19 Years After Its Ouster, African Union Reinstates Israel as Observer Country

Israel returns to 55-state pan-African organization in what the Foreign Ministry's head of African affairs calls an extremely important political recognition

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President of the African Union Félix Tshisekedi, in France, in May.
President of the African Union and the Democratic Republic of Congo Félix Tshisekedi, in France, in May.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

The African Union said Wednesday that it would readmit Israel as an observer country, 19 years after it was ousted from the 55-nation pan-African bloc due to pressure by then-Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

Israeli officials have been pushing for a seat on the AU since its suspension shortly after the union was formed in 2002 as the successor to the Organization of African Unity.

The news was warmly welcomed in Jerusalem, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid declaring it a “a day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations” and a “diplomatic achievement” that will “help us strengthen our activities vis-à-vis the continent and vis-à-vis the member states of the organization.”

Israel attempted to return to the organization twice in recent years, without success. This time, the Foreign Ministry announced a "diplomatic operation" that entailed a visit by Aliza Ben-Noun, the ministry's director general of African affairs, to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where she met with 30 ambassadors from member countries.

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Aside from opening up the possibility of increased cooperation with member nations on a variety of economic and security issues, Israel's newfound observer status at the AU also represents "a political recognition" by an organization that had spurned Israel for decades, explained Bin-Noun.

"This political recognition is extremely important because it's not good enough to have good bilateral relations with the member states," Ben-Nun told Haaretz, adding that this could help bring Israel closer to the few remaining African states with which it does not have diplomatic ties.

“Once the relationship with the African Union is established, the parties will be able to cooperate, among other things, in the areas of the fight against the coronavirus and the prevention of the spread of extremist terrorism throughout the continent,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Israel maintains diplomatic relations with 46 out of the continent’s 55 countries. In 2016, Israel renewed ties with Guinea for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. Three years later, it did the same with Chad, which had severed relations in 1972. In 2020, Israel normalized relations with Morocco, and announced the beginning of such a process with Sudan.

But while Israel has made significant gains on the continent in recent years, the diplomatic infrastructure necessary to capitalize on its accomplishments has been missing. According to Foreign Policy, the Foreign Ministry only operated physical embassies in 15 African nations in 2019.

Speaking with Haaretz, one Israeli diplomat said that while observer status “doesn’t mean much,” it is still “a very important symbol” that Israel, which became “a pariah and outcast” in Africa during the 1970s, was back at the table and that many of its traditional antagonists were no longer pushing for its exclusion.

According to the diplomat, having a physical presence at meetings allows Israel to “know what is happening” and keep track of “political developments and initiatives” on the African Union’s agenda.

The bloc has been a harsh critic of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue. It is unclear how much recent developments can change that.

This May, as fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas, African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemned Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip and “violent attacks in the Al-Aqsa mosque committed by Israeli security forces against Palestinian worshipers” and declared that “the Israeli army’s actions, including the continued forced, illegal evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, are in stark violation of international law and further heighten tensions in the region, complicating the search for a just and lasting solution.”

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