By Nicola Miltz — Originally published in SA Jewish Report
As widespread international support for the recent deal to normalise diplomatic ties between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel continues to grow, the South African government has slammed the deal calling it “regrettable”
The UAE last week became the first Gulf Arab country to reach a deal on normalising relations with Israel. The so-called “Abraham Accord”, announced by United States President Donald Trump on Thursday, August 13, secures an Israeli commitment to halt further annexation of Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to “delay” the annexation as part of the deal with the UAE, but the plans remain “on the table”.
The UAE is the third Arab nation to reach such a deal with Israel, after Jordan and Egypt.
The historic agreement has been met with loud applause by many nations including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Oman, and has been welcomed by the European Union and United Nations.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said he hoped the normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE would help to realise a two-state solution with the Palestinians and create an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in meaningful negotiations.
South Africa’s largest BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) partners, namely India and China, have also welcomed the deal.
Meanwhile Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the accord, as did Hamas, which rejected the US-brokered deal. Turkey and Iran also decried the accord.
South Africa, remaining loyal to its international friends, has heavily criticised the agreement.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), said it noted the developments with “concern”, describing the deal as “regrettable” on the grounds that the Palestinian people hadn’t been “engaged”.
“While the UAE has the sovereign right to set its diplomatic relations with the government of Israel, it’s regrettable that it has done so based on yet another agreement related to the fate of the Palestinian people without engaging the people of Palestine,” it’s statement read.
Criticising the agreement, it said it didn’t commit Israel to halting plans for further extension of Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian territories and people.
Meanwhile, further normalisation deals are likely to emerge over coming months between Israel and other Arab and Muslim states.
Sudan is rumoured to be seeking a peace agreement with Israel, confirming speculation that more Arab states will follow the UAE in normalising ties.
The vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Zev Krengel, told the SA Jewish Report he was surprised by the government’s response.
“This is an earth-shattering moment in the Middle East, and the South Africa government can’t see it. It’s so embedded in its narrow-minded view on how it thinks the Israeli-Arab conflict should be handled. It’s very sad. I’m dumbstruck by the government’s almost sinister response. It’s as if it really isn’t interested in peace in the Middle East, and just wants to bash Israel.”
Commentator Daniel Silke said the government had echoed the official Palestinian response, and publicly wanted to maintain as much pressure as possible on Israel to advance the Palestinian cause.
He said he believed the UAE would be disappointed with the South African government’s response.
“South Africa has had close links with the UAE, and needs a good relationship with it so that it can expedite any extradition issues with whoever might still be wanted in connection with state capture – those who are flitting around Dubai.”
Rather than acknowledging a shift towards a more peaceful environment in the Middle East, South Africa was keeping the Palestinian issue on the front burner, which didn’t help its relations with the UAE, Silke said.
“By regarding the Palestinian cause for nationhood as a paramount foreign policy priority, this agreement put South Africa on the spot. South Africa is finding itself on the wrong side of diplomatic dynamics. Its reaction makes it less of a player when it comes to bringing these sides together,” he said.
“When you have key Gulf countries beginning a closer dialogue with Jerusalem, this calls into question South Africa’s foreign policy. It doesn’t do itself any favours by seemingly being on the outside on this issue. I believe South Africa would have been better off welcoming the shift towards better relations, but also indicating that it hopes the quest for Palestinian independence will continue unabated,” he said.
Steven Gruzd, an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said that given the government’s staunch support of the Palestinians over the years, this week’s statement wasn’t surprising.
“Instead of lauding the coming together of two key states in the Middle East in a peaceful way, DIRCO pours cold water on this breakthrough. It’s sticking to its guns on a Palestinian state with 1967 borders, which almost no-one sees as practical. It also shows that the UAE’s own interests have overridden solidarity. South Africa has been trying to downgrade bilateral relations, the opposite of this agreement. South Africa is consistent, even if many disagree with its stance.”
While South Africa is “defending its pals”, Gruzd doesn’t see this as helping the Palestinians at all.
The SAJBD said DIRCO’s criticism was “unfortunate”, calling it a “knee-jerk, one dimensional” view on foreign policy.
“South Africa has chosen to place itself on the wrong side of developments in that part of the world,” it said in a statement this week.
“By rejecting rather than welcoming a promising agreement that advances peace between Israel and its neighbours, the government is again missing an historic opportunity to play a constructive role in the pursuit of peace in the greater Middle East region.”
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said improved diplomatic and economic relations between Arab nations and Israel were an “objective benefit for the region”, and could lead to improved stability, prosperity, and peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians.
“It’s unfortunate that South Africa singularly and dogmatically bases her relationship with Israel upon Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. South Africa’s friend and partner, India, by contrast, has shown a remarkable ability to leverage its relations between Israel and the Palestinians away from issues of conflict and disagreement towards mutual support and good relations with both sides.”
South Africa has followed this approach in other cases in the Middle East, Polovin said, for example, by encouraging mediation and negotiation in the matter of the Gulf blockade of Qatar.
“This smart bilateral approach that South Africa should follow is surely the only way for our country to bring the Israeli and Palestinian sides together and find peaceful means to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The SAJBD said that far from prejudicing the interests of the Palestinians, the agreement between the UAE and Israel “creates an opportunity to breathe new life into the quest for lasting peace and stability in the region”.