The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have become the latest Arab States to sign an agreement normalizing relations with Israel in what is viewed as a strategic realignment of countries in the Middle East against Iran. The deal brokered by the United States and signed at the White House in Washington makes the two Arab nations the third and fourth to normalize relations with Israel after Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994 respectively. Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of Johannesburg-based think tank, Afro-Middle East Centre. He now joins us via Skype.
By Ramzy Baroud
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely become an alliance in name alone. Recent events notwithstanding, the conflict brewing over territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean suggests that the military union between mostly western countries is faltering. The current Turkish-Greek tension is only one facet of a much larger conflict involving – aside from these two Mediterranean countries – Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European countries. Notably absent from the list are the United States and Russia; the latter, in particular, stands to gain or lose much economic leverage, depending on the outcome of the conflict.
Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots; in this case, it is important to consider that Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Also of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nicos Anastasiades, respectively, on 2 January. It envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that is projected, once finalised, to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic; it is also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas, which arrives in Europe through two pipelines: Nord Stream and Gazprom, the latter extending through Turkey.
Gazprom alone supplies Europe with an estimated forty per cent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Russia significant economic and political leverage in Europe. Some European countries, especially France, have laboured hard to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies because of the gas supply. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently under way in Libya is tantamount to colonial expeditions aimed at balancing out the over-reliance on Russian and Turkish supplies of gas and other sources of energy.
Fully aware of France’s and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in Libya’s military showdown between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those from the East, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, and organised under the militia called the Libyan National Army. The conflict in Libya has been under way for a decade, but the issue of the EastMed pipeline that will supply Israeli gas has added fuel to the fire: it has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement; worried Russia, whose gas arrives in Europe partially via Turkey; and empowered Israel, which will likely use this as an opportunity to cement its economic integration with the European continent.
Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty on 28 November 2019 that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold manoeuvre now allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. Europe finds this ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ) unacceptable because, if it is used effectively by Turkey, it could nullify the importance of the ambitious EastMed project, and fundamentally alter the currently geopolitical situation in the region, which is largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO.
However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO rose dramatically; NATO members fought major wars in the name of defending the interests of member states, and to protect ‘the West’ from the ‘Soviet menace’. NATO remained strong and relatively unified even after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the abrupt collapse, in 1991, of its Warsaw Pact. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity, despite its raison d’être – defeating the Soviets – being no longer being a factor. This was mainly because Washington wished to maintain its global military hegemony, especially in the Middle East.
The Iraq war of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, but the Iraq war of 2003 signalled NATO’s undoing. After failing to achieve any of its goals in Iraq, the USA adopted an ‘exit strategy’ that foresaw a gradual American retreat from Iraq while, simultaneously, ‘pivoting to Asia’ in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific. The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s war on Libya launched in March 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering new term, ‘leading from behind’, to describe the role that the USA played in the assault on Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, the USA was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker NATO members – Italy, France, Britain and others. While the former US president, Barack Obama, insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outlived its usefulness for Washington.
France, in particular, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it fought to keep the European Union intact. It is this French faith in European and western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. France is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises (and a few in Africa), including the flaring east Mediterranean conflict. On 3 December 2019, France’s Emmanuel Macron stood up to the US president, Donald Trump, at the NATO summit in London. There, Trump had chastised NATO for its reliance on American defence, and had threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if NATO members did not compensate Washington for its protection.
It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries such as Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and others lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany taking over the leadership of NATO while the USA remains almost completely absent. It is difficult to imagine the reinvention of NATO into a body that no longer caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behaviour, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts for the alliance. In November 2018, Macron made what seemed a baffling proposal at the time when he called for the establishment of a ‘true, European army’. Considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army, after all.
* Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons
Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Israel signing a deal to normalise relations, the UAE indefinitely postponed a ceremonial signing eventthat was to be held with the USA and Israel because of Israeli opposition to Abu Dhabi purchasing F-35 fighters from the USA. The UAE cancelled the trilateral meeting that was supposed to take place on 31 August. It is clear that the F-35 sale was an integral part of the agreement, and the Emiratis claim that the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, had agreed to it. No wonder that Netanyahu’s rejection of the possibility of such a sale outraged the UAE. These developments also suggest, as some Palestinians have pointed out, that the deal had nothing to do with Israel agreeing to halt plans to annex Palestinian territory, as Abu Dhabi had claimed.
The normalisation agreement between the UAE and Israel, concluded on 13 August, is far from being the historical deal the protagonists make it out to be. Instead, it exposed an existing affair the two states have cultivated from the mid-2000s. Although the UAE has just joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries with peace agreements with Israel, UAE-Israel secret relations for more than a decade have included commerce, cyber technology, security and military hardware and energy; these will strengthen and become overt under the new agreement. Israel had, in fact, secretly established and strengthened relations with a number of Gulf States in recent years, and some of these have reached maturity under US president Donald Trump.
Even before this agreement was concluded, Emirati-Israeli cooperation had strengthened with the assistance of the Trump administration. The UAE was one of three Arab countries to attend the unveiling of Trump’s farcical ‘deal of the century’ in January, and was a critical part of the June 2019 economic package for Palestinians designed by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and announced in a conference for this purpose in Bahrain. Following the conference, Israeli ministers undertook several visits to the UAE, signalling progress towards normalisation. A series of cooperation agreements between the UAE and Israel to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and an Emirati plane landing in Tel Aviv in July signalled increasing relations between the two countries, and the normalisation agreement was the logical next step. In July, in a move now seen as preparing the ground for the normalisation deal, the Emirati ambassador to the USA, Yousef Al-Otaiba, published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper after Netanyahu had announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank, calling for these plans to be halted. Two other Gulf countries, Bahrain and Oman, as well Sudan could follow soon with normalisation plans.
Tracing UAE-Israel relations
Current relations between the UAE and Israel may be traced back to 2009, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. The relationship blossomed via secret meetings held to pressure Washington into taking a stronger stance against Iran. However, UAE purchases of military intelligence software and arms deals suggest the relations started in the early 2000s. The two countries had already been communicating via intermediaries, mostly discussing their common opposition to Iran.
Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas leader and co-founder of the movement’s armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, in January 2010 threatened carefully-nurtured and ongoing secret links between the two states. Contact stalled over Mabhouh’s murder until 2012 when Netanyahu secretly met the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, in New York during the UN General Assembly. Talks on Iranian activities in the region resumed, establishing mutual geopolitical concerns. Emirati cooperation with Israel accelerated as a response to the 2010/11 Arab uprisings and Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. In January 2014, then Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, attended a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi, spurring on relations. In the following year, the UAE granted Israel permission to establish an office in Abu Dhabi for the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has served as platform for regular communication between the two countries.
To showcase the relationship and test responses, the UAE, in a break with a decades-old practice among Arab states, allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played for Israeli athletes at a judo tournament held in Abu Dhabi in October 2018. This was followed by visits to Abu Dhabi by Israel’s communications and culture ministers, Ayoub Kara and Miri Regev respectively, in the same week that Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to Oman in which he met the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Gulf leaders reciprocated. For example, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was reported secretly to have visited Israel and met with Israeli officials; his visit was preceded by a July 2016 delegation led by former Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, who also met with Israeli officials.
In July 2019, the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, attended the UN climate conference in Abu Dhabi, and, on the sidelines of the conference, discussed Iran with senior UAE officials as well as the Israeli ‘Tracks for Regional Peace’ initiative meant to open up travel and trade between Israel and Gulf countries. Katz’s visit came on the heels of the US economic conference in Bahrain. While such official visits between Israeli and certain Gulf states did not represent diplomatic relationships, they showed that Israel was making headway towards normalisation with Gulf countries – especially key players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was cemented in December 2019 when USA hosted Israel and the UAE in an anti-Iran meeting that discussed a non-aggression pact between the two states as a step towards full diplomatic ties.
Normalisation, weapons and strategic alliances
Until recently, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had shied away from overt relations with Israel for fear of backlash from their citizens. This changed with Trump’s attempts to build an anti-Iran coalition with Gulf states.
Emirati-Israeli relations have grown significantly in the fields of cyber-espionage and big data analysis since 2009. Acquiring Israeli technology and cybersecurity expertise has boosted the UAE’s domestic and regional surveillance capabilities – even against its own citizens. The UAE uses Israeli companies such as DarkMatter and NSO Group, staffed by Israeli cyber experts, to hack phones, gather intelligence and monitor Islamists, other dissidents and other Gulf leaders. Many Israeli military and security specialists also work for Emirati companies, and have often been hired as mercenaries since the Arab uprisings of 2010/2011.
Although the 13 August normalisation deal is a victory for Israel, which seeks legitimacy among Arab states in order to make the Palestinians irrelevant in international affairs, the Emiratis also scored big in the deal, or so they initially thought. The package included a US agreement to sell F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi in a multi-million-dollar-sale. The UAE had been looking for ways to acquire F-35s as it seeks to present itself militarily as the region’s emerging hegemon. Netanyahu, however, quickly denied these Emirati claims that F-35 acquisition had been secured, emphasising that Israel remained opposed to the sale of advanced weapons to Arab countries. Israel’s opposition to the sale of the jets to the UAE created tensions in the new alliance. Abu Dhabi cancelled the meeting that was to mark the official and ceremonial signing of the normalisation agreement in protest against Netanyahu’s opposition to the F-35 sale. Meanwhile, conflicting sentiments have emerged from the White House.
Differences also quickly emerged about Emirati claims that the normalisation agreement included an end to Israeli plans for the annexation of the West Bank. Within hours of the deal’s announcement, Netanyahu confirmed his commitment to annexation, saying it only been delayed, not cancelled. Kushner supported the Israeli prime minister, clarifying that the annexation was only temporarily halted to allow Israel to focus on strengthening its relations with Gulf countries. Clearly, the Emiratis failed in their attempts to win Arab support by packaging normalisation with Israel as a move to support Palestinians.
The attendance of Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the USA, at the unveiling of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in January had already indicated the increasing Emirati disregard for Palestinians. In drafting Trump’s plan, Kushner had consulted widely with Gulf countries – especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These countries had formed part of the process despite the fact that no Palestinians had been consulted. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Palestinian groups had slammed Emirati support for the heavily pro-Israel plan as the ultimate betrayal. The same sense of betrayal was expressed when the UAE-Israel deal was announced this month.
The Dahlan effect
The Emirati attitude to and interference in Palestinian affairs can be seen in the role of exiled former Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, arch enemy of PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. After being expelled by Fatah, Dahlan found refuge and massive financial support in the UAE. Some of those financial resources have been dedicated to undermining Abbas to set the stage for Dahlan to capture the PA and PLO. Many Palestinians credit him for being behind the UAE-Israel deal. Dahlan, who used to be close to the CIA and the Israeli security establishment, was convicted for corruption by a Palestinian court in 2014. Since then, from exile, he has tried to to re-enter Palestinian politics and return to Palestine. The UAE, Egypt and Israel prefer him as a replacement or replacement for or successor to Abbas. He has built a support base among sections of Fatah youth in Gaza, some of the refugee camps in Lebanon, and in a few Palestinian diplomatic missions abroad.
The UAE also has a difficult relationship with Gaza-based Hamas, which it treats with hostility because of the group’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the UAE has not officially designated Hamas a terrorist group, Emirati officials refer to it as such in private, especially after the 2017 blockade on Qatar, imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. UAE ally Saudi Arabia has detained dozens of Hamas activists since February 2019, allegedly at Israel’s bidding.
Through Dahlan, the UAE has sponsored aid projects in Gaza. In May and June this year, the UAE also sent two planeloads of COVID-19 aid to Israel for Palestinians in the West Bank. The first plane landed in Tel Aviv in May, unmarked, while the second plane bore the Etihad airline logo and the UAE flag, marking significant strides in UAE-Israel relations. Despite being cash strapped and battling the pandemic, the PA rejected both planeloads, viewing Emirati coordination with Israel (and the lack of consultation with Palestinians) as a betrayal. The recent normalisation deal emphasised this sense of betrayal; protests against it erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza, with protesters burning pictures of the UAE crown prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Dahlan, Trump and Netanyahu.
Other Gulf states may follow
Oman and Bahrain, both of which immediately praised the UAE-Israel agreement, are expected to follow the Emiratis, allowing Israel to realise its long-time dream of normalisation with regional states while isolating the Palestinians. Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, have already discussed strengthening bilateral ties. The USA hoped that plans to normalise might be announced soon, and the recent regional tour of Kushner and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aimed to finalise these plans. Pompeo’s trip to Bahrain on 26 August did not yield the hoped-for results, however, as the Bahraini king emphasised the creation of a Palestinian state. Sudan’s transitional government also backtracked. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco have reiterated their stance not to normalise relations with Israel until a peace deal with Palestinians is reached. However, this does not preclude relations taking place secretly.
Secret relations persist between Israel and certain Gulf countries, as well as some Arab states in Africa. Before Bahrain, Pompeo visited Khartoum and met the Sudanese prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, who disputed claims that his country will normalise relations with Israel, despite Sudanese officials having secretly met Netanyahu in February to discuss normalisation. Despite Sudan’s transitional government issuing conflicting statements on the matter, an 18 August meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and member of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), in Abu Dhabi suggests that that closed door relations will take place despite Hamdok’s statement.
To understand how divisions have further deepened after Israel and the UAE agreed on Thursday to establish diplomatic relations in a United States-brokered deal, we have asked an expert on the matter, Matshidiso Motsoeneng, who is currently a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg, South Africa to join. She's on Skype.
Virtual Nelson Mandela Lecture, hosted by the National Council of Provinces, Parliament of South Africa
Theme: Each one Teach One: The Power to Transform the World: Mandela in Conversation with Palestine
Presented by Na'eem Jeenah
(View the event on Youtube here)
17 July 2020
Honourable Deputy Chairperson of the NCOP, Comrade Sylvia Lucas, Honourable Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Comrade Lechesa Tsenoli, Honourable members, Comrades.
Before I begin, I want to extend my condolences and the condolences of my colleagues and comrades to the Mandela family on the loss of their daughter, our sister and comrade, Zindzi. Comrade Zindzi’s death reminds us of the many struggles we still have to win in our country and the world: against impoverishment, climate change, occupation, colonialism, apartheid, capitalism, and for justice, economic liberation, and freedom. It also reminds us of the very immediate and urgent challenge of Covid-19. May she rest in Peace, and may she and her parents be witnesses to us never dropping the spear.
One other comment before I begin is to note that Comrade Lechesa Tsenoli and I both signed the Global South Call against Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, along with politicians, academics, artists, sportspeople, judges from various countries of the South, such as Brazil, India, Malaysia, Chile and Venezuela. We were in company of a number of former heads of state, including Kgalema Motlanthe. Such gestures from the leadership of our legislature are important for Palestinians who are being betrayed all over the world.
We have all heard the famous statement of the first president of the democratic Republic of South Africa, Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ This statement has been quoted across the length and breadth of our country, and across the world. It is a popular quote in the Palestinian solidarity movement and among Palestinians. One can understand why, of course. It is Madiba! And for Palestinians, it is affirmation of their struggle by the global icon of justice, the freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela.
But beyond the identity of the person being quoted is the very important substance and meaning of the comment, its implications for solidarity, and for South Africa. Indeed, Madiba encapsulates, in this sentence about the Palestinian people, the essence of solidarity itself. Because solidarity is not just about doing for others; it is very much also about doing for ourselves. Solidarity is not about things like humanitarian assistance, pity, or giving; solidarity is a political act; more than that, it is a political process that creates political (and, dare I say, loving – in the Guevaran understanding of revolutionary love) relationships.
I stress this point because, in the era of NGOisation, and Palestine is a wonderful example of the worst meanings of this term, solidarity, for many, has come to mean less a process of struggling together and more one of privileged people being ‘human rights’ defenders’ or providing humanitarian assistance – whether campaigns for political prisoners or food aid. For too many people, solidarity is viewed in an individualistic way, to campaign for injustices perpetrated against this or that person rather than battling the overwhelming structures of oppression that keep entire oppressed populations under their jackboots. It is saddening that many of us, even erstwhile liberation fighters, have succumbed to the allure of neoliberal material benefits, and allowed the attraction of lucre to trump the demands of solidarity.
Chandra Mohanty wrote that solidarity must be based on a ‘common context of struggles against specific exploitative structures and systems.’ (Mohanty 2003, 49).
Perhaps more familiar to us, is the teaching of Comrade Samora Machel:
International solidarity is not an act of charity: it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives…
Solidarity is an assertion that no people is alone, no people is isolated in the struggle for progress. Solidarity is the conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. In short, against exploitation of human by human.
Solidarity has no race and no colour, and its country has no frontiers. There is no solidarity just among Africans, no exclusively Asian solidarity, since the enemy of the people also has no country or race.
We therefore approach the question of solidarity with the Palestinian people not as privileged northerners do, but as people of the Global South, grappling with our own legacy (and current reality) of ‘exploitative structures and system’, of apartheid, and as a ‘conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism’. For us, then, international solidarity should never mean just doing charity for someone else. It is primarily about developing relationships between oppressed peoples – even if, in the case of some oppressed people, they have more privilege. As in our case, compared to the Palestinians. We have a state, a government, a parliament (even if these are also terrains of struggle), a sovereign nation… The Palestinian people have none of these. When Madiba says we will not be free until the Palestinians are free, he is tying our fate, the fate of an oppressed people (or formerly oppressed people if you wish, though I don’t agree with that description) with the fate of other oppressed people. In supporting Palestinian resistance and Palestinian struggles for justice, Mandela is telling us, we are charting a course for our own liberation.
But when looking at the Israeli occupation, Madiba didn’t just speak about the Palestinians. Long before the regular Israeli onslaughts on Gaza, such as in 2008-2009, and in 2014, long before Israel used the Oslo Accords to undermine the Palestinian struggle and as an excuse to construct illegal settler towns in the West Bank, long before Israel’s thousands of checkpoints made miserable the daily lives of Palestinians, long before the illegal hermetic siege of Gaza, Madiba said of Israel, in 1990: ‘If one has to refer to any parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories.’ The PLO, he said, ‘we don’t regard… as a terrorist organization.’ This was a clear understanding of what constitutes terrorism and where our solidarity should lie.
But if our solidarity is founded on a context of shared struggles, and on love of other oppressed people, then surely it is hypocritical for us to pat ourselves on the back, telling ourselves that we are fulfilling our responsibility by statements and speeches on significant days, while continuing our lives as if the world is normal, and without concrete action towards realising the freedom of the Palestinian people, which will also be our freedom. It is not sufficient that we deploy the revolutionary slogans of our own struggle – such as ‘Each one, teach one’ – when talking about the Palestinian struggle, but do not imbue our deeds with the revolutionary fervour and actions that accompanied those slogans. Let us remember that Madiba’s statement – ‘…our freedom is incomplete…’ – was not made in the heady days of struggle; not in the 1960s, not after 1976, not in the 1980s. It was made in 1997. It was a commitment made not by the president of the ANC, but by the head of state of a democratic South Africa, suggesting that that state, supposedly a liberated state, was also ‘not free until…’ and implicitly committing the state to achieving its own freedom through that of the Palestinian people. Our stated solidarity and commitment must result in practical consequences for us, as a people, as a state, as a parliament. And I want to turn my attention now to a few of these – particularly as they are relevant to parliament and government.
Yesterday, 16 July, was the 57th anniversary of the address of Mama Miriam Makeba to the UN Special Committee on Apartheid. In her speech, which resulted in her passport being withdrawn and her not being able to return to South Africa, Makeba said:
I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the colour of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.
Who of us, especially the Black people among us, cannot see Palestine described in these words of Makeba, and, before her, in the words of Amilcar Cabral and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, both of whom strongly supported the Palestinian struggle. We are not fooled by the apologists of apartheid and colonialism who demand that we should not equate Israeli racism to South African racism of the past. We who have lived as Black people under apartheid know it when we see it, we know what it feels like on our bodies, what it tastes like in our bloodied mouths. And racism, Madiba reminded us,
is a blight on the human conscience. The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as sub-human, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.
He could have been talking of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
This brings me to an important point. The UN committee that Mama Miriam Makeba addressed no longer exists. It presented its last report in June 1994. While the committee focused on South Africa, let us note that the 1973 ‘International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’ is not about South Africa. Nor is the apartheid clause in the Rome Statute, adopted in July 1998 – four years after the ‘fall’ of apartheid in South Africa – about our country. In fact, South Africa is not ever mentioned in either document. The Convention is about apartheid, and it will remain relevant as long as apartheid exists anywhere in the world.
Why then is it, I ask you, Deputy chairpersons, that while we see and recognise and are pained by the apartheid that we witness practised by Israel (and other states), South Africa still has not signed the Convention on Apartheid? Do we feel no shame not to have endorsed a legal instrument developed by the international community that was a weapon in our struggle and can be a weapon in the just struggles of other people? I believe that this is a critical task for this parliament to deal with: signing and ratifying the Convention on Apartheid (especially at this time when we are an elected member of the UNSC), and spearheading a campaign for the reactivation of the Special Committee against Apartheid so that it might be able to address manifestations of apartheid in, for example, Palestine.
There are also numerous considerations for us in terms of South Africa’s relations with Israel. Two and half years ago, the African National Congress resolved at its 54th National Conference in Nasrec to call on the government to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office. This was certainly the kind of concrete action that reflects (or will reflect when it is completed) South African seriousness in our solidarity with the Palestinian people. That resolution was referred to and supported on numerous occasions by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister Naledi Pandor (even before she became Minister of International Relations and Cooperation) and Minister Lindiwe Sisulu (when she was Minister of International Relations and Cooperation). Minister Sisulu added that the downgrade process had already begun with the recall, in May 2018, of our ambassador to Tel Aviv, and the decision not to appoint a new ambassador in his place. Moving ahead on the process to downgrade the embassy, for which the ANC has called, will be a concrete expression of our solidarity. Parliament needs to hold DIRCO and the presidency accountable to ensuring that the process goes ahead, speedily.
There are also other aspects of our relationship with Israel that are concerning. Why have wee not banned, at the very least, the products of the illegal Israeli settlements from being imported into South Africa – no matter how they are labelled? Indeed, why have we not made it difficult for the importation of any Israeli products into South Africa? Our special concern should be for the large amount of Israeli-manufactured security-related equipment that dominates the South African market – from household security technology to commercial and industrial security technology. How can we claim to express solidarity with the Palestinian people when the security technologies used by most state-owned enterprises comes from Israel? How can we be tolerant of Telkom’s billing systems being outsourced to an Israeli company, which has exclusive control over our metadata? How can we express solidarity with the Palestinians but accept as ‘normal business’ when a South African icon, Clover, is bought out by an Israeli consortium?
Furthermore, what is our solidarity worth if we allow South Africans to join and fight with the Israeli Defense Forces, thus being responsible for the murder of Palestinians and the destruction of Palestinian livelihoods. After the 2008-2009 Israeli onslaught on Gaza (called Operation Cast Lead), a handful of NGOs in South Africa prepared and submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority a dossier, commonly called the ‘Gaza Docket’, which listed 75 South Africans who had been operational in the IDF during Operation Cast Lead. Many of those names were linked to social media accounts where these South Africans boasted of their role in the IDF, with some proudly posting pictures of themselves in the uniforms of the occupation army and displaying their weapons. Nothing has come of this Gaza Docket; no one has been prosecuted; no serious investigation, it seems, has been conducted. And yet you, our Parliament, has passed the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act in 1998, which makes such activities illegal.
On the global stage, South Africa is currently both an elected member of the United Nations Security Council and the Chair of the African Union. Each of these is a weighty responsibility. Together, they place on our shoulders as a nation, and on your shoulders as legislators, a massive set of responsibilities. They also put us in a unique position to use these weighty responsibilities in order to give concreteness to our solidarity with oppressed peoples. We might have only six months left on the UNSC, but we should not miss the opportunity to use these months to lobby for the world body, which is heavily weighted against the Palestinians, to strengthen international law, pass critical resolutions, and craft new conversations around the Palestinian struggle. Solidarity should not be restricted to the streets, but should forcefully enter the hallowed chambers of the Security Council as well – even if, for now, only virtually. This is especially so when Israel treats the UN with disdain and dismissal.
Our role in the AU is, perhaps, more important substantively. When Israel, the ‘terrorist state’ that Madiba referred to, is poised to turn a sufficient number of African states to support its bid for observer status at the AU, when Israel’s exploitation of blood diamonds from our continent has deadly implications for a large number of Africans, when Israel is supporting undemocratic regimes militarily against their own people, a critical South African voice in the AU is more important than it ever has been. We must ensure that Israel does not put its bum on an observer seat in the AU, a cause to which South Africa has been committed but is facing dissent from many other South African states. We must also cast the spotlight on the broader role of Israel on the continent, especially its military, intelligence and security involvement with states and non-state actors.
Not long after US president Donald Trump unveiled his annexation plan for Palestine in January this year, a plan that the Israeli government has enthusiastically embraced, President Ramaphosa said that it
brought to mind the chronicled history that we as South Africans went through. The apartheid regime once imposed the Bantustan system on the people of South Africa without consulting them and with all the oppressive elements which that plan had… [Trump’s plan] sounds like a Bantustan type of construct.
Our president was, of course, correct in his assessment. However, a slightly deeper examination of the issue demonstrates that, in fact, since the 1990s when the Palestinian Authority was created, Israel never had any intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. The most it was ever willing to countenance was the possibility of a Palestinian bantustan, where the so-called government of that entity would have fewer powers and less authority than did the ‘government’ of Bophutatswana. That is the current situation. What is referred to as a ‘Palestinian state’ today is, in effect, a glorified bantustan. Despite Israeli leaders occasionally paying tribute to a ‘two-state solution’, a Palestinian and an Israeli state existing side-by-side, there never was any Israeli intention to allow for a Palestinian state to exist. The Trump plan has made that clear for those who were previously confused – as our president acknowledged in February.
How, then, should South Africa respond in this context? How should this realisation be reflected in concrete political and policy positions?
At some level, it is understandable that South Africa, as a member state of the UN and steadfastly committed to the notion of multilateralism in global diplomacy, continues to maintain its support – even if just rhetorically – for a ‘two-state solution’. However, especially in light of the Trump plan, which, as any political scientist will tell you, makes a mockery of the notion of ‘state’, and which proposes a Palestinian entity that will have no control over its borders, water resources, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum, coastline, nor army and not even an independent police force… In light of this, it is now necessary for us to revisit this ‘two-state’ idea. Such a re-evaluation, by the way, is no longer a radical idea, if it ever was. When even (liberal) Zionists are busy re-evaluating the idea and when many of them have already concluded that the only way forward for the Palestinian and Israeli people is to live together in one state, then it is certainly not radical for a leading state in the Global South, with revolutionary credentials, to engage in its own reassessment on this issue.
It is not sufficient to continue hiding behind the argument that this is the position of ‘the Quartet’, especially when one member of that quartet is the architect of this abomination of a ‘peace plan’ and another satisfies itself by whining and hand-wringing while doing nothing to ensure that Palestinian territory is not annexed in complete violation of international law.
It is also not sufficient to hide behind the argument that we are following ‘the Arab states’ or ‘the Arab League’. Since when has ethnicity granted a people the right of veto over principles and moral questions? These are the same Arab states whose authoritarian regimes oppress their own people, which have normalised relations with Israel, which have ensured long term civil wars in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa, which undermine democratically-elected governments (including on our continent). Why are they our teachers?
South Africa, it must be said, has not been shy, since 1994, to challenge ‘the way things are done’ on the global stage. We have been courageous and forthright, for example, in our calls for reform of the United Nations and other multilateral structures. Why then are we afraid of being forthright enough to call for a reassessment of this now-implausible and silly-tragic idea of a two-state solution? Why are we afraid to even begin that conversation publicly at the level of government, parliament and the ruling party? This debate must begin, publicly, in a manner that looks at the best interests of all the people who live in Palestine, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.
Comrades, as we remember Tata Madiba this month, and as we prepare, especially, for Nelson Mandela Day tomorrow, we must soberly examine his comment about the necessity for seeing justice and peace existing everywhere. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap that has long been set for us of extracting Madiba from his legacy as a freedom fighter and seeing him only as a teddy bear hugging children and White people. Let us not forget that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was not sentenced to life in prison because he was a cuddly stuffed toy, but because he was a founder of Mkhonto we Sizwe, a leader of our armed struggle against an apartheid state. Let us remember too, that while Madiba committed ad devoted his entire life to justice and peace, Apartheid Israel is not interested in justice or peace. Unless it is the peace of the graveyard, or pieces of bantustans. It is interested only in war, in the theft of Palestinian land and in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Solidarity, as Madiba demanded of us, requires real and concrete support for Palestinian resistance, not talk of fictitious mediations between Israelis and the Palestinians.
Allow me to end this tribute to our leader Nelson Mandela with a quote from him from 1999, when Madiba, president of the Republic of South Africa, was seated next to PLO Chairperson Yasser Arafat in Gaza. Madiba declared on that occasion:
All men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward. Then if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.
A few weeks later, Palestinians launched the Second Intifada.
Palestinians today find themselves in a position where they ‘cannot proceed’, where they ‘cannot move forward’. If we fail them, and if we fail the calls for real solidarity from Madiba and from the Palestinian people, we will push them further into a corner where there are no alternatives. Our solidarity must ensure that Palestinians have alternatives that will provide them a just and fair future, free from oppression and exploitation, occupation, colonisation and apartheid.
* Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre