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AU chairperson’s state visit a diplomatic coup for Israel

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Israel’s observer status at the African Union (AU) was strengthened in recent days when Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi visited Israel at the end of October. With Tshisekedi also chairperson of the AU, the trip was a vote of confidence in Israel remaining an observer in spite of vehement opposition from other countries including South Africa.

The visit came after Tshisekedi announced last year that he would appoint an ambassador to Israel for the first time in 20 years. Speaking at the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference in Washington on 1 March 2020, Tshisekedi said, “Relations between my country and Israel have long been lethargic, yet we have huge areas of convergence, interests in security, economics, culture, and science.”

A lot has happened since then – including a global pandemic – but it looks like Tshisekedi will deliver on that promise of diplomatic relations and more. At a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Tshisekedi informed him that he would soon open a diplomatic and trade mission in Jerusalem. He said he supported Israel’s accession as an observer to the AU and was “working to this effect”. The two leaders discussed strengthening bilateral co-operation in agriculture, communications, and trade.

His diplomatic working meeting with Israel President Isaac Herzog began with a “full circle” moment, emphasising that Israel had always had ties with the DRC and Africa, even if this had been interrupted at times. “My father was the sixth president of the state of Israel, whose first state visit was to your country in 1984, and now the first president to make a state visit of my presidency is you,” said Herzog. “I see this as a sign of friendship and respect.”

Herzog promised to do everything he could to ensure that Israel reopened its embassy in Kinshasa, after it was shuttered in 2003 amidst ongoing warfare in the country. Israel used to have observer status with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but lost it when the OAU disbanded in 2002. Just less than 20 years later, that connection was re-forged when AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat granted Israel observer status in July 2021.

“Knowing your central leadership position, especially yours personally in the AU, I thank you for your support for our status as an observer state in this important forum, a status that I believe and hope will be preserved, not least thanks to our close relationship,” said Herzog at the meeting.

In response, Tshisekedi said, “We want to develop the best possible relations with Israel. During our meeting, we spoke about issues where we want to collaborate with Israel. We’re talking about security, because we know Israel’s strength in this field; agriculture; infrastructure; and the whole digital arena.”

Local political analyst Steven Gruzd notes that Tshisekedi is one of several African leaders to have travelled to Israel in the past few years. The list includes presidents, prime ministers, or foreign ministers from Côte d’Ivoire, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

“Tshisekedi is also leveraging his relationship with the United States with respect to Israel,” Gruzd says.

Regarding the AU decision on Israel’s status, Gruzd says the countries who opposed it (including South Africa) forced it onto the agenda of an AU meeting on 15 October. “It was pushed to the bottom of the list, and the meeting, chaired by the Congolese foreign minister, ran out of time to discuss the issue fully, kicking the can down the road to the AU summit in February 2022 in Addis Ababa. Critics charge that the issue is sowing serious division in the AU, and that the DRC deliberately delayed the discussion.”

South African Institute of International Affairs senior researcher and expert on the DRC, Stephanie Wolters, says, “The significance of the visit is in terms of the bilateral relationship between Israel and the DRC, less so with regard to how the continent is seeing Israel. I don’t think it’s symbolic of any kind of substantial shift. Mostly, the origins of the relationship between Tshisekedi and the Israelis come from the strong relationship between the United States and the DRC. It all really started when Tshisekedi went and spoke at AIPAC.

“I think that from the Israeli perspective, for its general public, it can be seen as a public relations coup to have the head of state of the third largest African country come to visit,” she says. “But I don’t believe this is the beginning of any kind of trend. This is very much Tshisekedi pursuing a bilateral relationship.”

The DRC president also enjoyed a state dinner with Herzog, and greeted diplomatic and religious dignitaries including the Latin and Greek Orthodox patriarchs of Jerusalem. He visited biblical sites, Mount Herzl, and Yad Vashem, and was given an honorary degree from the Academic College of Netanya.

In addition, the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) and Jewish National Fund South Africa (JNF) presented Tshisekedi with the first Israel-Africa Olive Tree Award, which honours those who help to strengthen ties between the people of Israel and Africa. The two groups said that his trip marked a new phase in Africa-Israel relations. The award was presented at a ceremony in Jerusalem organised by the JNF, which unveiled a plaque to mark the occasion.

Says SAFI spokesperson Bafana Modise, “Israel and Africa have much to gain from further co-operation, and Israeli technology can help address challenges that are vital to further the development of Africa. These include areas such as water, healthcare, agriculture, cyber security, and youth development.”

Michael Kransdorff, the chairperson of JNF South Africa, thanked Tshisekedi for his friendship, saying, “The JNF of South Africa is committed to developing agricultural and environmental projects that promote development on the continent. In South Africa, the fund has for many years been supporting environmental education through the JNF-Walter Sisulu Environment Centre in Mamelodi, Pretoria, and the Victor Daitz Centre in Hammersdale, Mpumalanga, reaching thousands of children a year.”

“The South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] welcomes Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s important visit to Israel,” says SAZF national chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s notable that the sitting chairperson of the AU places a high priority on this official trip, and shows that Africa is committed to positive engagement, dialogue, and development with Israel. The SAZF believes this is a glimpse into the future of relations, and encourages other states on the continent, particularly South Africa, to become part of Africa’s progress going forward.”

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