For the vast majority of South African Jews, the visit last week of a multi-party delegation of Israeli Members of Parliament (Knesset) has provided a welcome message of hope. It is a reminder that despite the destructive efforts of extremist factions aimed at perpetuating division and conflict, it remains possible for people of good will to find common cause with one another through dialogue and constructive engagement.
Members of the Israeli delegation, which comprises Nachman Shai, Amir Ohana, Zouheir Bahloul, Michal Biran, Nurit Koren and Josh Swarcz, were similarly upbeat. Their optimism is aptly captured by delegation member Amir Ohana who, speaking at Constitution Hill on 15 August, commented, "Israeli and Palestinian issues are not going to be solved anytime soon, but there are a lot of good things that can come from SA – Israel relations."
For the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), as the official representative organisation of the Jewish Community in South Africa, such optimism, not only on our own part as South Africans, but also that of parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is essential. As the SAJBD, we have long maintained that the relationship between South Africa and Israel is to the benefit of both countries. South Africa, with its own history of successful conflict resolution, can play a unique role in bringing the warring parties together. Our country already has the trust of the Palestinian side; all that is now needed is to replicate this trust-building exercise on the Israeli side. The visit of the Knesset delegation was a small but meaningful step towards building that trust.
There are also other moral imperatives to do so. South Africa is a major player and de facto representative of the African agenda in global bodies in the emerging economies such as the BRICS group and the Group of 20 countries forum that brings together the world's 20 leading industrialised countries. Being in this position, invariably means that South Africa bears on its shoulders the responsibility of pushing forward the interests and hopes of many nations on the continent in relation to development and the promotion of peace while safeguarding its own economic interests.
Trade is also another driver; Israel manufactures more intellectual property than any other country in the world in relation to its size. Over the past year, Israel has achieved multiple successes in reforging ties with a range of African countries, which promises to bear multiple fruits for all concerned. There is no cogent reason why South Africa should defy this growing trend, particularly in view of the benefits that flow from its significant and steadily increasing trade relationship with Israel.
It is therefore encouraging that despite the spoiling tactics of such extremist groups as BDS South Africa, supported by misguided factions within the ANC, a range of senior government officials, public representatives, religious leaders and community members, in addition to various Jewish organisations, have been happy to meet with the Israeli delegation. The discussions themselves were open and constructive. Israel for its part, as confirmed by the new Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, has offered to help South Africa with agriculture, water, high-tech, cyber-security, health and education.
In the end, the visit in no way detracts from the problems that exist in Israel, something that the delegation readily acknowledges. A peaceful resolution to the perennially fraught Israeli – Palestinian conflict does indeed seem to be as far away than ever. But there is optimism. As the head of the delegation Nachman Shai noted, “I believe that one day we shall make peace with all our neighbours, same as we did with Egypt and Jordan.” But does South Africa have a role to play in resolving that conflict? Indeed. This country is in a unique position to contribute to that process. Our experience through a painful history of oppression and pain makes it an important partner, which has the wisdom of hindsight, and living up to its established reputation that it is indeed a champion of peace, and elicits strong emotions for the different players concerned – particularly the Palestinians. Thus far the Israeli delegation has heard that there needs to be a true commitment to finding peace between Israel and Palestine, and that they need to give hope to young people on both sides who have grown up in perpetual conflict. South Africa needs to heed the same call – and meaningfully commit to achieving a Two-State solution, a Palestinian and Israeli state, living side-by-side in peace through continued dialogue with both Palestinian and Israeli political actors. Hopefully, the visit of the Knesset delegation will help to further such engagement.