Ahead of crucial Agoa Forum, Pretoria again treads a fine line with its stance on Israel, Palestine, Gaza
After engaging in energetic diplomacy with the US over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Africa is once again walking a tightrope, this time on the Israel-Palestine-Gaza crisis.
Pretoria is once again treading a fine line on a hot foreign policy issue, forced to navigate between its long-standing Palestine sympathies and its important Western economic ties, in a diplomatic tightrope walk that partly echoes its earlier acrobatics on Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The government’s initial failure to condemn Hamas for its brutal attack on Israel on 7 October — in which it killed more than 1,400 people and took more than 200 as hostages; International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor’s mysterious call with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last week; her meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last weekend; and ANC statements appearing to deny the existence of a Jewish state have caused some concerns abroad.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub
Next week SA hosts the annual forum of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which it nearly lost earlier this year because of US concerns — particularly in Congress — that it was siding with Russia in its war against Ukraine.
Energetic diplomacy by SA saved the Agoa Forum and also very likely SA’s continued participation in the US programme which gives eligible African countries duty and quota-free access to the lucrative US market for many of their exports. SA has been the biggest beneficiary.
But now South Africa’s perceived closeness to Hamas has begun to raise new questions in some quarters about its eligibility for Agoa. Michael Walsh, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa Program has written:
“The Biden administration is facing an emerging challenge that could result in another breakdown in the strategic partnership with South Africa.
“In the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel, there are concerns that the South African government has engaged in international affairs that, at face value, violate the eligibility requirements for certain non-reciprocal trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).”
These eligibility requirements include a stipulation that the African country should not jeopardise US national and security interests.
Members of Congress are likely to want the Biden administration to respond to these concerns before South Africa hosts the Agoa Forum next month.
“The latest threat to the strategic partnership revolves around a reported call between Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor. During that call, Hamas claims that Pandor ‘affirmed South African solidarity with the Palestinian people and with Gaza in the Al-Aqsa Flood battle’,” Walsh wrote.
“South Africa acknowledges that Pandor ‘reiterated South Africa’s solidarity and support for the people of Palestine’. However, it steadfastly denies that Pandor ‘offered support’ for Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, which the United States has publicly denounced as a ‘brutal terrorist attack.’ ”
Pandor said she and Haniyeh had discussed humanitarian access to Gaza.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Naledi Pandor denies supporting Hamas attack on Israel
SA’s Jewish community has also expressed grave concern about Pandor’s call with Haniyeh, particularly as her office confirmed the call only after Hamas had disclosed it publicly.
“Why does she have the phone number of the leader of a terrorist organisation in her contact list? Does she call him every day?” one leading member of the community asked.
Pandor’s meetings with her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and with Raisi in Tehran on Sunday — in which the Iranian president thanked her for her government’s support for the Palestinian cause and for opposing Israel’s effort to be granted observer status at the African Union — has also raised eyebrows in Washington and elsewhere. Iran openly provides military and other support to Hamas and publicly congratulated it for its attack on Israel.
Western diplomats based in Pretoria have also expressed concern about what they regard as signs that the governing ANC might be shifting away from the official South African government support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, towards support instead for a single Palestine state across that entire territory. That is also the position of Hamas, which seeks the eradication of Israel as a Jewish state.
These diplomats cite a tweet by ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula and chanting by its first deputy secretary-general, Nomvula Mokonyane, during a protest at the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, both of which repeated the slogan: “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free.”
The slogan implies a single Palestine state in the territory now occupied by Israel and Palestine. This is not the official position of either the UN or the SA government, both of which officially advocate a two-state solution, of an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing peacefully side by side, as one diplomat noted.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, Pandor and other ANC officials wearing Palestine keffiyeh scarves at a press conference after an ANC NEC meeting has also not gone unnoticed.
It is not clear if these concerns will influence South Africa’s Agoa status. One congressional source said “the die is cast” for SA to host the forum next week. US sources also say that US President Joe Biden will determine that South Africa should continue to receive Agoa benefits in his 2024 Annual Review of Country Eligibility for Benefits Under Agoa, which he must submit to Congress over the next few days.
Nonetheless, White House decisions on this are subject to congressional review.
Another congressional source said, “I think their [South Africa’s] position [on Hamas] is giving many members of Congress pause and further straining the bilateral relationship. That said, I doubt it will feature at the Agoa forum, given the US government participants, and I don’t think the administration wants to make it an eligibility issue — although they may get pushed by Congress.”
Pretoria has been tweaking its position on the Hamas-Israel conflict, perhaps because it is feeling some of that pressure. In its first reactions, it did not criticise Hamas for its killing of Israeli civilians, suggesting that the attacks had been justified by Israel’s occupation of Palestine territory.
Just over a week later, Ramaphosa did for the first time criticise Hamas. In his weekly letter, From the Desk of the President, he said it was “part of our national DNA to stand firm against all forms of prejudice including racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia”.
The “atrocities” committed by Hamas in Israel as well as the deaths of Palestinians caused by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza violated international law, he said.
Referring specifically to the “wanton” Hamas attack, he said, “While international law recognises the right of oppressed and people who defend themselves to use arms as a means of struggle and defence, that right must be exercised within the bounds of the Geneva Conventions.”
There have been some suggestions that Pandor may have called Haniyeh a day later to reassure him after Ramaphosa’s criticism of Hamas. But in any case, Pandor and Ramaphosa have both continued to insert some criticism of the Hamas attacks into their subsequent statements, even if they have always made it clear that their sympathies lie with the Palestinians.
They have also been clear — as Pandor was again in her speech in this week’s UN General Assembly debate on the Middle East crisis — that South Africa supports the two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Hamas vehemently opposes that compromise. And, arguably, Israel’s hardline, rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also in effect abandoned the two-state solution, judging by his encouragement of mass Jewish settlement on the West Bank which is supposed to be part of the territory of Palestine.
Pandor’s visit to Iran last Sunday — at the height of the global controversy — also prompted a few questions. Pandor met Amir-Abdollahian, who took the opportunity of a joint press conference with her to issue a thinly veiled threat that Iran would intervene in the war if Israel did not stop its bombardment of Gaza. And in a later joint press conference with Raisi after Pandor had paid him a “courtesy call”, Iran’s president thanked South Africa for its support of Palestine and also for preventing the African Union from accrediting Israel.
Pandor’s office did not announce her visit to Tehran to meet the Iranian leaders. Her spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, confirmed it to Daily Maverick only after Iran had announced it. He explained the purpose of her trip: “The minister was honouring a long-standing invitation from her Iranian counterpart to discuss the upcoming state visit of the Iranian president to South Africa and exchange views of global issues.”
But one US analyst said, “I believe the Pandor trip to Iran will cast a deep shadow over the event [the Agoa Forum].”
This is not clear, however. Although the US has strongly backed Israel and its right to retaliate against Hamas, it has also tried to persuade Netanyahu to exercise more restraint in bombing Gaza, to decrease civilian casualties.
Globally, too, Israel’s massive pounding of Gaza — which had killed 6,734 people, injured 18,412 and displaced 1.35 million by 25 October, according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor — has created a different moral equation for the world from that of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the aggressor and the victim are more clearly defined. This became very clear on Tuesday when UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council:
“It is important to also recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.
“But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s outraged UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, said Guterres had “expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder”, and called for his resignation.
There are some suggestions that offering to mediate in the Middle East crisis might also help South Africa off the diplomatic hook. That seems to have happened in the Russia-Ukraine war after Ramaphosa took the lead of a seven-nation African Peace Mission seeking an end to that conflict.
As leader of that mission, Ramaphosa delivered some unwelcome messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin in June and July, urging him to return abducted Ukrainian children and to resume the Black Sea Grain Initiative which he had pulled out of.
The impact of this initiative is uncertain, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — originally critical of SA’s perceived pro-Russia stance — seems to have appreciated the effort. He invited South Africa to join his own peace process and last week he called Ramaphosa to invite him to join the third round of those talks. Afterwards, Zelensky said that in the “lengthy and fruitful call” with Ramaphosa he had “noted that relations between Ukraine and South Africa keep building up on all levels”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: How feasible is South Africa’s offer to mediate in the war between Israel and Hamas?
And last week Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi took up Ramaphosa’s offer to help revive the Middle East peace process by inviting him to his peace summit in Cairo.
Ramaphosa called for greater humanitarian aid to Gaza and said: “The international community cannot afford to squander the opportunity that has been presented by the current conflict to decisively push for a two-state solution.”
His spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said Ramaphosa’s message “was well received because there was unanimity on the two-state solution as a key ingredient for lasting and durable peace. There was also agreement across the board on the urgent actions that must be taken in order to alleviate human suffering.”
Most observers believe South Africa is poorly placed to mediate in this conflict because it has so clearly taken the Palestine side and so is not trusted by Israel to be an honest broker.
However, Zev Krengel, the deputy president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, said two weeks ago that Ramaphosa’s involvement in the Ukraine peace process — in which he had been able to deliver some important messages precisely because he had Putin’s ear — suggested that he might be able to play a similar role as part of a wider Middle East peace process by delivering important messages to Hamas.
It is not quite clear, though, if this was a back-handed compliment. DM