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South Africa bidding for greater role in Mid-East negotiations

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NICOLA MILTZ

This can be derived mostly from the words uttered about the Middle East in public statements. Since January, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has been quietly putting its hand up again in a bid to make itself more visible and heard.

There are even behind-the-scenes rumours of plans for an oversight trip to the region to gain a more nuanced view of the conflict.

This week, the South African Deputy Minister of DIRCO, Luwellyn Landers, spoke before a high-level session at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, stressing that South Africa is committed to a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict.

“The South African government, guided by the values of our constitution, has over the past 25 years, built a diplomatic practice that is reflective of a government and a people committed to building peace, human security, and equality within and between countries,” he said. “The principles of our constitution were guided by a commitment to build a society that transcends a history of discrimination and violence based on race, sex, gender, religion, origin, and sexual orientation.”

He said that the country’s approach to human rights “is coupled with a principled belief that peace and dialogue and not recourse to violence are the best ways to resolve conflicts and build peaceful societies”.

Last week, South Africa’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Jerry Matjila, maintained that “peace in Palestine remains elusive”. However, he insisted that any move towards peace needed “leadership that believes that peace is possible through negotiation, and an international community willing to support both sides in finding a resolution”.

Matjila, who is the permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations, had been responding to a briefing on the Middle East by Nickolay Mladenov, Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process.

In the same week, Lindiwe Sisulu, the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, also went out on a limb, saying that “there is no economic ban on Israel whatsoever”.

This all appears to be in contrast to the government recalling its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, in May last year. According to analysts, this seemed indicative of a country that was cutting itself off from playing any meaningful role in peace negotiations.

Coupled with the African National Congress resolving to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv, South Africa was effectively cast into the diplomatic wilderness as far as participation in the resolution of the conflict was concerned.

The new discourse is also in sharp contrast to rabid anti-Israel rhetoric that characterised the events following the flare-up of violence on the Gaza border with Israel in May. During that tumultuous time, Sisulu called for South African Jewry to add its voice to condemnation of the Israeli Defence Force’s actions in the Gaza Strip.

The new attitude seems to be in line with what President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng Council conference last year.

“Does South Africa have a role to play in various parts of the world, but particularly in the Middle East? Our view is that we do have a role to play, and our foreign policy is going to be directed towards doing precisely that,” he said. He made the point of saying that this was especially important now that the country had taken its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. South Africa’s presence on the security council would “count for something”, Ramaphosa said.

Is this a shift in attitude towards Israel, or is this diplomacy at its best?

Some analysts suggest that different voices are being used for different audiences. Being on the security council might necessitate a more moderate position, while domestically there were still calls for the downgrade of the embassy.

Local analysts are not swayed by the “rhetoric”, saying that with no South African ambassador in Israel, and no plans yet to replace him, there doesn’t appear to be any significant shift in attitude.

South Africa has consistently called for a two-state solution, but has also been strongly behind the Palestinian cause, said one analyst who didn’t want to be identified. There may be a tempered voice in diplomatic circles, but it is unlikely that there has been a major shift in attitude.

Zev Krengel of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies put any possible change in attitude down to changing geopolitical realities.

“My view is that the world’s attitude towards Israel is changing. The BRICS nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] are moving closer towards Israel, Africa is opening up, the Gulf states are making overtures. I’m not so sure South Africa is maturing in its stance towards Israel. I think it is the reality of changing world geopolitics. And we are the last ones left.”

“In reality Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions organisation, are the last four Israel-haters of the world. Everyone is realising that you need to start recognising the Jewish state.

“We have a new president who is actively seeking foreign direct investment, and there has been a very subtle, tiny shift from the DIRCO of six months ago to the DIRCO of today.

“There are fundamental issues that will never change, but there is a big difference in being pro-Palestine and being anti-Israel. Rabid anti-Israel rhetoric is being heard less – we were fast getting on the wrong side of history. It’s a process. No high-level delegation has gone to visit Israel yet, but it is just a matter of time.”

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