South Africa and Israel: A mandate for more engagement

South Africa and Israel: A mandate for more engage

    Spending eight months in South Africa leaves one observing in wonder the similarity between the extreme and often contradictory ways in which South Africa and Israel are often viewed. While much is obviously different between today’s South Africa and Israel, in many emotional ways there are similarities. In more concrete ways, too, it is clear that we have much to gain from each other in seeking ways to further develop a relationship that is in reality much deeper and meaningful than some people think.
    Both South Africa and Israel are touchstones for many, as both are seen as places born out of great tragedy – democratic South Africa emerging from the horrors of Apartheid and the modern State of Israel from the shadows of the Holocaust, following the Second World War. Both are actually inspirational stories, the stuff of Hollywood movies (for example Exodus and Long Walk to Freedom) while some insist on prophesising a coming apocalypse. Both have complicated histories and deep domestic and regional challenges.
    The two countries are vibrant, loud democracies in regions that are not quite known for their liberalism. Our vocal civil societies remind us of shortcomings, challenges and the need to strive to achieve enormous (perhaps unreachable) goals and expectations that have been set for us. Israel and South Africa are clearly imperfect, like everywhere else, but these standards and outsized attention keep our leaders’ feet to the fire.
    In South Africa, the discussion about my country has often become overly simplistic and often toxic. I understand, and appreciate, the long and emotive connection between many in the ANC with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the history and circumstances in the two regions are patently different, despite a natural tendency for people to see the world through the prism of our experiences. Israel is so much more than the one (albeit, very important) issue: Israel and our Palestinian neighbours.
    What remains confounding for many is the willingness for some here to allow a small group of extremists to attempt to hijack South African policy and interests for an agenda of hate, hopelessness and ironic double standards.
    In fact, South Africa’s formal policy on many issues connected to the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Iran, are generally in line with much of Europe. For example, last November, South Africa’s government emphasised its support for a negotiated two-state solution by clarifying: “Cabinet recognises the right of Palestinian people for self-determination and the right of Israel to exist alongside a Palestinian state. Their endeavour to find a solution to the conflict which will be just should continue.”
    Similarly, President Zuma stated at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2012: “We remain committed to the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with Palestine and Israel co-existing side by side in peace.”
    This position is not really a subject of actual debate in public life in South Africa. This agreement was emphasised by senior representatives of five South African political parties (the ANC, DA, IFP, COPE and the ACDP) who each stated at a public debate in Johannesburg earlier this month sponsored by the South African Board of Jewish Deputies that their party supported a two-state solution and opposed boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in the Middle East.
    The same is true regarding Iran. Twice, while serving as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, South Africa raised its hand together with the entire Council to support international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Over the past two years, almost, South Africa has respected those sanctions by diverting all of its oil purchases to other countries. DIRCO officials and other government representatives have emphasised human rights issues with Iranian interlocutors and, like most of us around the world, remain reasonably cautious of Iran moving forward.
    Obviously, Israel has a different view on some of those issues, although in fact the differences are quite a bit less than one might imagine. We see ourselves as the only stable, democratic country in our often explosive region. We are in many ways “ground zero” of the unease and instability that has resulted from the uprisings throughout the Arab world all around us. It has become obvious to any fair-minded person that the region has deep, deep issues far beyond a question of peace or conflict with the Israelis.
    We are involved in a complex peace process with our Palestinian neighbours, with American assistance, with regular ups and downs. There are a range of tough issues that will demand compromises and visionary leadership from all sides. We support a two-state solution that offers hope and opportunity for both Palestinians and Israelis. Israel protects rights of all its citizens regardless of race, sexual orientation or religious belief – Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Even those who are not citizens – such as Palestinians – have access to Israel’s justly renowned courts. Local and international NGOs have a loud, vibrant voice and a significant impact. We work with the Palestinian Authority on water, agriculture and capacity building programmes – the sides recently signed a long-term contract to supply the Palestinians with natural gas from beneath the Mediterranean Sea.
    Israel has made peace with two of its neighbours – Jordan and Egypt. We unilaterally left Gaza in 2006, offering its people a chance for a better life, one that sadly has not come to pass. Instead, rockets continue to be shot regularly by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants towards civilian areas, in a macabre hope to somehow hit a child, a school or a home. We believe that stronger words and actions against incitement, violence and for mutual recognition should come from the Palestinian Authority and those truly interested in human rights. As for Iran, Israel and most other states in our region remain unconvinced that the danger has passed. Real concerns remain for Iran’s citizens and neighbors and regarding the way its Mullahs continue to threaten Israel. We question whether any change has come that might offer benefits for our region.
    South Africa, like Israel and nearly all countries, often works to balance out the multiple layers of its interests and concerns on complex international relations dilemmas of our day. Some quibble about nuanced positions that the States take on complex issues like Ukraine, Syria and a range of conflicts across Africa, but diplomacy is often the art of recognising shades of grey and working to find areas of agreement, as much as pointing out differences in perception.
    This type of realistic recognition is, of course, relevant for South African relations with Israel. Israel is already a leading trading partner for South Africa in the Near East with bilateral trade in goods of over eight billion rand in 2013, according to SARS (and billions more in services). More tourists travel between our two countries than any other partner for South Africa from my region. There is a vibrant, creative Jewish diaspora that has historically played a vital and outsized role in SA, who predominantly closely identifies with Israel - and Israel has an important South African community that remains deeply connected here.
    South Africa’s National Development Plan includes a number of core priorities where Israel is a world leader and can play a significant role in development efforts. In sectors such as rural development, agriculture, water management, cyber technology and scientific R&D, Israel already has a foothold in business and development ties here. I recently visited farms in Mpumalanga where small-scale farmers are using Israeli advice and technologies to create jobs and impact food security. I also travelled to an impressive seedling factory in Limpopo where Israel’s world-class advances are being used in an outstanding business partnership with South Africa’s biggest vegetable producer. (Therefore if you really want to boycott Israel in SA, it is basically time to stop eating tomatoes). In telecommunications, most South African companies use Israeli systems and innovations (yeah, you’ll need to give back those iPhones, too).
    For decades, Israel has shared its development experiences with friendly countries across Africa and around the world. In recent years, Israel has reached agreements with India and China, establishing agricultural centres, which serve as a base for joint agriculture R&D, education and economic development on the ground. Israel and India are hoping to establish up to 27 agricultural projects in seven states across India, where Israeli technologies and know-how will be demonstrated to local farmers. In addition, the sides are establishing scholarships for Indian post-doctoral agricultural students to study in Israel.
    China also sees Israel as an important development partner. China’s Vice Minister of Water Resources was quoted at a conference in Israel, saying: “Israel and China are far away from each other, and the situation of the two countries is different, but for water use and water we have the same target, and we want to use the water for more scientific and industry and environmental purposes.
    We want to share with Israel to develop this. I hope to enhance cooperation between China and Israel.”
    Israel has continued in recent years its long tradition of promoting agricultural and development cooperation throughout Africa. Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MASHAV, is active in over 30 countries across the continent, inviting expert participants to programs in Israel, delegating short- and long-term experts, and cooperating with local and international partners.
    It also looks to promote economic cooperation across Africa. Currently, in addition to food security development efforts here in South Africa, agricultural projects - often together with third parties such as the United Nations or Germany - are being implemented in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.
    Of course, South Africa has much to offer, too. In its deep relations across Africa, it could be an excellent partner for Israel in humanitarian development projects.
    While the histories and solutions are patently different, the idea of negotiating to resolve intractable problems and leadership taking brave steps to avoid seemingly inevitable dangers is an important lesson that can be shared with Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and others in my region. When Nelson Mandela said in 1999, “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognise Israel within secure borders”, his equally strong criticisms of Israel gained legitimacy that speaking at only one side misses. South Africa could share its experiences with all sides, encouraging dialogue, compromise and rejecting all violence.
    Today, for a range of reasons, the credible South African voice, which actually represents government, the various political parties and much of the public, is not actually being heard at all. And that is a loss all around. The moderate, constructive message and actual positions tend to be shouted down. Allowing the BDS circus to have traction here – with antics such as a leader shouting “Shoot the Jew”, violent bullies breaking up classical music concerts on university campuses and hosting a bitter ex-Israeli karate teacher spewing hateful language – actually hurts Palestinians who are genuinely looking for peace, weakens South Africa’s credibility internationally and insults the memory of those who actually fought against Apartheid so honorably and valiantly.
    Arthur Lenk is Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland. You can follow him on facebook and twitter (@AmbassadorLenk).