Relations between the United States of America (US or USA) and the Republic of South Africa have flourished since US President Barack Obama and South African President Jacob Zuma took over the reigns of power. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one issue where both countries do not exactly see eye to eye.
Since the end of apartheid, America’s relationship with Israel has played a role in this key bilateral relationship: one between a superpower and Africa’s leader. In the mid 1990s, South Africa toyed with the idea of selling electronic sighting systems for Syria’s tanks that would have put Syria on a level playing field with Israel in regard to their tank arsenal. This, in turn, posed a serious national security threat for America’s greatest ally in the Middle East.
Another event that highlighted the importance of the issue took place in 2001 at the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Other Forms of Discrimination (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa. The US was criticised at the very beginning of the WCAR for sending a low-level delegation headed by US Ambassador Michael Southwick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organisation Affairs instead of what many people thought should have been Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. This was especially true of a conference that dealt with several controversial issues like slavery and Israeli’s actions in the Middle East. At the time, the president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki stated that sending such a low-level delegation was a mistake.(2) Nevertheless, the WCAR proceeded, and after four days of heated negotiations, Israel and the US withdrew from the conference.
Five years later, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas visits South Africa. A full honour guard welcomes him as he arrives at the parliamentary complex in Cape Town. Mbeki pledges continued South African aid to the Palestinians “to attain their long cherished dream of an independent and sovereign state.”(3) Mbeki also offers the South African nation’s ‘unconditional acceptance’ of the legitimacy of the Hamas-led Government, but also urged the militant group to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Mbeki said that Hamas must be included as a negotiating partner in the peace process; this despite the refusal by Israel and Western Governments to deal with the militant group, which is on the American and European Union (EU) lists of terrorist organisations.(4)
Fast forward another five years, and Palestine has put forth their statehood bid to the United Nations (UN). President Obama clearly states he will veto Palestine’s Security Council bid, while President Zuma tells the UN General Assembly that Palestinian membership would be “a decisive step towards achieving lasting peace.”(5)
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult topic with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians often likened by some as a system of apartheid. In fact, former US president Jimmy Carter even entitled his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.(6) Regardless, both the US and South Africa support the two state solution, but have differing opinions on the conflict and what is the “best” way to achieve peace.
Lobby groups play a large role in formulating American foreign policy. And many US political scientists such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that the Israel lobby is one of the most powerful.
US-Israeli relations are an important factor for overall American policy in the Middle East. The US has supported this policy by providing Israel with billons of dollars of foreign aid(7) and economic and military grants each year. The relationship is complex, with Israel dependent on the US for its economic and military strength, while, at the same time, the US is an ally of Israel and dependent on Arab oil.
There is some division in the US on the issue of Israel. One side questions the levels of aid and general commitment to Israel and argues that an American bias toward Israel operates at the expense of improved US relations with various Arab states. The other side, which includes the powerful and influential Israeli lobby and the neo-conservatives in Washington, feel obliged to defend a democratic Israel against non-democratic forces. They maintain Israel is a strategic ally and that US relations with Israel strengthens the US’ presence in the Middle East.
The US has been sceptical of South Africa’s relations with Palestinian leaders over the years from organisations such as the PLO and Hamas. America grasps the fact that South Africa wants to use its experience in conflict resolution to establish a two state solution, but often is distraught by anti-Zionist statements from the African National Congress (ANC), ANC Youth League, Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), and South African Communist Party members and protests by the Palestinian Solidarity Group.(8) Even South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, in a response to an investigation commissioned by Pretoria in 2009, issued a report that said:
The three pillars of apartheid in South Africa are all practiced by Israel in the OPT. In South Africa, the first pillar was to demarcate the population of South Africa into racial groups, and to accord superior rights, privileges and services to the white racial group. The second pillar was to segregate the population into different geographic areas, which were allocated by law to different racial groups, and restrict passage by members of any group into the area allocated to other groups. And the third pillar was “a matrix of draconian ‘security’ laws and policies that were employed to suppress any opposition to the regime and to reinforce the system of racial domination, by providing for administrative detention, torture, censorship, banning, and assassination.”(9)
These statements have been combined with South African diplomatic meetings with Israel’s enemies – Iran and Hamas – where Pretoria has defended their point of view. Furthermore, South Africa has voted for several UN resolutions condemning Israel; on occasion even co-sponsoring the resolutions. For example, in 2007, it was one of only 15 countries that put forward a submission to the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Israel’s security barrier, commonly referred to by the Deputy Foreign Minister at the time, Aziz Pahad, as the ‘apartheid wall.’(10)
Some Americans such as a former US State Department employee who preferred to remain anonymous and was interviewed by the author in 2008 feel South Africa is “punching above their weight” when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it is outside the scope of Africa.(11) It is believed that South Africa wants to be recognised for its work on the international level, thereby pushing them ever closer to a seat on the UN Security Council. Others feel that Israel’s strong relationship with the apartheid Government during the 1970s and 1980s is another reason why so many South Africans are critics of Israel. South Africa provided enriched uranium to Israel during the 1980s in exchange for military technology transfers and other items.(12)
Nevertheless, today South Africa is a member of the Security Council, albeit non-permanent. The US feels Palestine needs to build their own state, but this should be done through bilateral discussions with Israel and not a UN bid. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation have expressed the same sentiment. Chairperson of the SAJBD Mary Kluk stated “[c]hange has to come through negotiation with two parties. It can’t be done in the corridors of the UN.”(13)
South African perspective
South Africa’s ties with Palestinian organisations have grown considerably since 1994. At the same time, South Africa has maintained strong economic relations with Israel; it is their largest trading partner in Africa. It is also notable that the South African Jewish community, although extremely small compared to that of the US, is among the most vibrant Diaspora communities, especially in the Johannesburg area. They continue to have a considerable influence in business and political circles.
South Africa has had to balance these two interests since 1994 and has done so, showing remarkable pragmatism at times. However, from a pure economic standpoint, South Africa understands that three-quarters of its liquid energy requirements come from this region and that the Middle East is the most promising market for the South African arms industry.
South Africa does not want to be seen as mediators, but simply as using their own experience to assist in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. South Africa has criticised Israeli actions such as Israeli defence forces occupying territories, but has also condemned actions of the Palestinian groups such as suicide bombings.
A large majority of the Israeli criticism does come from the strong leftist ideological parties such as the SACP and COSATU.(14) Critics have also included pro-Palestinian activists mostly from South Africa’s Muslim minority, and some members of the ANC, with former South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils being very vocal during and after his time as minister.(15)
South Africa perceives the protection of Israeli interests in the Middle East as one the driving factors of US foreign policy.(16) Although the conflict in the Middle East may seem far removed from this African regional leader, many within the South African Government, as evident by their participation in protests, sympathise with Palestinians and perceive parallels to their own struggle for liberation. In fact, the ANC has a long history of cooperation with the PLO, and Israel’s close ties with the apartheid regime led many ANC members to perceive the Palestinian cause as a sister struggle. This long history has led to a deep distrust of what appears to be America’s unwavering support for Israel. This suspicion is further deepened when Americans themselves such as Jimmy Carter compare the conflict to that of apartheid.
Statements in Carter’s 2006 book and Obama’s 2011 UN General Assembly speech also remind South Africa of the large amount of aid America gives to Israel. This inequity in aid, especially compared to some African countries, is perceived by some South Africans as pure favouritism and has even been labelled as ‘racist.’
The Palestinian statehood bid at the UN Security Council will take weeks to discuss. And it will largely depend on the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East: Russia, the European Union, the United Nations, and the US. Diplomats now say the Palestinians are not pressing for an early decision, but are waiting to see how the Quartet’s efforts develop.(17)
Regardless of the differing views on the UN bid, South Africa and President Obama himself has stated that finding a solution to the Israel/Palestine issue is a priority.(18) South Africa maintains that, in order for the peace process to succeed, Hamas would have to be involved in the peace talks; however, they feel Hamas should be moved closer to Fatah.(19) The US would not disagree with this statement.
Right now, however, it appears that Palestine’s UN bid will fail. And regardless if and/or when this happens, both the US and South Africa, in their eyes, will continue to do what they feel is the best way to achieve “peace.”
(1) Contact Dr. Scott Firsing through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s (CAI) Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).
(2) ‘Africa: US Withdrawal an Error: Mbeki’, Sowetan, 4 September 2001.
(3) Nullis, C., ‘President Mbeki meets Palestinian leader Abbas’, Associated Press Worldstream, 31 March 2006.
(5) ‘Zuma throws weight behind the Palestinian UN bid’, Mail & Guardian, 22 September 2011, http://mg.co.za.
(6) Carter, J., 2006. Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. Canada: Simon & Schuster.
(7) The exact amount is very difficult to identify because certain categories of aid are buried in the massive federal budget, hard to estimate the actual value, or are simply unknown. Best guess estimates are that the US provides Israel with around US$ 3 to 5 billion a year.
(8) For example in June 2007, South Africans were called on by pro-Palestinian groups to turn out in their thousands during a week of national protest action in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The week of action coincided with the 40th anniversary of the occupation by Israel of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Addressing a media conference, South African Intelligence Minister Kasrils described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as ‘criminal and intolerable.’ Speaking at the briefing, COSATU President Willie Madisha said protest action against Israel ‘must be sustained for as long as possible beyond the week we have identified. COSATU will campaign among organisations of the working class around the world to support this call.’ He said COSATU supported a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. US and Israeli flags were also burned as demonstrators from the End The Occupation Campaign gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria to highlight the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people during that week.
(9) ‘Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law’,Human Sciences Research Council, 2009, http://www.hsrc.ac.za.
(10) Pahad, A., ‘Speech to the Business South African and United States (US) Corporate Council on Africa meeting, Johannesburg’. 13 November 2007, http://www.info.gov.za.
(11) Anonymous, 14 November 2008, [Interview with author], Former US Government official, Washington DC, USA.
(12) Horton, R.E, 1999. Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria’s nuclear weapons experience. USAF Institute for National Security Studies, Occasional Paper #27.
(13) Child, K., ‘South African Press Association, South Africans divided on Palestinian UN bid’, Mail & Guardian, 23 September 2011, http://mg.co.za.
(14) ‘SACP Statement on the International Day of Solidarity with Palestine’, SACP (South African Communist Party), 29 November 2001, http://www.sacp.org.za.
(15) See Kasrils, R., ‘South Africa’s Israel Boycott’, The Guardian, 29 September 2010, http://www.usacbi.org.
(16) Grobler, G., 19 September 2007. Department of Foreign Affairs: SA-US Bilateral Relationship. Presentation by Acting Deputy Director General of Americas and Europe Ambassador Grobler.
(17) ‘Palestinians must wait weeks for UN bid answer’, Haveeru Online, 2 October 2011, http://www.haveeru.com.mv.
(18) ‘Envoy: Mideast peace a ‘top priority’ for Obama – Update’, DPA (German Press Agency), 27 July 2009, http://www.earthtimes.org.
(19) ‘US/South Africa Relations: Briefing by the Department of Foreign Affairs’, Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 19 September 2007, http://www.pmg.org.za.