42]Al Jazeera, February 5, 2022. “African Union holds summit amid crises over coups and COVID”.
[43]Collins Tom, New African, July 7, 2017. “Why is Israel’s Netanyahu wooing Africa?”.
[44]Nahmad Ezra. Orient XXI. September 19, 2017. “Israel’s Triumphant Return to Africa”.,2006
[45]Financial Times, March 30, 2016. “Israel looks to Africa for new allies”.
[46]Y. Gidron, Israel in Africa: Security, Migrations, Interstate Politics, London, Zed Books, 2020.
[47]The Times of Israel, July 22, 2021. “Israel to join African Union as observer after being kept out for 2 decades”.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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