It’s the time of year when the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, alongside those of other faith affiliations warmed by the Christmas tradition, turn toward the city of Bethlehem. Among them are millions of believers across the African continent whose fast-growing faith is centered on the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square.
This year, they’re seeing new images: The banners proclaiming that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine hang from the tourist shop walls, and American flags are removed. Restaurant owners and souvenir sellers welcome the Christmas tourists, yet they do so in protest of the United States decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, announced by President Donald Trump earlier this month. On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of United Nations General Assembly votes on the matter were aligned with the sentiments of the Palestinians who live there.
Member states voted 128 to nine in support of a resolution demanding that all nations honor the status of Jerusalem in keeping with the United Nations Security Council determinations on the city. Thirty-five nations, including South Sudan, elected to abstain from voting. The only African nation on the continent to vote against the measure was Togo, in what at least one government-aligned media outlet there described as a brave decision.
Brave or not, the Middle East conflict has long had its impact on African states and their political alliances. At the same time, the continent’s leaders tend to be overlooked as analysts understandably focus on the role of traditional global powers holding permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council or – as in this case – the refusal of even longstanding U.S. allies to support the Trump administration’s foolish move on Jerusalem.
The emphasis on further U.S. isolation over what many view as an unnecessary provocation, or attention to the cancellation of Vice President Michael Pence’s planned trip and the diplomatic embarrassment as world religious leaders refused to meet with him, overshadow the many implications for African nations too.
Offending the international community
The Trump administration’s appalling threat to cut off foreign aid to nations that displease the U.S. with their UNGA votes was the first observation some made about the responses of a Rwanda, Uganda or Malawi. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made good on her threat that “the U.S. will be taking names” of those opposing their position. As seen below, Haley then listed on social media, after the vote, all 17 African nations and their counterparts who chose to abstain or voted no, praising them for “not falling to the irresponsible ways of the UN.”
Haley also repeated her promise that America will put its embassy in Jerusalem. “No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that,” she said. “But this vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN, and on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the UN.”
Trump’s calloused “let them eat cake” diplomatic stance further alienated the global community, including dozens of African nations beyond Egypt, which had called for Monday’s failed Security Council resolution and saw the support of Ethiopia and Senegal in that nearly unanimous vote. The lone U.S. veto was what set the stage for a wider but nonbinding UNGA vote supported by most nations and much of Africa.
“The administration made the issue about them — not about Israel,” said Riyad H. Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the UN, following the vote. “And since they made it about them and they used unprecedented tactics, unheard-of in the diplomatic work of the U.N., including blackmail and extortion, then they in my opinion offended the entire international community.”
For Africa, it’s about more than U.S. favor
The Jerusalem decision extends the Trump administration’s pattern of arrogant decision-making, its ill-advised and self-defeating nationalism, and the isolating withdrawal from any global leadership and the commitments that come with it.
It’s not at all clear how it benefits either the U.S. or Israel, and if it ever will. What the U.S. communicates to African states and the wider world, apart from the unveiled threats and quite likely with more long-term consequences, is a glaring lack of sensitivity toward these nations’ own ever-evolving diplomatic relationships.
This willful blindness appears equally true whether an African nation like Rwanda or Senegal has ties with Israel – increasingly a source of African economic investment and technology transfer, especially in the agricultural sector – or with BRICS partners like India and China.
The U.S. further disregards African ties to Arab and Islamic states, including Turkey, with their dual investments in both African development and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the minister of foreign affairs for Turkey, said precisely what it was that motivated those UNGA votes: Sovereignty matters, those votes are not for sale, and power does not make a nation right. Even more clearly, the world is not made up of just five nations, he said.
Alongside Yemen acting on behalf of the League of Arab States, Turkey jointly presented the UNGA resolution on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The former has 10 African member states, while the OIC counts half of all African nations among its members and says it wants political and economic consequences imposed on the U.S.
An ascending China, already influential on the African continent, is hosting Israeli and Palestinian peace advocates at a symposium in Beijing through today. “We support and actively promote the Middle East peace process. We support the just cause of the Palestinian people to regain their legitimate national rights,” said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Thursday.
“We hope this symposium will serve as a platform for communication and interaction between the Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates in a demonstration of the hope for peace,” she added. “We are willing to continue offering constructive assistance to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
That peace would be welcome in Bethlehem, and to the countless people of all nations, faiths and goodwill who remain hopeful it can be achieved. Hopefully the U.S. administration, once so integral to years of Middle East peace negotiations, will want to return to that process and progress in cooperation with the global community. If not, there are 128 other nations moving in the same direction on this issue, and an increasingly out-of-step Washington will learn that they may wish to go it alone – but that doesn’t mean they will go far.
Images: Municipal Government of Jerusalem, Nikki Haley