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Op-eds

Why pick on Israel?

  • terence corrigan
President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed in parliament last week that South Africa intended to downgrade its diplomatic presence in Israel. The foreign affairs bureaucracy was working “feverishly” on the matter. “The decision to downgrade the embassy in Israel is informed precisely by the violation of the rights of Palestinians and we are therefore putting pressure on Israel. But at the same time, we are saying we are willing to play a role and ensure there is peace,” said Ramaphosa.
by TERENCE CORRIGAN | Mar 14, 2019

Only the highest principles and most altruistic ideas are on display here – at least within their own logic – befitting a country that still perceives itself as wielding outsized moral authority.

And not only in government: in a recent contribution to the Daily Maverick website, Dr Shuaib Manjra assailed Israel, demanding a foreign policy that prioritised “meaningful international solidarity and struggle for justice and human rights”.

Meanwhile, the government of Venezuela resorts to lethal violence and the manipulation of hunger to control its restive subjects. Across the Limpopo River, Zimbabwe’s military, in violation of the country’s constitution, is deployed to intimidate the civilian population.

In China, mass internments of the Uighur minority continue. The release of a video meant to show that a Uighur musician was alive triggered demands for similar “proof-of-life” of other internees.

South Africa’s public response has been not so much quiet as contrary, at least if “solidarity, justice and human rights” are a measure. As Ramaphosa was affirming South Africa’s duty to the inalienable rights of the Palestinians, a delegation of his party colleagues was in the Venezuelan capital Caracas affirming their solidarity with President Nicolás Maduro and his government.

South Africa maintains a cordial and supportive orientation towards the Zimbabwean government. Nothing sums this up – in what it says and fails to say – better than a statement released by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation on 15 January 2019. This was in response to strike action and the brutal state response to it. “The South African government has noted protest action in Zimbabwe and is monitoring the situation. Consultations are taking place between diplomats. We are confident that the measures being taken by the Zimbabwean government will resolve the situation.”

As for China, South Africa’s official stance has long been that of an uncritical, stalwart ally. Nothing, as far as I know, has been said about the troubling developments in Xinjiang, and it is unlikely that anything will.

Perhaps most interestingly, last week South Africa accepted its first ambassador from Morocco in 15 years. With the ANC and South African government sympathetic to the aspirations of the Polisario Front for the independence of Western Sahara (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), relations have been strained.

Few prospects of change are evident and most of the criticisms levelled at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, accurately or not, are applicable here. It even has its own security barrier, the 2 700km Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, cordoning off the barren territory controlled by the Polisario Front.

These are mere examples from the recent news cycle. South Africa maintains good relations with any number of countries with lousy human rights records, and has not let territorial disputes elsewhere prejudice its foreign relations.

If the abuse of human rights, repression, the targeting of ethnic minorities and the denial of self-determination (the cause of an ally, no less) present no obstacle to diplomatic engagement with South Africa, why should this be the case with Israel?

Part of the answer is a simple political truism: consistency is much demanded but seldom practiced. As the late political scientist Samuel P Huntington memorably put it, “double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle”.

There is another explanation. The former diplomat and international relations scholar Professor Gerrit Olivier draws attention to the pervasive and often corrosive influence of ideology on the country’s foreign policy. Much of this is rooted in the ANC’s experience in exile, its alignments in the Cold War, and its sense of leading a coalition of the “South” since the 1990s.

In all cases, the “West” was a dread opponent to be confronted. In government, while the dictates of practicality may have toned this down somewhat (though not entirely), the fundamental geopolitical assumptions remain in place.

As Olivier commented in early 2017: “Its foreign policy lodestar is the ANC’s international relations committee discussion document of 2017, an arcane pseudo-Marxist tract garnished with hackneyed clichés and dividing the world simplistically into saints and sinners.”

Israel is a particular target. It is, after all, where various strains of anti-Western thinking – “revolutionary”, “anti-imperialist”, anti-capitalist, Arab nationalist and Islamist (not to mention standard anti-Semitism, in some cases) – intersect as they seldom do elsewhere.

Sadly, when human rights, self-determination and so on are interpreted through this lens, they are fatally compromised. They have become instrumentalist ideas, not normative ones.

Some years ago, I discussed this issue with a senior official at the department. After he had expounded on the centrality of human rights to the country’s foreign policy, I asked whether South Africa ever spoke up for political prisoners in Cuba, dissidents in China, homosexuals in Iran, or women in Saudi Arabia.

After all, if human rights are universal and dear to South Africa, this should concern his department as much as the plight of the Palestinians, or Islamophobia in Europe. He shifted uncomfortably and said that ye-e-e-e-s, some interventions are made, but they are “unsystematic”. Whether that is a diplomatic way of saying that nothing much is done at all, I’m not sure.

Against Israel, though, it’s all systems go.

  • Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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