Engagement needed on Israel – not ‘downgrades’

Ben Swartz – National Chairman: South African Zionist Federation 

President Trump’s announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem has ignited a veritable firestorm of protest. More than a few commentators have pronounced it the final blow to the anaemic peace process. It remains to be seen how this will play out: but with the status of Jerusalem being one of the most complex and sensitive in the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians. But it should prompt a renewed commitment by those with an interest in finding a resolution to redouble their efforts. South Africa, with its long-standing commitment to finding a solution to the conflict, should be a part of this. 

Matching the global concern about the proposed move of the US embassy, in South Africa, the prospect of a ‘downgrade’ of its relations with Isreal has generated much discussion and passion over the past few weeks. It will no doubt produce much more should it find its way into official policy. Certainly, proponents of the downgrade are latching on to Mr Trump’s announcement as a justification for doing so – a downgrade now more than ever! 

Since 1994, South Africa has taken pride in its outsized global role. It has sought a role for itself – a prominent one – as a responsible, engaged member of the international community. This it has often presented in idealistic terms. The 2011 white paper of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) was entitled Building a Better World: the Diplomacy of Ubuntu

Conflict-resolution and peace-building has been a central pillar of South African diplomacy, and one in which it can justly take pride. South Africa invested itself in mediation and conflict resolution efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland and Cote d’Ivoire, among others. Its record has been mixed – it has scored successes and failures – but its intentions have been clear.

This record is important for judging the proposals put forward by the African National Congress for a ‘downgrade’ of official links with Israel. It is unclear precisely what this would entail, but two options have been floated: shutting the embassy completely, or reducing its political heft, perhaps reconstituting it as a ‘liaison office’. The resolution to emerge from its National Policy Conference in July that this would ‘send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine’. 

ANC deputy secretary general, Jesse Duarte, has meanwhile argued that South Africa’s efforts to sway Israeli policy have failed, and a ‘downgrade’ would represent a tangible statement of solidarity with the Palestinians. 

Maybe so. But this is effectively a symbolic gesture towards Isreal, while having real consequences for South Africa – a poor exchange. South Africa does not occupy a position of sufficient political or economic importance to inflict any real damage on Israel. Besides, the world is changing and Israel is arguably less isolated now than it has ever been, with growing numbers of partnerships in Africa and Asia. Should any costs arise, in terms of trade or travel disruption, they are likely to be relatively greater to South Africa. 

There is little chance that a downgrade would achieve anything and every possibility that it will impose costs. (A pertinent aside: Ms Duarte has written that a downgrade might be undertaken while ‘taking or not taking into account the associated risks’. Yet it is precisely because risks exist that steps such as these need to be carefully weighed – a transgression of which Mr Trump is accused.) 

The greatest costs – the real ‘downgrade’ – would be in terms of South Africa’s diplomatic influence. A downgrade would represent an abandonment of diplomacy. Diplomacy is conducted not only among friends, but between opponents. Indeed, it is precisely when states disagree that diplomacy is MOST important. A few years ago, South Africa was strongly opposed to the US-led coalition invading Iraq – but kept a large embassy in Washington to keep channels of communication open. 

This is the crux of the matter. South Africa maintains relationships with any number of countries with conflicting interests and doubtful records on human rights – somewhat ironically, as it debates its ties with Israel, South Africa is restoring relations with Morocco, despite the latter’s occupation of Western Sahara.   

Nor is this merely a matter of abstract principles. Understanding a country’s dynamics – good, bad and indifferent – is a key task of an embassy. Israel is a major player in the Middle East, and removing the South African presence would undermine that latter’s ability to conduct well-informed diplomacy throughout the region. And one group that would directly and severely be impacted by the downgrade are the Palestinians themselves, since South Africa’s mission in Ramallah depends on the embassy in Tel Aviv for support in its work. 

More than that, history shows that a changing world produces surprises. An emerging multi-polar order, a sometimes erratic and less engaged US, and the changing nature of Israel’s relationships (not least in the traditionally hostile Arab world) may well alter the political calculus of the region and open up avenues to revive the broken-down peace process. Having made its downgrade gesture, South Africa would have excluded itself from any role. 

This would be a great pity. While simplistic analogies should be avoided, South Africa’s work on mediation and conflict resolution has much to offer both the Israelis and Palestinians. It does its own diplomatic history no credit when it acts in such a way that this potential is withheld from those who could benefit from it. Reflecting on this, Fani Titi, chairperson of Investec, commented at a recent seminar on the matter: ‘It would be morally irresponsible for South Africa to effectively preclude itself from playing any meaningful diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine debate.’ 

Rather than a politics of gestures, South Africa needs to recommit to the hard principle that has undergirded the best of what its foreign engagements have produced since 1994: the hard and frustrating work of building relationships and striving for understanding and compromise – especially when the circumstances are unpromising.

Indeed, rather than making a case for a downgrade, the dispute over Jerusalem points to a very different conclusion – engagement now more than ever!

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