Palestinian statehood bid: The view from South Africa

By Khadija Patel 20 September 2011

In New York, diplomats are preparing for what one US Department of State employee is quoted as describing as a “week of hell”.  International attention is focused on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he continued to defy international pressure, insisting that the Palestinian bid will not be thwarted.  The outcome of the bid remains unknown – even informed speculation is ill-equipped to predict exactly what will happen in New York this week. But whatever the outcome, the Middle East conflict has returned to the top of the world agenda. KHADIJA PATEL spoke to South African-based activists on both sides of the conflict to draw their opinions on the planned statehood bid.

When the last of the Wikileaks cables were unceremoniously prised open for all the world to see, one cable leaked from the American embassy in Pretoria detailed the testy relationship between Israel and South Africa. In February last year, US Ambassador Gips met Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg and discussed Israel’s relationship with South Africa.  The Israeli Ambassador Segev-Steinberg told his American counterpart that he did “not see much chance for substantial change in the relationship in the near future”.  The Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, will certainly prove a further challenge for strained ties between Tel Aviv and Pretoria.

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) continued to stall on revealing its stance on the Palestinian bid, but a well placed source within Dirco reiterated to the Daily Maverick that South Africa would definitely vote in favour of the Palestinian statehood bid. An Israeli publication revealed on Saturday that the United States was working to gather enough United Nations Security Council members to resist the planned statehood bid in order to avoid having to use its veto power. South Africa, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, is not likely to be swayed by American persuasion.

Outside of government, South Africans are preparing to articulate their varying perspectives on the bid. 

Trade union federation Cosatu was still busy penning its opinion on the matter on Monday but as avowed supporters of the Palestinian cause, it is unlikely to oppose the planned bid. Cosatu may, however, have a few choice words for the likes of US President Barack Obama for standing in the way of the Palestinian bid to be recognised as a state.

Essentially however, last ditch attempts by American, European and Israeli diplomats to scupper the bid may well prove fruitful. The bid is after all, an elaborate publicity stunt by the Palestinian Authority to draw attention to the tenuousness of the status quo in Israel. Vice Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Ben Swartz, believes it would do all parties an injustice to comment on the bid as it is currently planned. “The situation is very fluid,” Swartz said, making it difficult, he believes, to offer an adequate response.  Swartz did however indicate that “any unilateral movements in the context of the conflict would prove unhealthy.” He stressed a need for dialogue and negotiations between both sides to end the impasse.

Joshua Schewitz, the director of the South African Union of Jewish Students strongly denied the planned statehood bid by the Palestinians would act as impetus back to the negotiation tables. “The Israeli government,” he says, “has been ready to negotiate for years”. In Abbas, Schewitz says, the Israelis have found a dishonest negotiator, but added that intra-Palestinian politics does severely stymie the Palestinian President’s efforts towards achieving a lasting solution to the conflict. “For some reason,” Schewitz says, “negotiations have never gotten anywhere.” Schewitz was careful however to stress that the formation of a Palestinian state was in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. It is the timing of this bid, without addressing other contentious issues like the fate of Palestinian refugees, that he believes will prove detrimental to the conflict. “A lot must happen before statehood can be achieved,” he says but adds later, “We want a Palestinian state to be created.”

On the Palestinian side of the fence in South Africa, Muhammed Desai from the South African arm of  the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel and the Coalition for a Free Palestine was reticent to express his support for the bid. “As civil society in South Africa, we take our lead from Civil Society in Palestine,” he said. “Any initiative to the UN,” he says, “must be supported but most importantly the question of whether this (bid) represents the views of the Palestinian people needs to be addressed.” Desai stresses the need to differentiate between the Palestinian Authority (PA), of which Mahmoud Abbas is President, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The PA as the result of the Oslo accords, Desai believes, has failed to live up to its official billing as representatives of the Palestinian people. Desai points out that the PLO, as a body representing Palestinians living within the occupied territories as well as those in the diaspora, are already recognised by the UN. A nod of approval to the PA will ultimately come at the cost of the Palestinian diaspora.

Late on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, through his Twitter account, implored Palestinians to return to negotiations. “I call upon the #Palestinian president to meet with me in NY to resume immediately direct negotiations for peace,” he tweeted. The Palestinians however have their eyes set on an audience with the UN General Assembly. But it remains to be seen whether the diplomatic wrestling will actually enact any tangible change on the grounds of the contested territory. DM

Read more:

  • Palestinians seek a state but the problem of statelessness is not easily solved in The Daily Maverick;
  • Analysis: Why Democrats fear losing the Jewish vote in The Daily Maverick;
  • Palestinians’ U.N. recognition bid met with apathy on Facebook in Los Angeles Times;
  • Debating the UN bid for Palestinian statehood in Al Jazeera.



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