Meddling in the Middle East

By Alana Baranov, August 24, 2012
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The beaming, gracious Madiba waving to his people, the endless queues of multiracial crowds weaving as far as the eye can see - these are my memories of growing up in South Africa as apartheid came to an end. Back then, the promise for the future was of tolerance, engagement and reconciliation, in stark contrast to the rhetoric of discussions about Israel, and South Africa's ties to the Jewish state, in the country today.

South Africa alone is not the problem. Israel's political and social issues must be more urgently resolved; its leaders must end the settlements in the West Bank and do more to initiate peace with the Palestinians. As for the Palestinians; it appears as if no real momentum for change and inspired leadership exists, so there is no foreseeable end to the desperate situation of the Palestinian people.

But South Africa has something to answer for too. Last week the country's Deputy International Relations Minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, called for government officials not to visit Israel "because of the treatment and policies of Israel toward the Palestinian people". It is not the first instance of high-level hostility to Israel in South Africa; in the past, South African universities have refused to host Israeli academics and officials. With these actions, my country, which inspired the world with its peaceful transition from discrimination to equality, is not living up to the promise of its peace-building legacy.

The South African politicians who effectively call for a boycott of Israel run the risk of not only exporting a foreign conflict into a country that has no role in it, but of playing into the hands of extremists on both sides of the divide. And by labelling the state of affairs in Israel as "apartheid", as the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other organisations have done, they abuse the memory of those who suffered under South Africa's horrific racist laws.

South Africa plays into the hands of extremists

Unfortunately, such actions are costing South Africa the opportunity to be an objective mediator and contribute to the resolution of the Middle Eastern conflict using its own experience as a guide. Far from saving Israel from itself, South African condemnations directed at only one side make it easier for hardliners to trade on the Israeli public's worst fears and widen the increasing gap between them and the Palestinians.

It is commendable for South Africa to take a critical stand on a human rights issue, such as identifying Israeli products produced in the West Bank, but I am deeply disappointed that this focus does not extend to the slow, silent genocides on our doorstep.

My country's chequered foreign policy record shows its consistency in inconsistency. President Zuma wishes to uphold the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference at all costs, while insisting that our primary objective is to foster the ideals of democracy and justice. Why do we not publicly condemn the dictator of the country of my birth, Zimbabwe, despite a string of rigged elections, killings and torture? Why do we oppose the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir? Why do we abstain from voting on a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, claiming the wording favours one side? Where is the logic in our stand?

As a South African, my wish is for Israel and the Palestinians to follow a just path toward a just solution to the conflict. In South Africa, our own remarkable revolution is not yet finished. We should ensure our support for the resolution of human rights issues around the world, as well as in our country, in a manner that lives up to what was promised.

Alana Baranov is a writer and activist based in Durban and a former diplomatic liaison for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 24 2012