Two South African groups – one for Palestine and the other for Israel – are protesting in front of parliament in 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NIC BOTHMA)
Regarding Israel, there was no space for dialogue or balanced discussion in public spaces in South Africa. With a fragile new government formed in Israel this week, South Africa has an opportunity to restore and re-establish its influence, connections and ties in the region.
Arthur Lenk is a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa. He studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (LL.B. and LL.M.) and is a lawyer in Israel and New York.
Just this week, after two years of political stalemate and three undecided elections, a new, fragile Israeli government was formed. The Islamist Ra’am party is one of the full partners in this unified coalition with broad representation throughout Israeli democracy. The government also appears to have tacit support for a number of other Arab parties. It has an Arab Minister for Regional Cooperation and a Druze Minister in the Ministry of Finance. Arab parliamentarians chair at least two committees in the Knesset, and there is a renewed awareness and appreciation of the need to improve inter-municipal economic, social and security issues in Israel.
The change of government and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after twelve years offer South Africa an opportunity to reshape its relations with Israel. She should quickly appoint and send an ambassador to her embassy in Israel and, after too many years of silence, start a constructive dialogue with the new government.
Since I left South Africa four years ago, I have followed events closely through contacts with friends, business relationships and regular reading of this publication. Together with friends from South Africa around the world, I empathize with the range of local challenges, from power and water shortages to extreme difficulties fighting the pandemic, to many secret envelopes and missed appearances on judicial commissions.
At the same time, one issue has remained constant – the “success” of a small, noisy anti-Israel lobby in preventing South Africa from actually influencing Israel-Palestine. It is quite rare for an Israeli voice to be heard here, a great loss for a place that values exchange of views and seeks conflict resolution.
At the same time, the word “apartheid” seems to be experiencing a political renaissance in 2021. It is evident, however, that the use of a legal-historical definition of a particular horrific event in South Africa seems to have shifted to a nickname meaning unfair or cruel. Some examples are “Vaccine Apartheid” and “Gender Apartheid” – to describe the injustice of the worldwide distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and the patriarchal policies against equality for women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
Paradoxically, this term is never used in actual apartheid-like situations. Apartheid exists in 2021, in laws in almost every Islamic state that restrict the rights of non-Muslims and women, or in China’s policy towards migrant workers and the Uighur minority. Nobody dares to comment.
The word is mostly used (and mostly only against Israel) for shock and marketing value these days, not because anyone who cares about staying true to the actual story really thinks it is true. The use of the word is a PR strategy by NGOs and activists who want to lead the debate of security, compromise and coexistence to a radical change of the map in the Levant. Jews carefully defend themselves against the abuse of the words “Shoah” and “Holocaust” from a deep consciousness that weakens through overuse. I don’t understand why many South Africans are not doing the same for “apartheid”.
In reality, as part of the exhausting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights have long been used as a weapon in the war of public opinion. Does Shame Work? Do these human rights campaigns give the Palestinians an incentive to renew negotiations or compromise? And above all: is the goal to improve the situation or just to delegitimize Israel?
The abuse of terms such as colonialism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and anti-Zionism is intended to wipe Israel out. A perfect example is the apparent anti-Semitism at protests in Golders Green in London, Brooklyn, New York and the Glenhazel neighborhood of Johannesburg, all of which centered on local Jewish communities rather than local Israeli embassies or consulates.
There is a big difference between criticizing politics and calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. One could certainly ask where are pro-Palestinian and human rights activists on Palestinian rights in Lebanon, Syria, on the Gulf or even on actions by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
Where is the pro-Palestinian outrage over Hamas rockets that hit Gaza or were shot down from homes or schools (let alone those aimed at Israeli civilians)? Silence about the lack of rights of LGBTQ communities, women, Christians and the systematic education of hatred in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Following recent statements by the United Nations Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA) about tunnels under schools and the cautious Israeli attacks on combatants, its commissioner had to flee the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the “Friends of Palestine” are not entirely pro-Palestinian, but anti-Israeli.
No organization is excluded from this attack on the stigma of Israel. Bodies like the UN Human Rights Council have systemic, built-in anti-Israel prejudices. International organizations like the World Health Organization, UNESCO and, most absurdly, the International Criminal Court, which seems to keep inventing rules to promote (uh, decide) Palestine, are allowed a wide range of abuse and harm.
South Africa had gone even further than almost any other country in its one-sided view and support for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel. There was no room for dialogue on site, for views that discuss Israel in a balanced way in public or offer different perspectives.
But South Africa had no other effect than harming its own interests. It made no difference to facilitate positive developments between Israel and Palestine. The lack of a South African ambassador to Israel has diminished its influence, connections and ties in the region. Statements by some officials that were so ridiculous that they are mostly ignored and even when noticed, further diminish South Africa’s credibility. The so-called human rights groups in South Africa have no other human rights agenda than beating Israel and South African Judaism.
Today there is the possibility for a reset. South Africa should join governments around the world and extend warm wishes to the new government and quickly appoint a senior representative for Israel who can speak and listen, share South Africa’s stories and promote trade and tourism. He or she can learn from the things Israel is doing right – vaccinating its public, world-class innovation, respecting LGBTQ communities – and offering Pretoria’s perspectives on topics such as a peace process with the Palestinians and insights into Africa.
Much of the international community, from the Emirates to Morocco and from India to Sudan, has deepened ties with Israel in recent years. This week’s news is an excellent opportunity for South Africa to promote issues that matter to its people and should grab them with both hands. DM