It’s time for Spier II
Despite our many failings as a nation, South Africa remains a beacon of hope for those who believe that even the most complex of political problems can be solved through compromise and negotiation.
It has long been the official position of South African Jewish leadership, that South Africa holds the potential to play a meaningful role in facilitating dialogue between the two sides, if only South Africa moderated its skewed anti-Israel bias. But with no potential role in the offing, there is little incentive for the South African government or the ANC to de-radicalise their anti-Israel rhetoric. Where there are no consequences, there is no incentive to change behaviour.
The meeting between Abbas, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation facilitated by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma, opens the possibilities to allow SA Jewry to trumpet the call for peace and to ensure that we all play a meaningful role, as difficult as it may be, in pushing the parties back to the negotiating table.
At the turn of the millennia, the South African government under President Thabo Mbeki, embarked on an initiative at the Spier wine estate near Stellenbosch. In a statement by the South African representative to the Non-Aligned Movement, our government explained: “The meeting allowed the Israeli and Palestinian delegations to share South Africa’s experience in negotiations, peacemaking and transition to democracy.
“The meeting is part of an ongoing process aimed at creating a favourable environment to restart negotiations and to support the strengthening of the peace coalition in Palestine and Israel, as well as the general dynamic towards peace.”
As part of the initiative, then President Mbeki hosted a two-day conference with the Israeli Likud Party in Pretoria. “We are concerned about the Middle East and very interested in peace,” Mbeki said in welcoming the Likud delegation. “Peace for the Israelis and peace for the Palestinians… If we can contribute something, however small, to end this conflict, we will be very honoured to do so.”
A year later, Mbeki wrote: “As our movement sat at that negotiating table, it understood clearly that we would have to enter into compromises with our erstwhile enemies, deliberately sacrificing the prospect of total victory, to save the many lives…
“Perhaps wrongly, because, like us, they observe the Middle East from afar, our people have supported what we have tried to do to communicate their plea to the Israelis and Palestinians that, together, they should make the sovereign determination that their guns have turned into an enemy of peace, and therefore that the deadly dialogue of gunfire and bombs has to cease…
“They have welcomed what they saluted as a combined search for an equitable peace of the brave, without which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians could realise their most beautiful, human and normal dreams, which dreaming would enable them together to escape from a shared nightmare.”
The Spier initiative ultimately failed to gain the support of the Israeli government and most South African Jewish leadership who openly distanced themselves from the process. The initiative which had brought together former Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, together with Palestinian leaders Saeb Erekat and Zaid Abu Ziad, led nowhere.
One reason for the failure of the initiative was that it brought politicians together at too early a stage. Most successful peace negotiations, such as the Oslo Accords, involve politically influential role-players rather than politicians themselves.
These role-players try to work out mutually acceptable frameworks which they can present back to their political leadership in order to kick-start a process of political negotiations. A second problem with Spier was that it dipped only into the pool of leftist Israelis who held little sway over the politicians who would ultimately make the decision to proceed.
Today, In Jerusalem and Ramallah, peace talks have come to a grinding halt. Abbas has been weakened by the successes of Hamas and Israel is meandering its way towards early elections with the possibility of an extreme right-leaning government. It’s a difficult time for either party to talk.
There are those who believe that no peace is ever possible and that we should commit ourselves to ever increasing cycles of war and violence. There are those of us who remember that in the 1980s it was a common refrain within the local Jewish community that the problems between Israelis and Palestinians would be solved long before the vexing problems of South African apartheid. How wrong they were…
Surely it’s now time for South African Jewry to contemplate taking the initiative with a Spier II process. By involving The Peres Centre for Peace, The Mandela Foundation, The ANC, the SA government and negotiators such as Cryril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, South African Jewry can contribute immeasurably by trying to get all of the parties to understand each other better and bringing them closer to a resumption of dialogue.
For many, it’s hard to talk peace at a time of war, but for true leaders, it’s time to play our part in helping to move all sides towards our elusive dream of peace.
RIGHT: Sackstein ran the 1999 national elections. “It was rivetting TV-viewing for my mother,” says Howard – seen here at the results board with Madiba
SPOKE IN NY & ATE WITH JEWRY IN BRUSSELS – On 12 December 2013 SAJR Online recounted a delightful story of how a youthful HOWARD SACKSTEIN engineered a dinner for Euro-Jewry with Mandela in Brussels – en route home from addressing the UN. A worthwhile read!
- Howard Sackstein has a BA in International Relations, an LLB and a Masters degree in Political Advocacy & International Conflict Resolution from Brandeis University. He studied international conflict resolution under world-renowned Prof Herb C Kelman at Harvard University and facilitated dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s. He was a founder of the Jewish anti-apartheid movement, Jews for Social Justice and was executive director of the IEC. He is a director of the SA Jewish Report and chairman of the ABSA Jewish Achiever Awards.