How even-handed is policy on the Middle East conflict?

Patrick Laurence discusses whether policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict is even-handed.

THE CHEERS AND warm embraces that greeted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on his visit to Pretoria for the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) meeting in May are one more reminder of the ANC's solidarity with the PLO and its ties with the Arab world in general. The ANC draws many parallels between the struggles against apartheid and "Zionism". "We were in the same trench," is how Arafat sums up the relationship between the two movements. Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have each contributed hefty sums to the ANC, either to its war chest during the armed struggle or to its election funds since 1990, or both. Although there is no evidence that these contributions have directly influenced the government's foreign policy towards the conflict between Israel and Palestine, there is a confluence of money and party ideology that cannot be ignored.

The conflict may be of little immediate interest to the majority of South Africans but it can still inflame feelings in this racial and ethnically diverse population. The South African Yearbook for 2000-2001 puts the number of Jews at just 73,000 and Muslims at 598,000, but both are represented out of proportion to their numbers in business, in medicine, law and accounting and in the ranks of elected politicians. Tony Leon, leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is Jewish, while several members of Mbeki's cabinet were born into Muslim families, including deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad.

During the run-up to last year's local government elections, the ANC in the Western Cape tried to drive a wedge between the DA and the province's Muslim voters by equating the DA with Israel and its "oppression" of the Palestinians. Posters stating that a vote for the DA was a vote for Israel and showing the Israeli flag dripping with blood adorned lampposts in predominantly Muslim areas of Cape Town. The posters were distributed in the name of the "Friends of Palestine" and the ANC denied responsibility, but DA spokesman Ryan Coetzee bluntly accused his ANC counterpart of lying.

During a debate in Parliament on the Middle East at about the same time, ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni accused Israel of "throwing matches on a very dry pile of sticks", labelled Ariel Sharon's visit to Haram-al-Sharif that sparked the second intifada, as "one match too many", and described the land ceded to Palestine by Israel as reminiscent of "our own experience with bantustans". Yengeni's printed speech included a copy of the resolution passed on Palestine at the ANC's last national conference in December 1997. Judging from the demands made on Israel, the Jewish state was made solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process. In his speech, Leon referred to the "ugly face" of the ANC that was prepared to set "community against community, misuse religion and even import foreign conflicts for domestic political gain". Asserting that Yengeni personified "the ugly face of the ANC", Leon accused him of seeking to "misrepresent the position of the Democratic Alliance in the Middle East crisis" and to inflame passions locally.

Leon sees South African foreign policy in the Middle East as at core "anti-colonial, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian". However the senior government official that Focus spoke to denies that South Africa is pursuing an anti-Israeli policy. He describes policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "even-handed" and says the ultimate objective is to have good relations with every country in the region. Developments in the conflict between Israel and Palestine are judged "on their merits". Since the start of the second intifada in September, world opinion has shifted markedly in favour of the Palestinians; South Africa has moved in that direction, too. In doing so, he says, it is keeping step with many countries, not responding to the trickle of Arab money into ANC coffers. The implication is that South Africa's present tilt towards Palestine and away from Israel will change when Israel adopts a less aggressive policy towards Palestine.

One school of thought in the government is convinced that Israel needs to break the cycle of violence by adopting a new approach. It is not enough to demand that Arafat must stop the violence - even assuming that he has the power to do so - before there can be negotiations. That is reminiscent of former President P.W. Botha's insistence that Mandela renounce violence as a condition of his release in the face of continued institutional violence by the apartheid state. Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory, to punish Palestinians by closing its borders and blockading Palestinian towns and villages, and to use the army to contain the intifada. It is these psychological links with South Africa's past, as well as a general movement of international sympathy away from Israel under right-wing prime ministers, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, that account for South Africa's tilt towards the Palestinians, an official explains. What is required is a new paradigm, he says, comparable with the changed mindset in South Africa when F.W. de Klerk legalised the ANC, released Mandela unconditionally and began settlement negotiations.

Larry Benjamin, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, agrees that the underlying principle of foreign policy in the Middle East since 1994 is "universality" - wanting to be friends with all sides and encouraging the adversaries to negotiate. However he recalls that Netanyahu's premiership coincided with "very pro-Palestinian statements" from justice minister Dullah Omar and an opportunistic attempt by defence minister Joe Modise to sell arms to Syria as a means of "restoring the balance of power" in the Middle East. The election of Labour's Ehud Barak in 1999 and his willingness to discuss the "final status" issues - the position of Jerusalem, the nature and boundaries of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the right of return of Palestinian refugees - resulted in a warming of relations between South Africa and Israel, says Benjamin. But he adds that the militantly pro-Palestine Hezbollah propagated the view that the withdrawal was a victory for armed struggle, thereby encouraging the birth of the second intifada. In his view, the roots of the uprising lie with Hezbollah as well as Sharon.

The South African government does not apportion blame in that way. Leon detects no marked change in South African policy during Barak's short tenure. Jewish Board of Deputies chairman Russell Gaddin labels it as "anything but even-handed" and characterised by a readiness to criticise Israel while saying nothing about the campaign of terror bombings against Israeli civilians.

The criticisms of Leon and Gaddin contrast sharply with the contentment of Hassan Dahman, counsellor in the Embassy of Palestine. "We are satisfied," he says of South African policy in the Middle East. He sees a close identity of interests between the ANC and the PLO. "They are two liberation movements fighting for the same goals. There are many similarities between South Africa under apartheid and Palestine under Zionism," he says. Dahman's unqualified satisfaction contrasts with the resolutely diplomatic discretion of the Israeli ambassador, Tova Herzl. Commenting on Nam's statement on the conflict in May, she expresses appreciation of South Africa's effort to speak to both sides, but questions Nam's legitimacy, given that several of its members did not recognise Israel's right to exist.

The satisfaction of the Embassy of Palestine raises doubts about the "even-handedness" of government policy. It may be further tested during the United Nations conference on racism in Durban in August. In an article in the Mail & Guardian, Herzl expresses concern at the attempt to remove anti-Semitism from the conference agenda. She states that "deliberate avoidance" of the issues raised by anti-Semitism "indicates less than complete honesty in the expressed desire to confront racism". That, however, is linked with an attempt to place the Middle East conflict on the agenda while ignoring conflicts elsewhere in the world. These moves recall the now rescinded UN resolution of 1975 that described Zionism as a form of racism, and may herald an attempt to reinstate it. If successful, they will formally label a political conflict as racist and, if anti-Semitism is kept off the agenda, identify the "racist aggressor" as Israel, which has been largely built by the victims of Nazi racism against Jews. A conference on racism within these parameters is calculated to transfer to South Africa the volatile emotions aroused by the complex and tragic conflict in the Middle East.