Find the latest breaking news and information on the top stories, science, business, entertainment, politics, and more.

Could the African Union push Israel into international isolation?

Even by the low standards of a country accustomed to being regularly convicted of human rights violations, flouting international law and committing war crimes, February was a pretty bad month for Israel and its standing in the world.

From revelations about his companies undermining democratic elections around the world to this week’s footage of his illegal settlers, protected by his army, carrying out a pogrom against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank city of Huwara, the true face of the country has been exposed to the world in a cruel and careful way.

At the opening ceremony of the annual African Union Summit, held two weeks ago at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there was another nasty surprise and more humiliation in store for the Jewish state. Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, the deputy director of the African Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, was dismissed after showing up, brandishing a non-transferable invitation purportedly issued to Israel’s ambassador to the African Union, Aleli Admasu.

A video posted to social media showed uniformed security personnel escorting her out of the auditorium and AU president Moussa Faki followed up with a clarification that Israel’s controversial accreditation as an observer state in 2021, which it had been pursuing for two decades, actually suspended and “so we didn’t invite any Israeli officials to our summit”.

Worse was to come. According to a draft statement on the situation in Palestine and the Middle East distributed to reporters at the end of the summit, the AU not only expressed “full support to the Palestinian people in their legitimate struggle against the Israeli occupation”, but denounced it “continued” illegal settlements and Israel’s intransigence, but, significantly, urged member states to “end all direct and indirect trade, scientific and cultural exchanges with the State of Israel.”

This latest recommendation, reflecting the demands of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, if implemented, could mark the beginning of a change in Israel’s fortunes, not just on the continent, but around the world. After all, Africa is no stranger to leading a global movement seeking to isolate and pressure oppressive, ethno-supremacist regimes, having led one in the 1980s that targeted South Africa’s apartheid regime. And in fact, the draft statement “calls on the international community … to dismantle and outlaw Israel’s system of colonialism and apartheid.”

That’s hard talk. But whether action will follow is up in the air. The relationship between Africa and Israel is complex and fluctuating. Furthermore, the AU’s positions on relations with Israel and the foreign policy of its individual members do not always coincide. While Israel’s actions toward its neighbors have been of great irritation, they are far from the only consideration for African nations. And in the past 21 years, the AU has been more principled, while its member states have been more pragmatic.

Initially, Israel maintained close ties with newly independent African countries as a way of countering the isolation and hostility imposed on it by its Arab neighbors. In the 1960s, more than 1,800 Israeli experts conducted development programs on the continent, and by 1972, Israel had more African embassies than Britain.

It had established diplomatic relations with 32 of the 41 independent African states that were also members of the Organization of African Unity, the forerunner of the AU, founded in 1963. For much of this period, attempts by the North African nations, led by Egypt, to gain support for the Arab cause from the rest of Africa had largely failed, the relatively young nations not wanting to get caught up in the conflict.

But attitudes began to change after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. African reactions to the conflict were mixed, with some countries, such as apartheid South Africa and Ethiopia, who were initially critical, expressing support for Israel and others of the Arab states. Overall, however, many African leaders, with memories of colonialism’s acquisition of land by force still fresh, viewed Israel’s actions vaguely, and on June 8, as the fighting raged, the OAU condemned the “unprovoked aggression” by Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire.

However, the real break came in the 1970s and especially after the October War of 1973. By then, despite resistance from many countries, the problems in the Middle East had pushed the continent’s agenda ever higher and created rifts within a continent that consensus and solidarity. At the 1971 summit, the OAU made a half-hearted and ultimately fruitless effort to mediate between the Arabs and the Israelis, calling for negotiations and appointing a commission headed by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to oversee its efforts.

Between March 1972 and the outbreak of war in October 1973, eight African countries broke off relations with Israel. Tensions erupted over the issue at the 10th anniversary meeting. Secretary General of the OAU, Nzo Ekangaki declared that “so long as Israel continues to occupy parts of the territory of one of the OAU’s founding members, Egypt, it will continue to enjoy the condemnation of the OAU.” However, many other African states refused to sacrifice their relations with Israel over the issue, despite OAU urgings.

The October War and the resulting oil embargo by Arab states that drove up oil prices worldwide changed that calculation. By November, all but four African states — Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mauritius — had left Israel, which only made matters worse by establishing a close relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa, a move that with South Africa continues to poison. the mainland to this day.

Despite the restoration of ties in the 1980s and 1990s, Israel never regained the status it enjoyed two decades earlier. Although it maintains diplomatic relations with more than 40 countries on the continent today, it remains excluded from the AU and the vast majority of the 54 African votes in the UN General Assembly are still reliably pledged to the Palestinians.

The drive to improve tires over the past few years has borne some fruit, but it has also run against the grain of history. The fact is that today’s situation is similar to that of 1973, when the continent was divided on how to respond to Israeli oppression, with countries balancing a principled resistance to apartheid with pragmatic economic and security cooperation.

However, a major crisis can tip the balance in favor of the former. What an internal assessment by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs closed in July of that year rings true half a century later: “Israel’s image as an occupier, its refusal to withdraw from all areas – are unacceptable in Africa, and the Arab demands are gaining emotional and instinctive support even among our friends… The danger exists that these trends will continue to escalate…”.

The events in Addis in February were an indicator of this.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.