The laborious diplomatic statements that often proceed from foreign offices across the world when the Israel-Palestine dispute assumes perennial armed dimensions are once again flying all over the place. At this time, one reads with paralyzing frustration the urging of calm, advising the parties to consider diplomatic talks, the reiteration of a two-state solution (a possibility that continues to evaporate) and an American defense of weapon-heavy Israel.
For those born between the period after the Camp David Accords (yes, that had little to nothing to do with Palestine) and the Camp David Summit, we have only been certain of one characteristic – the war is not one the Palestinians could ever win militarily. Israel and its allies have argued that the long and severe prosecution of Jewish people has occasioned the need for the most optimal capacity to defend the Jewish nation. Put this historic persecution beside the present hostility from some other countries in the Middle East and you may understand the Israeli point of view.
Yet, very few, if any at all, in the Middle East can successfully hurt Israel. It is the only country in that region that has nuclear weapons as part of what it calls a deterrence strategy. Out of the 140 countries in its survey, Global Firepower, the global military assessing agency, ranks Israel as having the 20th strongest military capacity in the world. Only Iran, Saudi Arabia and if you count Egypt as part of the geopolitics in that area, rank higher in the Middle East. Iran is the only one hostile to Israel these days.
From a historical perspective, one wonders how much of Israel’s military growth is in response to the threat posed by Palestine, its most apparent enemy. Palestine is a measly foe spurred by Hamas’ chest beating but Israel does not treat it as one. The ratio of civilian and military deaths between the two warring factions as well as the fact that Palestine is not even considered a state but a nuisance to be contained, tells a story. For 14 years, Israel, with the help of Egypt, has blocked access to Gaza thereby forcing eight out of ten Palestinians to be dependent on the sustenance of humanitarian aid.
In the ongoing war, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef have urged peace and cordiality between Jews and Arabs with Netanyahu emphatically stating that “nothing can justify an Arab mob assaulting Jews, and nothing can justify a Jewish mob assaulting Arabs.” The conflict does hold repercussions for the relationships in Israel between Jews and Arab Palestinians who make up about 20% of the Israeli population. Netanyahu has always been eager to portray the possibility of a peaceful Jewish-Arab community but has rarely practiced this, frankly.
In 2009, he professed a two-state solution under a few conditions. As the years wore on, Netanyahu’s true intentions became clearer. A decade later, he was urging annexation of the West Bank, a position perhaps energized by the fact that then-US leader Donald Trump did not mind. Some also said Netanyahu was playing to the whims of the far-right in Israel but it is better to see Netanyahu’s paradigmatic shift in tandem with determined Israeli expansionism over the last 50 years.
In February 2021, global policy think tank the Rand Corporation released a report that concluded that “Israelis across the political spectrum prefer the status quo to the two-state solution, and Palestinians are only willing to accept a two-state solution that Israelis will be unable to accept”. This is bigger than Netanyahu. There is little desire among Jewish Israelis themselves to share a border with an independent Palestinian state.
This is the situation the African Union (AU) – which has not shied from making statements in the past about the conflict – has to deal with. Palestine possesses observer status in the AU, a fact from which emanates the AU’s defense of Palestinian humanity as well as condemnation of Israel.
What can the AU do?
Mediation in the conflict in the last three decades has been the sole preserve of the so-called Quartet on the Middle East – the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. These powers have shaped the framework for peace and the lukewarm pursuit of a two-state solution.
In the larger scheme of things, there is not much to expect from the African Union particularly because it lacks the influence required for mediation. Israel may also see the AU as a biased entity since the Jewish nation lost its observer status in 2002 during the reformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). It has been fighting ever since to regain this, lobbying influential African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia and Egypt to support its bid.
To give you a picture of how far Israel is from regaining its observer status, consider the fact only Malawi has moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem since the Israeli government declared Jerusalem as its capital. A more positive scenario for Israel may still not be enough if we remember that just 12 African countries joined the United States party as it celebrated the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018. Also, only Togo formally supported the Trump administration’s decision in 2017.
Israel does share a long history with Africa. It was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the independence of Ghana, the first free sub-Saharan country and it set up its Agency for International Development Cooperation to specifically handle its interests in Africa in 1958. Israel built its first embassy in Africa – in Kenya – in 1963, the same year the Organization of African Unity was formed. The Israelis have been seeking African amity for as long as they have had a war in their own backyard.
The relationship turned sour at different points in time including after1967’s Six-Day War when Israel began to seem like the colonizer these African countries had known not so long before. After the 1970s, the political will of African nations to condemn Israeli occupation of Palestinian settlements was concrete. In 2002, the AU made clear what it thought of Israel by extending an observer status invitation to Palestine.
It may not be correct to describe what has existed between Israel and Africa as animosity. It is a complex relationship that holds so much meaning for either side. Intriguingly, even as African countries became more vocal in condemning Israel after the 1970s, what we have seen is a slow but sure growth of cooperation in the areas of technology, finance and defense. In 2016, Netanyahu declared that “Africa is returning to Israel”, a statement that forespeaks the volume of interest the Israelis are ready to retain in Africa. It is a major supplier of arms and military tech to African countries.
The interest is also borne out of concern for the defensive wellness of Israel. If the ongoing war against Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahel region fails, Israel would have another trouble on its hands.
There is also an oft-underappreciated angle to all of this which is Israel’s soft power as the depository of so much Christian faith and identity. Neo-Pentecostalism, a movement that encourages respect for Jerusalem as a holy land, is the fastest-growing brand of Christianity in Africa, and as Israeli professor of African History Yotam Gidron once pointed out, that fact is not lost on Israel. The country counts on this soft power just as it has counted on Evangelical Christian support in the United States.
On the other side of the coin, African antipathy to Israel is largely dictated by religious affinity with Muslim-majority Palestine. In Africa, nearly 40% of people identify with Islam.
The African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat has already condemned Israel’s continued bombardments of Palestinian settlements and holy Islamic sites. Mahamat repeated the AU’s “strong support of the African Union with the Palestinian people in their legitimate quest for an independent and sovereign State with East Jerusalem as its capital”. It was a statement fit for the purpose – supporting a two-state solution while not including much to antagonize Israel, perhaps in recognition of how much Israel means to individual African countries.
The African Union is a centrifugal force and that makes collective resolutions in situations of the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian war nearly impossible. Even still, as stated above, African countries do not possess what it means to bring about peace and proactively support Palestine.
Could more be done than this seemingly defeatist analysis? One of the very few options open to African countries is to support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli state. Of course, that movement suffers from the moral ambiguity of European and American leadership however, it represents to many Africans the least problematic position (in terms of antisemitism). The BDS effectively extols the idea that Israel is not beyond the remits of punitive action even given the symbolic importance of being the only Jewish nation.