ANC trying to lead from behind, while the rest of the AU moves ahead

Sara Gon writes on liberation movement hostility towards Israel gaining AU observer status

Following the otherwise unexpected and surprising announcement of Israel’s being granted observer status in the African Union (AU), it was entirely unsurprising that the South African government would describe the AU’s decision as ‘appalling’.

Israel had observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the AU’s predecessor, but had been working for nearly 20 years to establish the same status at the AU.

Making the move official on 22 July, according to Al Jazeera, the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi and Chad, Aleli Admasu, presented his credentials to Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the AU Commission in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where the AU is situated.

According to Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, Israels observer status will enable stronger cooperation between the two parties on various aspects, including the fight against the coronavirus and the prevention of the spread of extremist terrorism” on the African continent.

Israel mounted a "diplomatic operation" with a visit to the AU by Aliza Ben-Noun, Israel’s director general of African affairs, who met with 30 ambassadors from member countries.  

Observer status also represents "political recognition" by an organisation that had spurned Israel for decades. (‘Palestine’ already has observer status at the AU.)

Said Ben-Noun: “This political recognition is extremely important because it's not good enough to have good bilateral relations with the member states,” 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.

Israel maintains diplomatic relations with 46 out of the continents 55 countries. In 2016, it renewed ties with Guinea for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2019 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. Israel has no diplomatic relations with Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Tunisia. All nine are Muslim countries.

An Israeli diplomat said that while observer status “doesnt 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 many of its traditional antagonists were no longer pushing for its exclusion.

With a physical presence at the AU Israel will “know what is happening” and keep track of “political developments and initiatives” on the AU’s agenda.

The bloc has always been harshly critical of Israels handling of the Palestinian issue. It’s not clear whether recent developments will change that or not. 

Recognition, however, suggests that such criticism is now more a form of solidarity with the Palestinians than a heartfelt condemnation of Israel. Enlightened self-interest has probably won the day; there may even be a realisation that much of the rhetoric about Israel coming from Palestinian leadership is hyperbolic and propagandistic.

Ironically, the country that has had uninterrupted, though variable, diplomatic ties with Israel since 1949 is South Africa. Yet, on the AU’s granting of observer status to Israel, the South African government said it "is appalled at the unjust and unwarranted decision of the AU Commission to grant Israel observer status in the African Union”.

"The decision to grant Israel observer status is even more shocking in a year in which the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of the land," South Africa's foreign affairs ministry said, blasting the move as "inexplicable" and “incomprehensible".

This accurately reflects the African National Congress’s (ANC) attachment to the Palestinians and its antipathy towards Israel, which it has officially expressed for nearly twenty years.

The ANC’s position can be traced back to its commitment to socialism in the 1950s, its support from the Soviet Union from 1961 to 1991, and its solidarity with the Palestinians as perpetual victims perpetually oppressed. The ANC shows no understanding either of the complexity of the conflict or that the versions of events expressed by the Palestinians are not the last word.

The ANC has a romantic attachment both to socialism, notwithstanding the demise of the Soviet Union, and its military training in Libya together with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was secular and socialist.

Thus has the Tripartite Alliance – the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions – had such uncompromising attitudes towards Israel. Probably the reason that the Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation retains is diplomatic relations with Israel is because it doesn’t want to antagonise the West, so it professes it can play a role in resolving the conflict, because of the South African experience. This is fanciful; the ANC has been too partisan to be trusted by Israel.

Recognition by the AU is probably the result of pragmatism and the opportunities for help from a country both willing and able to provide such help. Most of Africa has realised that its development does not lie with adherence to socialism and that success is more likely to come with free markets and democracy.

South Africa is the outlier: it is moving deeper into the mire of socialism and a command economy, notwithstanding that we are in an increasingly terrible economic situation as a country and getting worse.

Our positions on world indices of wealth and development are getting worse and worse. Our adoption of more ruinous legislation – expropriation without compensation and national health insurance – postponing elections unconstitutionally, disarming citizens, furthering black economic empowerment beyond the point of discouraging foreign investment completely, and committing ever deeper to cadre deployment, is the path to ruination.

In a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ignorant, Dirco says: “South Africa firmly believes that as long as Israel is not willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions it should not have observer status in the AU.”

If this is what the Palestinians have conveyed to the ANC, it is false.

There is only one pre-condition for Israel, that whatever borders may be agreed ultimately, the state of Israel will continue to exist as a Jewish state and be recognised as such. It will not negotiate itself out of existence.

Like much of the Left worldwide, the ANC has bought into the Soviets’ masterly propaganda of Zionism being racism. That way Israel can be called the world’s worst human rights abuser even though it by no means meets that standard.

UN Watch is an NGO whose mandate is to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter. It lists the following countries as the world’s worst human rights abusers in 2020 from one to ten: China, Iran, Cameroon, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Turkey, North Korea and Russia.

The ANC is trying to lead from behind while the rest of the AU is moving ahead.

Sara Gon is head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom