Folly of viewing Israel-Palestine through SA eyes
I’ve attempted to refrain from commenting on the Hamas-Israeli conflict, and failed. As an older academic, I’ve learned to withhold my comments on fast-paced, ongoing developments since the full import of developments is unclear. The passing of time not only provides one with greater space for reflection, but with the fog of war clearing, one may also write without emotion and thereby arrive at a more objective assessment of the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East.
I have to admit that I learned this painfully first hand. In January 2006, I penned an article in The Jerusalem Post, embarrassingly titled “The death of Hamas”. Writing in the aftermath of the elections for the Palestinian legislative council in which Hamas secured an impressive 76 out of 132 seats with a voter turnout of 77%, I naively wrote that Hamas would need to de-radicalise as it transitioned towards a governing party. It would need to revisit its 1988 covenant, which explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel. Politics, as opposed to resistance, is all about compromise, reciprocity, and flexibility. This, I argued, would entail the death of Hamas as a resistance movement as it attempted to govern.
I was wrong. Hamas didn’t moderate. Neither did it really govern in the Gaza Strip. Reflecting on my failure, I realise that I approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through South African eyes. The African National Congress (ANC) as liberation movement was compelled to moderate its political and economic position as it transformed into a ruling and governing party. I expected the same of Hamas. But Hamas was never the same kind of organisation as the ANC. In fact, the ANC as a nationalist organisation, had more in common with the Palestine Liberation Organization, with Fatah, than with Hamas, which has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The announcement by Pretoria of its readiness to mediate prompted me to write this article since it was obvious that it was making the same error I made in 2006 when I wrote my original article. The difference between a religious organisation and a nationalist one isn’t minor. While the ANC was committed to the 1955 Freedom Charter with a call for equality between all races and peaceful co-existence, the same isn’t true of Hamas, whose Article 22 explicitly states that Jewish capital controls much of the world; that the Jews were behind the 1789 French Revolution; the 1917 Russian Revolution; as well as the two world wars. Moreover, the Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, and Lion Clubs serve as their spying agencies.
Article 13 of the Hamas covenant is an explicit rejection of negotiation, “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problems, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic resistance. There’s no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad.” How does the ANC reconcile its attempt to mediate or President Cyril Ramaphosa rushing off to Cairo for a peace summit, with Hamas’ own stated positions? This effort to mediate is made worse by the likes of Israeli cabinet ministers like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who hold racist and fundamentalist views. Any effort toward successful mediation is therefore dependent on the conflict parties’ willingness to negotiate. There’s no such willingness on either side.
There are other differences between the South African situation and Israel and Palestine. Consider here the regional context – specifically Iran and Hezbollah. Again, these aren’t minor differences. The ignorance displayed by Pretoria’s mandarins also highlights another important criterion for any potential mediator – intimate knowledge of the complexity of the conflict – something which the ANC clearly doesn’t possess given its propensity to refer to the South African example. Another important criterion is the impartiality of the mediator. Given Pretoria’s reluctance to be even-handed when approaching the conflict, it’s hardly conceivable that Israel will accept Pretoria as an impartial interlocutor.
Perhaps more to the point, any potential mediator must have a proper understanding of its own capabilities and how it’s perceived by antagonists and the wider international community. It’s abundantly evident that Pretoria has an outsized opinion of itself. This is a government which cannot fix a pothole, keep the lights on, or get drinkable water into citizens’ taps. This is a government which has gained infamy for its corruption and its inability to respond effectively to spiralling criminality. Such a government cannot project soft or hard power anywhere. Thucydides reminds us in his epic on the Peloponnesian war 2 400 years ago that all states must adapt to their differing levels of power and capabilities. Failure to do so will result in ruin as the tiny island of Melos found in its dealings with the might of the Athenian naval fleet. As its failed peace efforts between Russia and Ukraine demonstrate, Pretoria’s so-called peace efforts in the Middle East will be equally futile. I fear this effort on the part of Ramaphosa, like everything else he does, is entirely performative. It doesn’t really matter if any peace initiative takes off. He needs to be seen to be doing something.
Finally, there’s the wisdom of Machiavelli, who 500 years ago reminded us that the primary responsibility of the ruler is to seek advantage and defend the interests of the state to ensure its survival. Frankly, I find South Africa’s stance on Israel-Palestine as well as its foreign policy generally difficult to fathom from the perspective of national interest.
- Dr Hussein Solomon is senior professor at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State.