Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, March 31, 2006

Hamas in South Africa
Besides the fundamental justification of keeping an open office policy to any state power, I have to admit to not being overly keen on Hamas being invited to South Africa by our foreign office. Whilst I respect that Hamas came to power legitimately through democratic practices, I cannot condone their bloody past, their incitement to violence or their absolute non-recognition of the Israeli state. South Africa has some odd allies in Iran, Iraq and Palestine, which maligns our traditional non-aligned foreign policy, and Hamas is no different.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has some cutting words for South Africa, and whilst it tries to soften the blow with justification, the words are poisonous:
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 sceptics, 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.

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?

"Useful idiot" - Eina!