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Can South Africa still play a role in the Middle East peace process?




In the many meetings we have had with representatives of government and the ruling party, one of the arguments we have consistently put forward is that scaling down diplomatic ties with Israel would put paid to any role South Africa might potentially play in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While its ability to influence the course of events should not be overstated, our belief is that our country is uniquely positioned to make a meaningful contribution to peace efforts in the region.

The reasons for this are two-fold.

The one relates to South Africa’s own experience of having successfully negotiated a transition to a new democratic order. This was achieved despite the long legacy of bitter division and conflict that appeared to make such a resolution impossible. The other concerns the close ties that exist between the ANC and the Palestinian leadership.

When looking back on the ANC’s record as a liberation movement during the exile years, it is important to remember that its activities were not focused solely on bringing pressure to bear against the apartheid state.

A crucial part of its work was geared towards planning and preparing for implementing a new post-apartheid order once liberation was achieved. This is an important lesson our government could share with its Palestinian counterparts.

Rather than pursuing unachievable political fantasies that lead only to confrontations, unrealistically inflated expectations and hidebound ideological puritanism, the Palestinians should be encouraged to focus on the nitty-gritty details of preparing for statehood. This would, hopefully, generate a momentum towards making that state a reality.

As a movement that has the ear of the Palestinian leadership, the ANC is better placed than most to convey to them one of the fundamental lessons of statecraft – namely, that politics is the art of the possible.

In order to be seen as a credible arbitrator, however, the ANC cannot engage with one side only. It must also gain a sufficient degree of trust from the Israeli side. To do so, it needs to understand and properly acknowledge Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Contrary to what is often claimed, there are significant differences between the Israeli-Palestinian situation and that of pre-1994 South Africa. Because of this, we should resist simplistic interpretations that make faulty comparisons between the two.

Having said that, both parties in the Middle East undoubtedly could take many valuable lessons from how South Africans negotiated an end to conflict in their society and found a way to go forward together in peace.

A vital part of the negotiations process was building trust on the ground. The different players needed to meet face to face, sharing their respective narratives relating to the past and their visions for the future. In doing this, they found common ground.

Because of this, at the end of the day, they learnt to deal with one another not as abstract enemies, but rather, as fellow human beings with the same hopes and fears, needs and aspirations, as anyone else.

South Africans, from right-leaning National Party Cabinet ministers through to die-hard Marxist ideologues on the far left, came together to talk about what their shared future should look like and how it could be achieved.

The process did not always go forward smoothly, with external events sometimes threatening to derail it altogether, but go forward it did. For all concerned, it meant giving up long-cherished dreams and making inevitable compromises.

If all players in the Middle East were to take these lessons to heart, we could all feel confident of a final-status deal being agreed to in the not-too-distant future.

The South African way is to build bridges, not fences.

Not only does this apply to how we were able to resolve conflict and division within our own ranks, but since 1994, we have seen it by and large inform our foreign policy as well. South Africa has involved itself in peace initiatives relating to a number of international disputes, particularly on the African continent but also further afield.

In virtually all these cases, the policy has been to engage with all parties, always maintaining channels of communication.

However, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian question, powerful forces within the ruling party and government have been pushing for South Africa to pursue a wholly contrary foreign policy, one of boycott and disengagement.

This, as the SAJBD has consistently argued, will achieve nothing beyond confining our country to the sidelines. It would make it all but impossible for it to play any kind of role in Middle East peace efforts, now or in the future.

Scaling down diplomatic relations would thus not only go against South Africa’s own objective interests, but ultimately, those of the Palestinians themselves.

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