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Is south African foreign policy with Palestine tied in knots?

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The only remedy would be for Pretoria to sever all links with Tel Aviv.


By Iqbal Jassat

In a recent interview, South Africa’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Ted Pekane, made an intriguing observation:

“Currently we have no intention of breaking ties with Israel. That would be counter-productive. Our policy of engagement applies to Israel as well. Only if the [Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas] asked us to support the disinvestments and sanctions campaign against Israel would we consider packing our bags”.

This admission is the closest any senior foreign ministry official has come to in revealing an inherent weakness in this country’s relations with Israel/Palestine.

It is shocking too in that it implies our diplomatic engagement in the world’s number one conflict zone is blinded and being pursued while voluntarily having our hands tied behind our back!

More importantly, it discloses an intolerable weakness that inevitably is exploited by the stronger of the two sides. Israel is in effective control of all aspects of Palestinian life by virtue of the occupation and the multiple layers of restrictive measures that renders the occupied Palestinian population to its “mercy”.
In such an odd and unusual situation – which can only be described as bizarre – no country having diplomatic ties with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority can claim any form of political equilibrium.

Thus for South Africa to argue that ties with Israel are balanced off by maintaining a presence in the West Bank is questionable and counter-productive! It results in the type of untenable position articulated by Pekane and places undue constraints on our ability to either pursue relations freely or with the legitimately elected leadership of Palestine.

On the matter of uninhibited relations it is well known that the siege on Gaza along with the occupation makes it impossible to even consider undertaking any formal agreements with the Palestinian side. Whatever may be mutually agreed upon between a sovereign state such as South Africa and the Occupied Territories will remain incapacitated as its implementation will constantly be frustrated and hindered by Israel.

This is the brutal reality flowing from irrational Israeli policies.

It does not allow for any meaningful ties in the socio-economic or political spheres. Instead what it does is to lend a seal of legitimacy to the illegal occupation and oppression that Pekane correctly pointed out was cruder than apartheid.

Hence the danger associated with such dubious diplomatic exercises has enormous tragic consequences for the victims. Their oppression is compounded by the trappings of developmental projects within the confines of open-air prisons. The wall of separation – known as the apartheid wall – ensures that apart from impeding free movement of the indigenous Palestinian population, even diplomats like Pekane are restricted!

Can South Africa boast of free trade with the Occupied Territories? It does so with Israel, illustrating the unfair imbalance inherent in these ties.

Can South Africa undertake and execute military ties with the Occupied Territories? Of course it’s a no-no!

Yet the argument for maintaining relations with Israel is underpinned by a depraved view that we also have diplomatic presence in Ramallah.

It’s obviously a presence that has extolled a huge price. In addition to granting Israel full carte blanche, it has legitimized the occupation. And in the Israeli fashion of promoting erstwhile “Bantustans” such as Bophuthatswana, whereby projects were financed by Israeli entrepreneurs with the full backing of the Tel Aviv regime, it is unfortunate that South Africa seems oblivious of similar trappings.

It is an obnoxious situation and the only remedy would be for Pretoria to sever all links with Tel Aviv. In addition it would necessitate the establishment of a fully functional embassy in the Gaza allowing our diplomats direct access to the views, opinions and policies of Hamas [the elected leaders] instead of being hamstrung by the US-backed puppet known as the Palestinian Authority.

Until we do this, our foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine will remain tied up in knots.– Iqbal Jassat is chairperson of the Media Review Network (MRN), an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa. He contributed this article to Visit: