June 16, 2018
By Melanie Kent, AJC Africa Institute Program Associate
June 13, 2018, was a roller coaster of a day for those seated in the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York. An emergency special session had been called in response to the recent violence at the Gaza border, one of the largest escalations since 2014. The drama here wasn’t about the end result—the status quo on Israel-related resolutions at the UN is a landslide against Israel. Rather, it was caused by voting on an amendment to the day’s resolution, voting that dramatically exposed the fraying edges of the usual consensus.
A U.S. amendment condemned the terrorists of Hamas and—stunningly—received a majority. Then, when the Secretary General noted that a two-thirds majority was required for the amendment to pass, an appeal of his decision lost by only six votes.
Because the UN is a space where the battle over storylines—an essential component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself—is fought, this was a moral victory for Israel, if not a technical one.
That important anti-Hamas majority had been reached by a margin of just four votes, three of them African: Liberia, Togo, and South Sudan sided with Israel, and 12 other African nations gave their tacit support by abstaining.
These African votes suggest a new and altered landscape for Israel and Africa at the UN, part of a gradual shift that AJC has helped generate.
Voting in perspective
Some context: African countries have a long history of voting quite consistently on Israel-related issues at the UN—and not in Israel’s favor. In the General Assembly each country gets one vote, which means that Africa’s 54 countries, with over a quarter of those votes, weigh in heavily. What makes this percentage even more significant is that these countries mostly vote together as a bloc: the African Group. Such voting by consensus creates a kind of magnetism, so that countries that may be otherwise inclined or ambivalent end up toeing the party line rather than risk alienation from various voting blocs. United, the African Group is a force to be reckoned with, and it is deeply invested in keeping it that way.
So, who sets the tone on Israel? Generally, North African leadership, especially Egypt, as well as Algeria, Tunisia, and traditionally Libya and Sudan, have carried the banner here. Other heavyweights on the continent such as Nigeria and South Africa shape the conversation too—the latter increasingly so. Almost all African countries are also members of two unofficial voting blocs at the UN, making up about 40 percent of both the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. Both groups are strongly and actively anti-Israel, NAM in the political sphere and the G77 on economic issues. Decisions in the African Group are closely connected to positions of the African Union, outside the UN. African nations make up nearly half the membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which, in a parallel way, tracks closely with the positions of the Arab Group—without a doubt the major player on Israel-related issues at the UN. The EU, not always a reliable vote for Israel, also impacts African votes. “On the Israel issue, the EU is viewed by many as a moral compass, although it is more a political compass,” says Felice Gaer, director of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.
Taking a stance in opposition to the group can have serious negative consequences. Tanzania Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga, a former ambassador to the UN and an old friend of the Africa Institute since its founding, explains: “When you opt out of a certain pattern of voting, you become the subject of the discussion yourself.” In Gaer’s words, “There’s payback. You won’t get chairmanship of the committee, you won’t get your resolution through on some other issue, you won’t get promoted.” The Arab Group, G77, and NAM apply the most pressure here.
And yet, some African countries are making the choice to step out. Historic patterns are shifting at the edges, and African support for Israel is slowly mounting.
Breaking out of the mold
Every year, the UN General Assembly votes on around 20 resolutions involving Israel. These are practically recycled annually, with only slight changes, if any. On virtually every one of them, the number of countries voting with Israel over the last four decades has been in the single digits. But within the last ten years, 22 African countries have, at one point or another, decided to stick out their necks by abstaining, many for the first time. Technically, abstentions express neutrality, but as former Deputy Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN Ambassador Aaron Jacob explains: “not all abstentions are born equal.” Considering the pro-Arab bias at the UN, abstentions are read as support for Israel. This is true “particularly with African votes,” he says, “because it takes more political courage—especially if the country is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.” In Africa, all countries but South Sudan are.
And South Sudan is one of the most vocally pro-Israel countries on the continent. “A true friend of Israel,” according to the country’s ambassador to Israel Wol Mayar Ariec, South Sudan, he maintains, is probably the only country in the world in which every person would be proud to hold up an Israeli flag. Cameroon, another strongly Christian nation, has impressively racked up almost three times the number of abstentions of any other African country on the repeat resolutions in the last decade. Cote d’Ivoire, in third place behind South Sudan, has maintained close ties with Israel since its independence, even—though informally—after almost the entire continent severed relations following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Botswana have an unbroken record of abstentions on select repeat resolutions. Togo (in fourth place) and Ethiopia have the remarkable distinction of being the only African countries to actually vote with Israel at the UN General Assembly—both in emergency special sessions. Togo was one of only eight voting with Israel on last December’s resolution condemning the decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and one of seven on this year’s June resolution on the protection of the Palestinian civilian population. Other African countries abstained on these last two at double or triple the previous rate, signaling a new willingness to step outside the status quo.
A more fundamental shift
While the focus is on votes, even more significant in the long term is a growing reservoir of goodwill that did not exist before between Israel and many countries in Africa.
For example, Tanzania has not voted with Israel at the UN General Assembly but has shown support in other ways. In 2016 the country managed to soften a UNESCO resolution that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount by working behind the scenes to get a secret ballot instead of a vote by consensus. When the country’s foreign minister visited Israel to christen the country’s new embassy there this past May, he remarked on “what Israel has accomplished in the past 10 years in renewing relations with African states.” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has done extremely well “in terms of enduring relationships,” he said, “maybe even to the surprise of some Israelis.”
Another factor at play in the last 10 years has been the shift in the Arab world’s view of Israel. Ambassador Aaron Jacob explains that particularly after the Arab Spring, “division and domestic havoc have affected the overall position of the Arab Group at the United Nations.” Sunni realignment against Iran has strengthened with the demise of Arab unity, creating opportunities for political outreach to Israel that were previously out of the question.
In this new environment, the most exciting opportunities for Israel-Africa relations at the UN aren’t directly connected to votes, according to Israeli mission staff. In July, the Israeli MFA announced that Israel had decided to “join the global effort for international development,” working to find solutions for “UN development goals in water, agriculture and nutrition, health, education and technology.”
AJC has been promoting specifically such ties for years, including, over the last four, hosting annual delegations of senior African business leaders from 11 countries throughout the continent in Israel to network with their counterparts, particularly in agriculture, water, renewable energy, and health. The Africa Institute received an award from the Israel-Africa Chamber of Commerce in 2015 for these efforts. AJC’s Africa Institute and its network of senior business leaders will be featured at the second gathering of the “Africa-Israel Dialogue,” a select group chaired by former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, to be held in October 2018 at his presidential library, featuring, among others, the president of Liberia and the vice presidents of Malawi and Ghana, as well as ministers and other government officials and senior business leaders of African countries and of Israel.
The new push by the Israeli government, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “will greatly contribute to our diplomatic ties with international organizations and the countries of the world.” Israeli cooperation in counterterrorism and security assistance packs a powerful punch here as well.
Lewis Brown, Liberia’s Ambassador to the UN, made the same point at an Israel-Africa Ambassadorial Forum hosted in March by AJC’s Africa Institute jointly with the Israeli mission to the UN. “Economic development is essential for the continent,” he said, and “the opportunities Israel offers are not a window but a door wide open, from an African perspective. Israel’s footprint on the continent must grow and become indelible,” and it is in that way that “political barriers” could be overcome as well. Africa has much to learn from Israel, he noted, and “it is difficult to argue with success.”
Note: This piece focuses on votes at the UN General Assembly. Later pieces in this series will cover African voting at UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council. Read the first in the series for an overview of Israel-Africa ties.