Israel’s African Union status is as important as Ben & Jerry’s – analysis
Last Thursday, as Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop sales beyond the Green Line and reassess its relationship with Israel continued to reverberate, Jerusalem regained its observer status on the 55-nation African Union (AU) some 19 years after it was revoked.
The irony was stark. Just as the Vermont-based ice cream company signaled its virtue by indicating it wants to boycott the Jewish state, the Addis Ababa-based multilateral organization lifted what amounted to a nearly 20-year quasi diplomatic boycott of Israel and reinstated Israel as an observer state.
No less ironic was that while Ben & Jerry’s move was major news for days, leading news broadcasts and capturing front-page headlines, the AU step barely registered, meriting almost no broadcast time and only small items on the inside pages of newspapers.
While neither event will have an immediate Earth-shattering impact on Israel, they are important symbols.
Ben & Jerry’s move will have no impact on Israeli policy or its economy. Its significance is the message it sends: people should not do business with Israel because of its policies.
Likewise, the decision of the AU to reinstate Israel’s observer status will have no overnight dramatic impact on Israel’s status in the world. Its significance is the message it sends: there is absolutely nothing wrong with dealing with Israel.
Those who pressed Ben & Jerry’s to change its business practices toward Israel want to cast Israel as a racist, colonialist, apartheid regime that should be shunned, much as South Africa was during the days of apartheid. Africa knows something about racist, colonialist, apartheid regimes, and yet rather than continuing to boycott Israel, it is extending a hand.
While an argument can be made for the wall-to-wall coverage given the Ben & Jerry’s saga – because this was about way more than ice cream and the manner it plays out will help determine whether the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement gains or loses momentum – an even more convincing argument can be made for saying that Israel regaining its status in the AU Union is equally newsworthy, if not more so.
Yet much attention was paid attention to the ice cream drama, and relatively little to the presentation of the Israeli ambassador’s credentials to the chairperson of the African Union Commission. Relatively little attention was paid, but it was not absent from everyone’s radar screen.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, saw fit to note the occasion, tweeting on Saturday: “We congratulate the AU for its leadership in building bridges and creating new avenues for exchange, and we welcome Israel’s return to the African Union as an observer as part of our support for broader normalization.”
Hamas, on the other hand, also took note, slamming the move as “shocking and reprehensible,” and saying that it “enhances the legitimacy of the occupation on our land, and gives it [Israel] more opportunities to continue its plans to erase Palestinian rights and continue its brutal crimes.”
The reinstatement of Israel’s observer status on the body culminated years of Israeli efforts to gain standing in the pan-African organization.
Israel had observer status on the AU’s predecessor organization, the Organization of African Unity. But when that organization dissolved and morphed into the African Union in 2002, Libya’s strongman at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, worked hard to keep Israel – which he blamed for many of the world’s ills – out of the organization.
When Gaddafi ceased being a factor after being overthrown and killed in 2011, South Africa – a country with an anti-Israel government that yields outsized influence and moral authority on the continent — took the lead in blocking Israel’s path.
And it’s not as if Jerusalem did not try to gain admission. When former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his push to dramatically improve relations with Africa, a push that came to the public’s attention when he was the first prime minister to visit Africa in some 30 years when he went there in 2016, this was something very much on his agenda.
At a meeting with leaders of West African heads of state in Liberia in 2017, Netanyahu said “Israel should once again be an observer state of the African Union… I fervently believe that it’s in your interest too, in the interest of Africa. And I hope all of you will support that goal.”
There were several reasons that this was a high priority item. The first had to do with the fact that while Israel had no status in the organization, the Palestinian Authority did, gaining observer status in 2013. What that meant was that while PA President Mahmoud Abbas could periodically address the body and the PA had a hand in crafting the organization’s statements on the Mideast that were very critical of Israel, Israel’s own voice was completely absent.
Another reason has to do with efforts Israel was and continues to make to try and improve its standing in multilateral institutions.
While Israel has good and strong bilateral relations with many countries around the world, its relationship with international organizations leaves much to be desired. So while it has developed good relations with numerous African states, such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon and others, it was getting clobbered at the AU. A similar situation exists with the European Union – Israel has strong relations with numerous European states, but a very difficult relationship with the EU based in Brussels.
Netanyahu began the process of trying to leverage positive bilateral relations in Africa to an improved situation for Israel in the AU, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is acting similarly now, trying to improve Israel’s relationship with the EU.
Observer status in the AU is important for other reasons as well. For instance, Israel now has relations with 46 of the Union’s 55 states, and being able to address the bloc could give legitimacy to some of the holdouts – such as Djibouti, Mali, and Niger – to establish ties. Furthermore, it could pave the way for Israel to take part in Africa-wide projects.
The ability for Israeli representatives now to attend meetings of the AU will enhance the country’s legitimacy, facilitate dialogue with those who were reluctant to dialogue with Israel in the past, and pave the way for greater engagement.
Despite all that, this story could not compete last week with all the attention paid to the Ben & Jerry’s boycott. But imagine what kind of press would be generated if next month the AU caves in to demands by Hamas and member-state Algeria to once again revoke Israel’s observer status – that’s something that would cast Israel in a poor light and certainly create a Ben & Jerry’s-sized buzz.