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Why African Countries Divide over Israel’s AU Observer Bid

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In early July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic four-nation trip to East Africa. The trip was a resounding success. Netanyahu’s aspirations of becoming a global statesman were boosted considerably by the willingness of African leaders to expand their trade and security linkages with Israel. Israel’s goal of becoming an observer state in the African Union (AU) also gained momentum, as the leaders of Ethiopia and Kenya endorsed Israel’s AU observer bid.

Despite these positive developments, Israel’s desire to become an AU observer state and expand its diplomatic involvement in Africa is fraught with many obstacles. Even though Israel was an observer state in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) until its dissolution in 2002, eleven African countries still do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel’s support for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and alleged arms exports to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide have ensured that anti-Israel sentiments remain widespread amongst Africa’s political elites.

Visceral anti-Israel hostilities have even surfaced within African countries with close ties to Jerusalem. During Netanyahu’s visit to Kampala, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni repeatedly referred to Israel as “Palestine.” This deliberate mix-up was covered extensively in the international press and overshadowed the Netanyahu-Museveni bilateral summit.

The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) AU observer status also complicates Israel’s hopes of increasing its involvement in the African Union. Since 2013, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has called for an African boycott of Israeli goods and has urged AU members to support peace negotiations on Palestine’s terms. As Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories has been widely criticized in Africa, Abbas’s anti-Israel rhetoric has resonated strongly with many African leaders.