For months now, the African Union has been twisting in the wind over the question of granting Israel observer status. In July last year, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat controversially accredited the apartheid state, upsetting the continental organisation’s two-decade-long policy of boycotting the Israeli state and sparking protests from a number of member states led by South Africa and Algeria. The issue was to be put to a vote at the annual Heads of State summit held earlier this week in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
However, despite unconfirmed reports attributed to the Algerian delegation that Mahamat’s decision was set to be reversed, or perhaps because it was going to be, the vote was postponed to next year, which in essence meant his decision will hold at least till then. According to the AU’s newly elected chairperson, Senegalese President Macky Sall, there was fear the issue would split the organisation, which prefers to do things by consensus.
The optics were not good. The vote was scheduled just days after Amnesty International, one of the oldest and most credible international human rights organisations, confirmed Israel’s status as an apartheid state, after investigating its treatment of Palestinians both citizens of Israel and those living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territories.
African countries, which had for decades ostracised South Africa for its practice of apartheid against its Black majority and had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Palestinians in their fight against Israeli colonial oppression, publicly embracing an apartheid state to preserve dubious unity is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
The Amnesty report cast Mahamat’s original decision in a horrible light. Even worse is the fact that it is not the first report to brand Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as apartheid. In fact, less than three months prior to the AU’s abrupt U-turn, Human Rights Watch, another venerable global human rights institution, had too concluded that Israel was guilty of apartheid. Defending his decision, Mahamat pointed out that most African countries had recognised Israel and established relations with it, and that a majority had requested such accreditation. He also argued that accrediting Israel would not only be in line with the AU’s consistent call for a two-state solution in Palestine but would also provide it with a means of advocating for Palestinian rights.
The problem with his argument is that it ignores the damaging consequence of his decision – the acceptance of Israel whose founding rationale is, to quote former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not to be ”a state of all its citizens… [but] the nation state of the Jewish people”. For the AU to confer legitimacy on an entity that both in declaration and in practice excludes a section of its own population and brutally occupies and steals the land of another, is a betrayal of Africa’s own history of struggle against brutal colonial occupation and dispossession. Legitimisation is the major consequence, as evinced by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s celebration of the accreditation as “strengthening the fabric of Israel’s foreign relations”. Just as it would have been unthinkable for the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, to admit apartheid South Africa into its fold, so it should be with apartheid Israel. While it is true that the OAU had actually accorded Israel observer status prior to its dissolution in 2002, the fact is that this was not the case for much of its history. In fact, the OAU was a staunch critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, comparing it to the situation in apartheid South Africa.
This was the case even more following the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands, which Africa condemned. For example, in 1986, the OAU Council of Ministers recommended “that Member States renew their firm determination not to establish or re-establish diplomatic ties with Israel” broken off, for the most part in 1973, and described Israel as “a natural and unconditional accomplice of racist South Africa”.
The resumption of ties with African countries came in the wake of renewed peace initiatives and especially the Oslo Accords of 1993. However, by 2002, when the OAU was reconstituted as the AU, it was clear that Israel had little intention of implementing its part and relinquishing occupied Palestinian territory. A decade after that, when the Palestinians were admitted as observers to the AU, Israel was still pointedly excluded.
For much of the Western world, the legitimation of Israel is the touchstone of international respectability. One constantly is harangued about not delegitimising the world’s only Jewish state and about acknowledging its “right to exist”. However, states do not have rights, let alone a right to exist. One of the sine qua nons of state existence is recognition by other states and a right to exist would necessarily mean a right to recognition, a right which – as the Palestinians, Somalilanders and Kosovars can attest – is rather hard to come by. Further, despite their pretensions at permanence, states are relatively recent political inventions and can be rather fleeting. Did the USSR have a right to exist?
One rarely hears similar appeals to not delegitimise the world’s only Palestinian state (which Israeli politicians and officials regularly and publicly do). Nor, I suspect, would there be much Western sympathy for establishing any number of “world’s only” ethnic states elsewhere in the globe. Would the Spanish, for example, be happy with the world’s only Basque state?
But much more importantly, apartheid states should not be legitimised, let alone accorded a right to exist. While the international system of states is anarchic and there are plenty of disreputable and oppressive regimes, that should not mean that anything goes. The AU in numerous resolutions has already noted Israel’s refusal to play according to established rules. Accrediting a serial violator of UN resolutions, a state with an official policy of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, one committed to indefinitely perpetuating a brutal colonial occupation, will remain a terrible stain on the AU’s and Mahamat’s record.