A top African National Congress official has signaled that the South African government could reverse its anti-Israel stance and play a more constructive role in the Middle East.
The ANC’s new deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, suggested that the South African government might contribute to advancing peace in the region, as it had done in Northern Ireland.
“I was personally involved together with other leaders in the ANC in helping to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland. And maybe somewhere along the line we can make some contribution,” Ramaphosa said.
His comments came in a joint public appearance with South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in Johannesburg last Thursday.
Some 600 people, mostly members of the Jewish community, attended the discussion – titled “Looking forward, 2013, the years ahead” – at Investec Bank in Sandton.
Hundreds more watched in a video link-up to gatherings in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth.
Goldstein, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by The Jerusalem Post, opened the discussion by saying that he did not expect all South Africans to share the small but significant Jewish community’s “affection and connection to Israel.
“What we do expect from our government is a sense of proportionality,” he declared.
“What we do expect from our government is to support both Israel and the Palestinians in their quest for peace. What we don’t expect from our government is to take sides.”
Ramaphosa, 60, a former trade union leader and negotiator who has been touted as a possible candidate for president of the state, was quick to take up the thread of Goldstein’s argument, saying that the ANC government should back “a deep dialogue between representatives of government in this country and the leadership of the Jewish people in this country."
“There needs to be a dialogue because there are various perceptions, possibly on both sides, and one message that the chief rabbi put forward which I have also put forward is that there needs to be an area where we find balance; where we look at the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine, and say we are in full support of peace efforts,” he said. “A peace effort that will lead to a solution where both countries can live in peace. And that is something which we should support unreservedly.”
Ramaphosa argued that his government should “not sit on the sidewalks of the streets and say it’s their problem” when it came to the Middle East.
“We need to be engaged,” he said. “And where we think wrong policies are being pursued, we actually need to go and talk to the people and gain access and argue our point and find a consensus.
“We are consensus builders. And even on this issue, even as we are far away here in the south, we have got a community here that is so deeply connected with Israel. We also have a community in South Africa that is so deeply connected with Palestine.”
Addressing the Middle East conflict, he added: “I know that it’s an almost intractable problem. I have discussed it with the chief rabbi now and again. It is a difficult problem.
But it needs cool heads on all sides so that we can see if there are solutions that we can find – at least solutions that we can come up with that can make us – our own tempers you know – go down a little as South Africans.”
Goldstein welcomed Ramaphosa’s remarks, saying it was “a breath of fresh air to hear that instead of taking sides what we really need to do is promote peace on both sides.
“Because this is a bitter and difficult conflict and we have to bring about, be a force for good in it and not to pick one side and say they are right and they are wrong and try and punish this one and reward that one because that’s not going to help anybody.
Because we will all have different opinions about who is right and wrong, but let’s try and solve it,” Goldstein said. “And so I find it, you know, very inspiring you know the example you mentioned from Northern Ireland, because it’s also a conflict which has deep religious roots.”
Goldstein noted that he had a warm relationship with leaders of other faiths who sat on the National Religious Leaders Council, but their relations had been strained recently over Israel.
“Personally, what I have found very difficult over the last few years has been that we have the South African dream here of unity in diversity,” Goldstein said. “But then all of a sudden Israel comes into the headlines and we are at each other’s throats.
“Now what I feel is as South Africans, we need to export the South African dream, not import the nightmares here.
And what is happening is that there is a group of people within this country who have made it their business to – an anti-Israel lobby – who have made it their business to put Israel in the headlines all the time in a negative way and they fan the flames of conflict in South Africa. And for me that’s a tragedy because we want to come together as South Africans.
“So why can’t I say to my Muslim colleagues, look, let’s agree to disagree. Israel is in my heart, the Palestinian areas are in your heart – let’s agree to disagree about who is right and who is wrong in this conflict and let’s shake hands and be brothers.
“But what’s stopping that is that there is this intense anti- Israel lobby in the country that has infected the media, that has infected the public debate and what it’s really doing is tearing South Africans apart.”