Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
June 8, 2007
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
I believe that the touchstone of South Africa's statecraft must be consistency and equity in determining our response to disputes everywhere, be it Darfur, Kashmir, Northern Ireland or the Middle East.
Yesterday's pro-Palestinian motion by the ANC calling for the "immediate, unconditional and permanent withdrawal of all Israeli forces to the 1967 borders (the 'Green Line' of 1949)" certainly failed this test. Nor will it, quite frankly, make an iota of difference to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which lies far outside the ambit of our diplomatic reach.
Moreover, the motion reeked of double standards and could weaken respect for South African diplomacy in the international community. In the case of neighbouring Zimbabwe, as six of the opposition parties pointed out, the government has not adopted a prescriptive approach. Yet the ruling party's resolution proposes to do so in the case of this conflict.
It was for this reason that our Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Mr Ben Skosana yesterday urged that the ruling party's motion be amended. Mr Skosana proposed that the Chief Whip of the majority party urgently met with the whips of the other political parties represented in Parliament to hammer out a fresh approach to South Africa's position before bringing it back to the National Assembly for ratification. Alas, it was rejected.
As I listened to the debate yesterday in Parliament on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my mind went back to a 1985 meeting with the then Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mr Shimon Peres. He poignantly told me that we were "brothers in suffering", likening the travails of the Jewish people to those of the oppressed black majority in apartheid South Africa.
I am concerned that in, rightly, seeking to draw attention to the plight of ordinary Palestinians, we have not been sufficiently sensitive to the parallel suffering of the Israeli people in the past and in the present.
Today's conflict cannot be debated without reference to the events which led to the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948. Nor can it be separated from the virulent rejection by the Arab League of the partitioning of Palestine and to the existence of the state of Israel.
Let us never forget that the state of Israel came into being after the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis in World War II. The Holocaust is seared into the Jewish national psyche in a way that is difficult for us, foreigners, to comprehend. Yet an attempt to try and understand this is vital though, if we are to be so bold as to believe that we have a contribution to make in the region. Israel has existed in a state of near siege from the Israeli War of Independence to the Six Day War of 1967 and right through the horrific Yom Kippur War of 1974 to the first Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s and beyond.
As this week's parliamentary motion coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, it is relevant to recall that the war was precipitated by the provocative mobilisation of Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Saudi troops on Israel's borders. President Nasser of Egypt said that "our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel" on the 27th of May 1967.
Her small size and proximity to Arab states, which have refused to make their peace with her, has also made Israel particularly vulnerable to air and missile attacks. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi missiles thundered down on Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Haifa. The random acts of terror by suicide bombers strike fear into the hearts of ordinary Israelis.
I enumerate this to illustrate that neither the Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on tragedy. Both have suffered terribly. It is difficult to imagine the daily indignities of living in the occupied Palestinian territories with its system of required passes and strict segregation, the loathed wall, or the, sometimes, "shock and awe" tactics of the Israeli army.
One could go on forever listing the litany of disaster and oppression that have befallen both peoples. Atrocities have been committed on both sides in the name of God. Lasting peace for the Israelis and Palestinians, we know from our own experience, will require far more than the absence of violence.
The late Yasser Arafat deftly put his people's case to me when we met twice in South Africa and once in Egypt whilst we were waiting to greet President Mubarak.
The Chairman, whose personification of the aspiration to statehood of his people deeply impressed me, recognised the existence of the state of Israel in 1988. This took courage. The peace initiatives and agreements which followed, including the Oslo Accords of 1993, led to the "Roadmap" in search of a lasting peace based upon a two-state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Is this still possible?
The Northern Ireland peace process, which in so many ways is modelled on the South African process, has demonstrated that prejudice and sectarian hate can be overcome if all parties reject violence and choose negotiation.
The central message of the Joint Declaration on 15 December 1993 which set out a charter for peace and reconciliation in Ireland was that the problems of Northern Ireland had to be resolved exclusively by political and democratic means. This must be the starting point in resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict, too. A party cannot enter into negotiations, with one tremulous hand holding the revolver, if talks do not proceed exactly how they want them to.
If the drafters of yesterday's motion were remotely even-handed, they would have also called for the Hamas government to drop its refusal to recognise Israel, cease violence and undertake to abide by previous agreements made with Israel.
The emphasis in the region has, naturally, been on top-down diplomacy driven by political leaders. I believe that a 'from the community upwards' approach of fostering peaceful relations between the two peoples will be as important as top level diplomacy.
To create lasting peace, I suspect, the most important step will be to convince ordinary Israelis and Palestinians that they share common interests. This is far more difficult. Mr Peres understands the importance of this. The Peres centre for Peace was established in 1996 upon the premise that "meaningful peace is only possible between peoples with direct and personal knowledge of each other. One of the greatest barriers to peace in today's environment is the negative images and stereotypes that abound in the region". How true.
Interestingly, talking about South Africa, President Mbeki echoed these sentiments in February when he expressed his astonishment of how we South Africans of different hues, cultures and languages, who are neighbours and work colleagues, know so little about each other. I am sure this equally true of the peoples of the Middle East.
An alternative or parallel strategy, as mooted by Peres and others, could take the form of a partnership involving Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians following an economic route rather than a political one. Arguably, many of the important changes that have occurred around the globe since Israel's independence have been the outcome not of military interventions but of economic advances.
Extreme poverty and the breakdown of the rule of law provide the oxygen of extremism. I am sure if the whole border region between the Red Sea and the Jordan River was turned into a joint economic peace corridor, along which industrial plants, tourism, agriculture and even joint education and medical facilities will be developed. Would it not be marvellous if Nablus and Jericho became, once again, part of the tourist trail that leads to the Holy City and beyond to the rose city of Petra?
When people see changes, even modest ones, in their living standards, like the people of Northern Ireland have, the momentum towards peace gathers pace. My simple premise is that there is no reason why the peoples of the Middle East cannot achieve what the people of South Africa and Northern Ireland have done. When people assume economic rights, it is near impossible to deny them political ones.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
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