First published by the Middle East Monitor on 4/8/2017
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 29th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 3 July, 2017 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency]
When the PLO asked the United Nations General Assembly for an upgrade in Palestine’s status to “non-member observer state” on 29th November 2012, the motion was passed by a vote of 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions. The vote was met with ecstatic celebrations by the Palestinian delegation and disappointment on the faces of Israeli diplomats. The Israelis knew this could be a game changer, for although they, together with their American ally had scuppered the attempt in the Security Council (UNSC) for full recognition of Palestine as a state, the new status would offer the Palestinians the opportunity to pursue their ‘internationalisation’ strategy.
Having failed to make progress in direct peace negotiations under the auspices of the Americans, the Palestinians used their newly found status to join an array of international organisations and conventions. Palestine had already secured membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the previous year, which resulted in Israel freezing its $2 million annual contribution to it.
On 12th April 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the relevant documentation to join 15 treaties and conventions including the Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the First Additional Protocol. Perhaps the most important organisation Palestine was able to join as a result of its upgraded status was the International Criminal Court (ICC), which it formally joined in April 2015. Joining the ICC allows Palestine to bring cases against Israeli officials for alleged crimes, including the 2014 war on Gaza and continued illegal settlement construction.
While Palestine struggles to have resolutions passed in the UN Security Council due to the likelihood that the US will wield its veto to protect Israel, in other forums where the veto does not exist, it has generally secured enough support to pass relevant motions. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) regularly investigates Israeli human rights abuses and passes resolutions condemning its practices. UNESCO has passed important resolutions regarding Israeli policies in East Jerusalem and the status of Hebron’s old city and Al Aqsa Mosque that have raised severe criticism by Israel and its American backer; they were, however, unable to block these without the weapon of a US veto.
Despite these successes, support for the Palestinians in international forums is under threat from a sustained diplomatic effort by Israel to dissuade states and organisations traditionally hostile to it and supportive of the Palestinians to change course.
A Palestinian statehood resolution at the UNSC in December 2014 seemed to have secured enough votes to force the Obama administration to wield the US veto. That was until Nigeria, which has traditionally supported the Palestinians had a last minute change of heart and abstained; meaning the US did not need to exercise its veto. That was despite France, China and Russia voting in favour of the resolution. Nigeria’s Ambassador echoed the US position stating that the ultimate path to peace lies “in a negotiated solution”. This came after heavy pressure on the Nigerians which included telephone calls to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan by Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
In another first, India’s Narendra Modi made the first state visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister last July. Commenting on a visit in which he physically embraced Prime Minister Netanyahu he said that India and Israel shared a “deep and centuries-old” connection. Suffice to note that that connection had not translated into a similar visit by a sitting Indian Prime Minister since Israel’s creation in 1948. Furthermore, it is worth noting that India is now Israel’s biggest arms market worth about $1bn per annum.
Israel’s relations with China have been developing since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. China has moved from support for the Palestinians and opposition to Israel to support for a nebulous “just and peaceful resolution” to the issue instead.
Football’s governing body, FIFA, which had been due to sanction Israel for allowing teams from the illegal West Bank settlements to participate in Israel’s league, against FIFA’s own rules. The move was kicked this into the long grass following a telephone call from Israel’s Netanyahu to FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino.
In recent months, particularly following US President Trump’s visit to the region, even Arab states that had unreservedly supported the Palestinians have shown signs of change. Netanyahu insists relations with Arab states which have largely been hostile to Israel is shifting. There has even been talk of limited normalisation by some Gulf States to incentivise Israel to halt settlement construction and re-engage in the “peace process” with Palestinians.
An even greater danger for the erosion of Palestinian support lies in Africa. Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been pursuing closer relations and support from the African continent. On a visit to Kenya in 2016, he said “There are 50 countries in Africa”, “Just about all of them,” he continued “could be allies of Israel. They vote at international forums, and I know people don’t believe this, but I think we can change the automatic majorities in the UN and so on if you begin to shift this.”
The next step in Netanyahu’s pursuit of this change is the forthcoming ‘Africa-Israel Summit’ which has been called for 23- 24 October in Lome, Togo. The Summit’s website sells it as a “framework that will permit the leaders of the trade, security and diplomatic sectors of Africa and Israel to meet, network and collaborate”. It quotes Netanyahu saying Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel”. The last time the Israeli and Togo leaders were due to meet was at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Summit in Monrovia, Liberia back in June. However, the meeting was cancelled following a scuffle between the two leaders’ body guards.
Netanyahu’s attendance at the annual conference was to try and garner support for Israel at the UN and other forums and to “dissolve this majority, this giant bloc of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and international bodies”. The conference saw Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe named the new chairperson of ECOWAS in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
Although the Africa-Israel Summit is still on schedule, pressure to cancel it appears to be growing. Morocco and the Palestinian Authority have reportedly been pressuring the Togolese President to cancel the summit and African countries to boycott it. This pressure must grow rapidly to avoid Israel reaping the fruits of its efforts in Africa, the continent which experienced apartheid in South Africa and which until relatively recently saw its fall. How can Africa, in particular, entertain Israeli apartheid?
The Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu has labelled Israeli policies as Apartheid for over a decade. “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces,” he said in a statement in 2014. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
The Palestinians may have assumed that Africa would resist Netanyahu’s charm offensive. However, increasingly it seems economic considerations trump human rights. The PLO has representative offices in 20 African countries. Apart from the North African Arab countries and other member states of the Arab League, Palestine has in South Africa and the African National Congress in particular strong supporters of the Palestinian cause. South Africa has been considering downgrading its embassy in Tel Aviv in protest at the lack of progress towards peace and Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership must use every ally to push back against Israel’s diplomatic offensive in Africa or face further erosion of support where it matters for the just Palestinian cause.