What is Hamas Doing in South Africa?

Image: Flickr, Flowcomm
Image: Flickr, Flowcomm

"There will be cloudy weather over parts of racist South Africa," Zimbabwean TV weather anchors would forecast during the dark days of apartheid.

Understandable perhaps, but bizarre. Fast forward to contemporary Israel and one wonders whether a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority will accept assistance in dealing with avian flu from the non-existent State of Israel? Even during the apartheid era, the differences between the South African and Israeli context were greater than the similarities, particularly on the fundamentals. The South African state was universally regarded as illegitimate, yet internationally recognised, de facto and de jure, even by Zimbabwean weather forecasters. Hamas’ non-recognition of Israel is of a completely different order in that it denies the right of the State of Israel to exist. Moreover, Israel lives under the constant regional threat of hostile undemocratic regimes and now proto-nuclear powers that seek its destruction and sponsor acts of indiscriminate terror against its people. By contrast, in supporting the overthrow of the apartheid regime, Pretoria’s African regional neighbors sought justice and democracy for all the country’s citizens, rather than the state’s destruction.

Whilst Abu Mazen’s official visit to South Africa starting this week has attracted little attention, Pretoria’s invitation to Hamas has precipitated consternation in Israel. This is understandable. Responsible for some of the most heinous acts of terrorism, Hamas to date has rejected the international agreements signed with Israel by the PLO/Palestinian Authority and shows no signs of moderating its position as demonstrated by its failure compromise with Fatah to form a government of national unity. It is contended that as an Islamic fundamentalist movement, Hamas cannot compromise its fundamentals without changing the raison d’etre for its existence and there is little prospect of this as a party in power.

Thus Israel is asking of South Africa, “What is there to discuss with Hamas?” What can South Africa deliver that the infinitely more powerful and influential Vladimir Putin could not? Informed Israelis may well question what South Africa hopes to achieve in talking to such a party when its own policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward the Mugabe regime has yielded nothing but embarrassment for Pretoria and further suffering for millions of Zimbabweans.

Indeed there is a strong sentiment of dismissiveness and irritation in Israel at this middle-ranking country on the tip of Africa, with a governing party strongly affiliated to the PLO, “poking its nose in” where it is not wanted. For skeptics, South Africa’s naivete and arrogance may have the unintended consequence of conferring recognition of Hamas’ policies and positions toward Israel. South African watchers may also point to President Mbeki’s own pretensions toward global statesmanship as the key to his personal involvement in facilitating dialogue between Palestinians and Israel.

Such is the case for the prosecution. There is, however, a different interpretation of South Africa’s involvement that merits consideration.

Last week at a Foreign Press Association press conference in Jerusalem, former prime minister Shimon Peres contended that his and Kadima’s approach to Hamas would be to first seek dialogue. Only as a second choice would a Kadima-led government carry out its four-year plan of disengagement unilaterally. Thus if the principle of dialogue is accepted and the policy of dialogue is the preferred option of a Kadima-led government, the same holds true of the international community and South Africa’s desire to have a dialogue with the newly-elected government of the Palestinian Authority.

Secondly, like it or not, many South Africans have a deep and personal interest in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. The country boasts an influential, but ever-diminishing Jewish population of some 80,000. There are Jews in the cabinet and parliament, including the leader of the official opposition. South African Jews are highly prominent in business, the judiciary and academia. One is reminded of the links of South African Jewry when walking past Jaffa Gate, restored with the support of South African Jews. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon singled out South African Jews as particularly welcome to make aliyah.

But South Africa also has a much larger Muslim population of some 800,000, many of whom are successful, influential and enjoy strong and growing ties with the Middle East region.

Thirdly, given Israel’s often fraught relations at the United Nations, it is worth considering that South Africa is likely to be granted a permanent “African bloc” seat on any expanded United Nations Security Council. Every state needs friends in the international community, none more so than Israel and Palestine. South Africa carries a disproportionate weight in multilateral fora and still enjoys a degree of moral political capital. This is not just derived from its successful transition, but because, since democratisation, it has been a leading advocate of anti-poverty campaigns, debt write-off, trade reform and diplomatic conflict mediation.

South Africa’s testimony at the 2004 International Court of Justice hearings on the security wall aggrieved the Israeli government and its abstention from the recent International Atomic Energy Agency vote on Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council was viewed as a sop to Teheran, or at worst, an act of hostility toward Israel. Yet South Africa’s position was consistent with its approach to international relations, that is to seek consensus in multilateral forums and to oppose injustice, unilateralism and pre-emption.

South Africa’s position on Iran’s nuclear program was to await the full IAEA report before even considering a vote of referral. As the spurious grounds for invading Iraq demonstrated, being bulldozed or misled into adopting bellicose positions based on highly imperfect or manufactured intelligence is dangerous and counterproductive.

South Africa can teach Israel and Palestine nothing. It has no experience in territorial, religious, or fundamentalist struggles. For South Africans, suicide bombers are a TV image, not a daily threat. It cannot mediate, cajole, nor persuade. It has neither the leverage, nor the political repertoire, to influence the deep and stark realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With all his charisma and credibility as a figure of reconciliation, not even Nelson Mandela could make the desert of Israeli- Palestinian relations bloom.

South Africa is not viewed as an impartial (or even honest) broker by Israel and may even be viewed as a useful idiot by Palestinians. But what South Africa can do and has every legitimate right to do, is to share its story and to provide the protagonists a space for dialogue. Whilst South Africans generally understand far too little about Israeli history, fears and suffering, nor indeed about your particular struggle for identity, emerging from our past, we do have a degree of domestic success in conflict resolution, reconciliation, reconstruction and nation-building. Surely these are some of the issues that go to the very heart of the challenges that confront Israel today?