FOREIGN RELATIONS: SA Jewish community unhappy with eviction of Israel’s top Africa official from AU summit

FOREIGN RELATIONS: SA Jewish community unhappy with eviction of Israel’s top Africa official from AU summit

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has deplored the ejection of Israel’s top Africa diplomat from the weekend African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

The organisation, which represents most of the Jewish community in South Africa, said it was “extremely disappointing” the governing ANC was happy with the supposed “victory” that this ejection represented.

“In reality, this was a ‘victory’ only for pressure groups seeking to subvert the purpose of the AU by using it as an anti-Israel propaganda platform,” SAJBD national chairperson Professor Karen Milner said in a statement.

Sharon Bar-Li, the deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in charge of Africa, was escorted out of the public opening ceremony of the summit by officials on Saturday. Milner said the aim of the AU was to provide a forum for African nations to discuss issues of common concern, including conflict resolution. By evicting Israel from its summit it had lost an opportunity to do this.

“The AU represents all those who live on the continent, including those of the Jewish faith. For the South African Jewish community, it was therefore deeply distressing to witness the world’s sole Jewish nation-state being excluded in so hostile and overtly discriminatory a manner.”

Bar-Li’s removal from the summit happened against the backdrop of a wider ongoing and divisive debate in the AU about whether Israel should be accredited to the AU as an observer. Yet the AU summit did not discuss the issue at all.

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President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 36th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 18 February 2023. (Photo: Jairus Mmutle / GCIS)

Israel’s foreign ministry blamed South Africa and Algeria for the eviction of Bar-Li, saying the two countries were motivated by “hate”. It said it would summon South Africa’s acting ambassador to Israel to reprimand South Africa.

Although both the ANC and the government have made their opposition to Israel’s observer status very clear, Vincent Magwenya, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera South Africa demanded that Israel “substantiate their claim” that Pretoria was behind Bar-Li’s ejection.

Clayson Monyela, the spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, told Reuters that until the AU took a decision on whether to grant Israel observer status, “you cannot have the country sitting and observing.

“So, it’s not about South Africa or Algeria, it’s an issue of principle.”

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One of the oddities of the incident is that although Israel’s status as an observer at the AU has supposedly been suspended pending the outcome of a debate about its status, the African Union Commission indicated that Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the AU, Aleli Admasu, had in fact been invited to the summit.

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Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat. (Photo: Luke Dray / Getty Images)

Bar-Li had been evicted because Admasu was the duly accredited Israeli ambassador, who was expected at the summit, Al Jazeera quoted Ebba Kalondo as explaining. Kalondo is the spokesperson for African Union chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.

An unnamed AU official told the AFP news agency the invitation issued to Admasu had been non-transferable. 

The Israeli foreign ministry appeared to dispute this, saying Bar-Li had been removed from the AU meeting “despite her status as an accredited observer with entrance badges”.

The ANC — which has demanded that South Africa’s embassy in Israel be downgraded to a mere liaison office — said in its statement this weekend that it was “encouraged” by the ejection of “Israeli representatives” from the AU summit.

It added: “This occurred against an attempt to undermine the current sitting AU summit from considering a report that is supposed to guide discussions on whether Israel must be granted an observer status.”

But there was no attempt by Bar-Li or Israel itself to undermine the summit’s consideration of this issue, as far as could be established.

In fact, the AU summit had never intended to discuss the issue and did not do so at the weekend, officials said. It appears to be determined to continue kicking the can down the road, to avoid splits among members who are deeply divided on the issue.

The controversy erupted in July 2021 when Faki granted Israel observer status at the AU, probably as a minor formality as it seems that such a status has so far been granted to all who requested it.

But South Africa, Algeria and some other countries objected, saying Faki should have consulted all member states. He did so at the summit in February 2022. But the heads of state and government could not agree. The then incoming AU chairperson, Senegalese President Macky Sall, announced afterwards that because the issue was so divisive it had been referred to a committee of eight presidents to ponder. They would report to the 2023 ordinary summit, which has just concluded.

But the presidential committee has never met and so had no report to submit to the summit this weekend.

An Addis Ababa-based diplomat told Daily Maverick: “This matter was not on the agenda of the summit. The ad hoc committee of heads of state which was established last February was not convened by the summit but by Senegal and thus there was no report. So, the matter is not concluded.”

The issue seems to have disappeared into a bureaucratic limbo. Officially, Israel’s observer status at the AU is under review by the presidential committee, as officials have said. Unofficially, Israel’s position seems likely to continue for some time to be adjudicated ad hoc and chaotically, as it was on Saturday. DM


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