African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MP Cheryllyn Dudley says she is hopeful that a recent week-long visit to Israel and Palestine by a Parliamentary group will contribute towards a constructive shift in relations between the South African Government and Israel.
She commended the predominantly anti-Israel ANC committee members for withholding publication of a one-sided report after visiting Gaza alone and for honouring a more-than-a-year-old commitment to visit Israel and Palestine to listen to all sides of the conflict in the region. There had been considerable obstacles in the way of making the visit and ample opportunities for the members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Co-Operation to excuse themselves from their commitment made in response to an ACDP recommendation that the resolution they intended to submit to the National Assembly be held over until they heard from all roleplayers in the region.
Useful diplomatic role
“I believe that we will now come up with a very sensible and helpful report that can take us forward and place South Africa in a position in which we can actually be helpful in the Middle East conflict,” said Dudley in an interview. She said that during the visit the committee members put emotions aside and engaged openly with different perspectives of the conflict and recognised untapped opportunities for benefitting South Africa and playing a useful diplomatic role.
She said that the ANC’s stance of exaggerated bias against Israel and blind support for the Palestinian cause has cut SA off from the opportunity of facilitating reconciliation in the region — “a role that we are particularly well suited to because of our history”.
“The ACDP has been working for a long time to try and help our community and MPs to be a little more rational when dealing with this issue. And to really consider that if they do want to help Palestine, they really do need to have a relationship with Israel,” she said.
During the Parliamentary committee’s visit to the Middle East from March 31 to April 5 they visited Palestine and Israel and engaged with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and citizens. She believed that some of the group members who previously did not believe that Israel had a right to exist, became willing for the first time to hear Israel’s point of view.
During several days in the Fatah stronghold of Ramallah, the committee “got a bit of a wakeup call” and at times “felt that they were being played and that there were huge exaggerations and inconsistencies”, said Dudley.
They saw evidence that much money was being pumped in to Palestinian zones from America and Israel which raised questions as to why unlike the Israelis, the Palestinians did not repair war damage to buildings but preferred to maintain an image of victims.
ANC committee members also seemed irritated by repeated Fatah and Hamas eulogies of Nelson Mandela and asked the Palestinian factions why, if they were so inspired by Mandela, they could not move the regional peace process forward by reconciling with each other. They also rejected assertions that the situation in Israel was comparable with SA’s apartheid past.
In Israel members of the committee said they felt close to God in the Old City of Jerusalem, were visibly moved by their visit to the Holocaust Memorial (Yad Vashem), and were impressed by Israeli science, technology and infrastructure achievements.
In a meeting with the committee General Yaakov Amidror, National Security Advisor and Head of the Israeli National Security Council reduced the tension upfront by acknowledging that he understood that for the ANC Palestine was not so much an international relations issue but a “domestic, family issue”. This helped the committe members to maintain a professional, international relations perspective.
Israeli answers to questions on contentious issues like its ongoing development of settlements in defiance of international law, and claims that it abuses water rights at the expense of its neighbours, provided surprising new perspectives to members of the SA parliamentary group.
A former Israeli soldier who has written a book highly critical of Israeli occupation of formerly Palestinian land was asked by concerned committee members if he was in danger and in hiding. His shocked response that Israel is a democracy with freedom of speech further challenged the visitors’ perception of the country.
The South African Ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, in reply to questioning by Dudley, said that the strained relations between SA and Israel prevented him from taking full advantage of trade, science and technology opportunities that could benefit SA. Committee members said he should seize the opportunities.
Dudley said that during the course of the visit, committee members appeared to see that it was possible to accept Israel’s right to exist without liking occupation, and that a protracted war situation was bad for both sides.
She said that the committee still has to deliberate and draw up a report for Parliament on what it saw and heard during its Middle East tour.
She acknowledged that back home there is pressure on ANC committee members to default to an emotion-driven, anti-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiment.
But she said that she has high hopes that the report will encourage a shift in strategy and facilitate constructive engagement with both sides of the conflict. She was encouraged that within days of the group’s return form their trip the Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, announced a watered-down version of a controversial law about the labeling of products from Israeli-occupied areas. Notwithstanding Israel’s rejection of the revised labeling it represents a significant compromise by SA, said Dudley.