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S. Africa would be wise to ponder its Israel stance
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S. Africa would be wise to ponder its Israel stance

The recent disclosure by South Africa's International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane that her country would be cooling relations with Israel, comes as no surprise. For years now Pretoria's formal policy has been to back the Palestinian right to self-determination, while simultaneously supporting Israel's right to exist. But in practice, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on, it has increasingly been more critical of Israel and more outspoken in favor of the Palestinian cause.

This is understandable in light of the South Africa's past. The country's black majority, equates their suffering under racist apartheid at the hands of whites with the plight of Palestinians under Jewish rule. Their emotions go together with acute hostility, indeed hatred, towards Israel by some members of the Muslim community as well as by influential whites including left-wingers and communists. Anti-Semitism is clearly evident among some.

The antagonism, however, is anything but pervasive with vast numbers of South Africans, both blacks and whites, and especially devout Christians, strongly supportive of Israel. But the opponents are active and noisy and they do enough to ensure that South Africans have become a major player in the international attacks on Israel through incessant condemnation and calls for boycotts.

The South African government has resisted domestic pressures to cut diplomatic relations and Nkoana-Mashabane made clear this is not being planned. Instead, as she said, South Africa will "slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with [Israel] until things begin to look better."

The direct effect on Israel is likely to be minimal. South Africa will suffer far more. It is struggling with deep seated problems and by reducing contact is depriving itself of opportunities to gain access to invaluable Israeli expertise in areas such as agriculture, use of water, health and education.

The decision to cool relations will, however, be greeted as a victory by the boycott movement and will give impetus to its campaigning. Internationally, too, although South Africa has lost much of the luster it enjoyed when it gained equality, it is still influential in the developing world and its action will no doubt be watched with interest.

There is perhaps significance in the venue which Nkoana-Mashabane used to make her disclosure: Cosatu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is virulently opposed to Israel. Earlier this year, in one of its repeated boycott calls it said: "We must isolate anything to do with the apartheid state of Israel and its murderous security regime. We call for an end to the occupation of Palestine and return of their land now, with the unconditional abolishment of the colonial settler regime…"

The harsh and extreme language reflects the combination of malevolence and ignorance which characterizes much of the hostile South African attitudes. Critics accuse Israel of apartheid when it is nothing of the sort. They are often confused about the difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs. They have no understanding of the fundamental difference in theory and practice between the tribal Bantustans which were a mainstay of apartheid and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They take the words of the revered Nelson Mandela and manipulate them against Israel. They point fingers at Israel's (dismal) treatment of African migrants, while at home they resort to xenophobic murder of African migrants. Bad as the West Bank tyranny is, they manage to enlarge and distort it, and equally so the Gaza blockade.

South African-born, Benjamin Pogrund's latest book, "Is Israel Apartheid? Reporting the Facts on Israel and South Africa", is to be published in the US next year.



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