South Africa's foreign policy on Israel and Palestine has been hijacked by Cabinet ministers. Although inherently more sympathetic to the Palestinian side under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's foreign policy at least tried to maintain an even-handedness, supporting a two-state solution and promoting peaceful dialogue. It even tried to broker talks between the two sides in February 2003.
Since recalling the South African ambassador to Israel following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, however, relations with Israel have deteriorated. Israel is now singled out and treated as a pariah. Local politics such as the ANC's obsession with the Western Cape and the anti-Israel agenda of Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim are skewing foreign policy.
Ebrahim has taken steps to stop "economic" visits to Israel because "Israel is an occupier country".
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Marius Fransman, speaking to members of the Muslim community in Athlone in the Cape, said: "Palestinians and their supporters, inspired by the economic boycott of apartheid-era South Africa, have been trying for years to emulate our success in that terrain. Until now, their campaign of divestment and boycott has had negligible economic effect, but the voice of our government could be a symbolic boost … I am glad to inform you that our government … in May 2012 released a government notice, 379 of 2012, as a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel."
Fransman said he was "highly inspired by the role played by organisations such Open Shuhada Street, the Palestine Solidarity Group, the the Muslim Judicial Council, Al Quds Foundation and others". It should be noted that the foundation does not recognise Israel, even in pre-1967 form. Does Fransman support this view? Is it official policy not to recognise Israel? In 2011, Muslim Judicial Council spokesperson Shuaib Appleby condemned the killing of Osama Bin Laden, saying that "extrajudicial killing is totally condemned by Islam". Does Fransman endorse this viewpoint?
Racially divisive rhetoric
Activist and commentator Rhoda Kadalie sees in Fransman's actions "a campaign against the Democratic Alliance characterised by racially divisive rhetoric and disruptive and violent protests". It appears that in its bid for the Western Cape the ANC is wooing Muslims, a sizeable percentage of voters in the province. Thus it takes a hostile and partisan stance on Israel. It calculates that Jews, being a small minority, can be sacrificed politically.
The ANC finds itself in a quandary of its own making. Removing Ebrahim from his position would be seen by his co-religionists as a hostile act against the Muslim community.
In his speech, Fransman several times transgressed the most time-honoured rule of South African international relations: not to interfere in the internal or sovereign affairs of another country. This he did by criticising Israel's nationality law of 1952. For decades our leaders have bitten their tongues rather than break the sacrosanct rule of noninterference – in Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan, Myanmar, Syria. Can either deputy minister explain why Israel deserves a unique set of standards?
The public needs to be made aware of how their taxes are lavished on the Palestinians. An estimated R30-million has been spent on supporting the Palestinian ambassador in South Africa and, in the past year, about R2-million on Palestinian refugees and millions on sports stadiums in the West Bank and on trips to Palestinian territories. This when many South Africans live without food, adequate housing or jobs. It is time that South Africa regained control over its foreign policy. It has been hijacked by ministers with no sense of fairness and no appreciation for human rights, or for regaining the moral high ground by unequivocally condemning human rights abuses, irrespective of where they occur.
South Africa continues to import goods from Syria while condemning Israel, the only democratic country in the region. It stands with China and Russia to vote in support of dictators and military rulers. Are Palestinian lives more precious than Syrian lives or Libyan lives or, for that matter, South Sudanese or Malian lives?
It is time our officials acted in the interests of the people of South Africa. These would best be served by strong relations with Israel, which has so much to offer in solving South Africa's most pressing problems.
Ben Levitas is the chairperson of the Cape council of the South African Zionist Federation