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AU Summit: Expulsion of Israeli diplomat raises political temperature

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Picture: Amanuel Sileshi / AFP – The expulsion of Israeli diplomat, Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, from the 36th African Union Summit in Ethiopia by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, pictured, has caused a diplomatic furore. Bar-Li was expelled on the grounds that she was not the duly accredited Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia who was invited to the gathering.

By Sizo Nkala

The 36TH AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 18 and 19 has come and gone. The summit took place in a milestone year for continental governance as it coincided with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the first of a decade of the AU Agenda 2063.

The OAU is the predecessor of the AU while the Agenda 2063 offers a vision for and practical steps in transforming the African continent by 2063. As such, the meeting of the heads of state and government provided an opportunity to reflect on how far the Continent has come and to chart the way forward towards the goals agreed upon.

Indeed, the theme of this year’s gathering, “Year of AfCFTA: Acceleration of the African Continental Free Trade Area Implementation”, is an indication of the resolve and commitment on the part of the African leaders to press forward with realising the founding objectives of the OAU and the goals of the Agenda 2063.

The summit saw changes in leadership with the leader of the island state, the Union of Comoros, President Azali Assoumani, taking over from Senegal’s Macky Sall as the new chairperson of the AU.

While Assoumani quickly promised to help accelerate the implementation of the AfCFTA, it is worrying that his own country is one of the 10 countries that are yet to ratify the AfCFTA Agreement, almost three years after it came into force. The AfCFTA does not seem to be a top priority for his country, yet he is asking the Continent to rely on him to speed up its implementation.

South Africa was also elected the chairperson of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC). It is therefore interesting to see how South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will steer the PSC on the conflict raging in Mozambique where South Africa’s defence forces have been deployed to help quell the insurgency.

However, perhaps the biggest story to emerge from the summit was the expulsion of a senior Israeli diplomat, Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, who serves as Israel’s foreign ministry’s deputy director for Africa from the summit.

This incident has caused a diplomatic furore. Through his spokesperson, the AU Commission Chairperson claimed that Bar-Li was asked to leave because she was not the duly accredited Israel ambassador to Ethiopia who was invited to the gathering.

However, Israel’s foreign ministry expressed its disappointment and condemned the removal of Bar-Li from the proceedings, arguing that she was an accredited observer with full entrance badges. The Jewish state blamed South Africa and Algeria for instigating the removal of its representative based on hate.

South Africa was quick to deny the claims made by Israel pointing out that in any case, Israel’s observer status was yet to be determined by the AU. Israel promised to summon South Africa’s representative to register its displeasure.

The AU Commission’s decision to grant Israel observer status in 2021 was swiftly condemned by some member states, led by Algeria and South Africa. The dissenters argued that granting Israel an observer status was inconsistent with the organisation’s principled support for the Palestinian people whose territory is under Israeli occupation.

The ANC has unequivocally called Israel an apartheid state for its treatment of the Palestinian people. However, the debate on whether to nullify Israel’s observer status has been postponed indefinitely because of the divided opinion on the matter, which some fear may cripple the organisation at a time when unity is paramount.

The summit upheld the suspensions of Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea due to the continued military rule in the respective countries. The leaders denounced unconstitutional and undemocratic changes in government while committing to helping the four countries return to constitutional order.

This stance by the AU marks a new era. Seemingly gone are the days when the continental body used to overlook unconstitutional and undemocratic takeovers, which have led some critics to call it a “club of dictators”.

Military coups have been detrimental to the achievement of continental aspirations such as regional integration. One hopes that the AU’s firm stance of disapproval of the military coups in the four countries will be an effective deterrent to future coups. However, it is not clear what these countries stand to lose as a result of the suspension except not being welcome in the annual gatherings that for all intents and purposes have become a high-sounding nothing.

Moreover, the AU Summit also took time to endorse the resolutions of the Dakar 2 Summit on Food Sovereignty and Resilience led by the African Development Bank. The Dakar summit managed to raise $36 billion (about R658bn), which will be channelled towards the improvement of food and agricultural production on the Continent.

This is a critical intervention in light of the recent global food inflation caused by the disruption in food supply chains seen since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war. This has seen hundreds of millions of people in Africa become food insecure.

As such, this programme will improve the resilience of Africa’s food supply chains against global shocks such as war and pandemics.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies