Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walks away after inspecting an honor guard at the Union Building in Pretoria last week..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Was it “despicable, disloyal and treasonous” for the South African Jewish leadership to have met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and thereafter announce that it welcomed his stated commitment to pursuing a “negotiated two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? According to certain people quoted in The Jerusalem Post’s report on the meeting (November 29), this was indeed the case. However, in hastening to condemn those who choose engagement over boycotting, such critics need to consider the practical realities of the current situation and above all, what the alternatives are.
During the 1980s, in the midst of an ever-worsening cycle of political violence in South Africa, the leadership of both sides realized that they needed to sit down and talk to one another, otherwise there would eventually be nothing left to fight over. Had the main factions contesting South Africa’s future not, in fact, embarked on a process of face-to-face negotiations, then it is unlikely, to say the least, that South Africans would ever have been able to resolve the conflict between them and embark on a peaceful new future together.
Of course, the situation in 1980s South Africa and the one facing Israel today cannot be equated, and those who glibly do so are clearly unaware of the extent to which they differ. That being said, Churchill’s “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” principle remains true in both cases. Sometimes, negotiations fail to prevent war or, as in the Israeli-Palestinian case, to halt an already existing conflict, but the effort always needs to be made. Israel has always understood this, which is why it has always kept the door open to negotiations no matter how bleak the prospects for success might look. It did so during the recent war in Gaza, despite the continual bad faith shown by Hamas, and continues to do so with Abbas and his government.
What is certain, as Israelis know, is that abandoning negotiations amounts to giving up all hope for achieving peace and condemning themselves and their children to perpetual conflict with their neighbors.
And it is not the Jewish way to give up on hope. Speaking to your enemies is not a sign of weakness, but the opposite. Damning and shutting out the other side is easy; it requires boldness and firm resolve to talk to them and try, no matter how difficult or even risky it might be, to find common ground.
There is another point to consider.
Whatever concerns one might have about Mahmoud Abbas and his government, the alternatives – Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and other such movements – are self-evidently a great deal worse. For that reason alone, Israel cannot afford not to maintain lines of communication, and what is true for Israel is as true for the Jewish world at large. The South African Jewish leadership, when presented with an opportunity to engage with the Abbas delegation chose to do so rather than turning down the opportunity. Our counterparts in other Diaspora countries have likewise chosen this path.
With regard to the above meeting it is also important to stress that we engaged beforehand with the Israeli government about the meeting and fully briefed it afterwards.
Time will tell how sincere Abbas is about his commitment to achieving a negotiated, two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, a solution espoused by the great majority of Israelis. That he has now gone once more on record reaffirming that stance is, in our view, a positive thing in itself, not least because it undermines those around the world who seek to delegitimize Israel altogether.
A point that cannot be emphasized enough is that failure to make progress on the negotiations front is exactly what hard-line anti-Israel groupings desire, since it gives impetus to their calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel as a way of forcing it to accede to the Palestinians’ demands. Refusing on principle to deal with Abbas is thus counterproductive, playing as it does right into the hands of those who seek to turn Israel into a pariah state as per the old South African regime.
To achieve a peaceful , final-status agreement will require courage and a willingness to take risks on both sides. Thus far, the Fatah movement has been unwilling to take such risks, and so it may prove in the future. If any such breakthrough is to occur, however, negotiations have to continue, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. In seeking a lasting peace agreement, the obstacles are formidable and the future deeply uncertain, but we have an obligation, to ourselves and to future generations, to at least try.
The author is president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.