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Israeli foreign minister arrives in Kenya for African Union summit

Israel has observer status in the continental grouping.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) arrives in Nairobi, Kenya, July 16, 2023. Credit: Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) arrives in Nairobi, Kenya, July 16, 2023. Credit: Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen landed in Kenya on Sunday for a 10-hour visit at the invitation of the African nation’s president.

Cohen is in Nairobi to attend the African Union’s Mid-Year Coordination Meeting. He is expected to meet with other regional leaders at the event.

Earlier this year, an Israeli delegation was ejected from an African Union summit in Ethiopia, a move the Foreign Ministry blamed on “extremist” countries influenced by Iran.

Israel looked harshly upon the incident in which the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director for Africa, Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, was removed from the African Union hall despite her status as an accredited observer with entrance badges, the ministry said in a statement.

“It is sad to see that the African Union has been taken hostage by a small number of extremist countries such as Algeria and South Africa, driven by hatred and controlled by Iran. We call on the African countries to stand against these actions that harm the organization of the African Union itself and the entire continent,” added the statement.

Ebba Kalondo, the spokesperson for the African Union’s commission chairman, said Bar-Li had been removed because she was not the accredited Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, the official who was expected.

Israel was granted observer status in July 2021. Many non-African countries and groups hold the designation, “Palestine” being one of them. Israel had been trying to win back the status for 20 years, since it lost it when the Organization of African Unity was disbanded in 2002 to make way for its replacement organization, the African Union.

At its meeting last year, the 55-member African Union pushed off a vote over Israel’s observer status and instead set up a committee to examine the matter.

In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Jerusalem with Kenyan President William Ruto, with the two men holding a private tête-à-tête before an expanded meeting in the framework of a working lunch.

Netanyahu praised Ruto’s commitment to advancing relations as well as policies to strengthen regional stability, and noted that Kenya could serve as a gateway for trade and international cooperation with the rest of Africa.

The two men agreed to work together to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties in areas including bilateral trade, technology, cyber-defense, advancing the restoration of a direct air route, water and agriculture.

A day earlier, Cohen met with his Kenyan counterpart Alfred Mutua in the Israeli capital. The two diplomats signed a memorandum of understanding on water technologies and the fight against climate change. They also agreed to promote direct flights between their countries as well as the continuation of Kenya’s support for Israel at international institutions, particularly in the African Union.

“Kenya is a significant African player and an important factor in the Conference of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I emphasized to my friend Foreign Minister Mutua the ways in which we can deepen the relationship between our countries in the fields of security, trade and the economy,” said Cohen at the time.

“Kenya has significant potential in helping to expand the Abraham Accords and harnessing additional partnerships in Africa for the benefit of regional prosperity and stability,” he added.

Netanyahu has made strengthening ties with Africa a central platform of his premierships.

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