Peddling a different Israel

2009-01-19 00:00

NEWLY appointed Israeli ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg can’t be accused of shying away from challenges.

After key diplomatic postings in the United States, Egypt, India, Qatar and China, the Tel-Aviv-born career diplomat made a bid for South Africa, a country not known for its silence on the issue of Palestine. Although he’d never visited South Africa, Segev-Steinberg said he saw it as an “important” continental and international player.

Days after Israel began its aerial assault on Gaza and barely three weeks after his arrival in South Africa to take up his three-year term, Segev-Steinberg was summoned to Pretoria’s Union Buildings for an audience with Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig. It was a widely reported meeting in which Hajaig described Israel’s response as a “brutal assault” on the Palestinian people and called the “military onslaught” a gross violation of the rights of the people of Gaza. All Segev-Steinberg would say about his encounter when I met him this week in Durban was: “It was harsh.”

“Will it colour your experience of South Africa?” I wanted to know.

“I believe there are many parts to South Africa,” came the delicate reply, born of 25 years of diplomatic service which stood him in good stead when I launched a stream of hot coffee in his direction after pushing down too quickly on my coffee press.

But he didn’t miss a beat: “So far, I’ve been impressed by the size of the country, the climate and the diversity of its people. It will take time to understand some of the nuances of the country, but it’s a great challenge.”

One of his aims as ambassador, he says, is to challenge the “biased and twisted” views about Israel — peddled in part by the media — and portray “Israel beyond the conflict”.

“When the average person opens the newspaper or turns on the television, they see war with Palestine, bloodshed and suffering. That’s their impression of Israel. But there’s a different Israel. In the 60 years of its existence, it has achieved miracles in the fields of science and technology, agriculture, medicine, education and culture.”

Segev-Steinberg said he’d like to see more “balance” from South Africa towards the conflict. “I think South Africa can play a role in the peace process, but it cannot if it is one-sided.” He said South Africa’s own political experience and its good relations with Arab countries and with Israel make for a solid foundation.

A graduate of Tel Aviv University where he read for a bachelor of arts in Arabic literature and history of the Middle East — studies he believes have aided his respect for and understanding of Arab culture — Segev-Steinberg said Israel is not “an apartheid country”.

“It is easy for certain elements to portray the country in this way, to blame us.” Appealing for a greater historical understanding of the conflict, he said it is not possible to take one conflict and apply it to another, different, conflict.

Our meeting took place minutes after SAFM’s 8 am news bulletin announced that on day 18 of the conflict, the Palestinian death toll in densely populated Gaza had passed the 900-mark and included a hefty proportion of children.

As one of those naïve types unable to grasp the point of war, I’m affected by such statistics and repeated them to the ambassador. His responses were at the ready.

“It’s easy for outsiders to sympathise with those who suffer. [Entering the conflict] was a difficult dilemma for Israel, but we had no choice. We knew civilians would be hurt and the other side knew it too. But they used the people in a cynical way. They did not care.

“On the question of proportionality,” he continued unprompted: “If we responded with rockets like Gaza does, we would have killed more than a few hundred people. It’s a war.

“But not against the Palestinians. I must emphasise that we have nothing against the Palestinian people. It’s a war between Israel and Hamas. Our aim is to hit Hamas military targets and avoid civilians. But Hamas is using the civilian population in a crude and cruel way, as human shields.”

Segev-Steinberg said the Israelis try to warn civilians before strikes by distributing pamphlets and sending SMSes to tell civilians to avoid certain places. Daily recesses in the conflict allow for casualties to be attended to and for supplies to reach civilians.

“But we have to respond. It’s about the defence of Israel,” said Segev-Steinberg. “One million of Israel’s population are continually under threat from Hamas rocket fire. They can’t lead a normal life.”

What I actually think is that living for so long under threat of shelling should be one of the biggest factors galvanising peace efforts.

“Aren’t the Israelis sick of the conflict?” I ask.

“Yes, we live in this situation, but are struggling to achieve peace. Since 1948 we have always extended our hands [of friendship] to our neighbours.

“There is a way to get out of this tragic situation, but we need to be recognised as legitimate.”

In the ambassador’s view, the current Hamas leadership is illegitimate, a “military dictatorship”, which seized control by force through a “bloody coup” in June 2007 and is supported by radical states such as Iran which is guided by an “extreme ideology” and calls openly for the destruction of the State of Israel.

Later on he tells me: “The conflict in the Middle East is not a religious conflict. It’s a conflict over land. Radical religious elements will try to shift it from one to the other. When you involve religion, there is no way out. You only have to look back at history to understand this.”

What about giving more time to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to achieve a political solution? “Talks haven’t worked,” he said.

According to Segev-Steinberg, Israel and the Palestinians under Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] had “fruitful discussions” regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state. “It was going very well, but elements of Hamas tried to destroy the discussions.”

The “way forward”, he said, is to renew dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. “If Hamas is weakened, more moderate elements will be able to continue negotiations towards an independent two-state solution. But as long as radical elements block them, this is impossible.

“Israel has no desire to stay in Gaza. Hamas must stop shelling us. The border between Egypt and Gaza must be controlled, and we must be able to continue the peace process with the Palestinians,” he said.

I took leave of the ambassador pondering the word “intractable” and enjoying a renewed sense

of gratitude to those behind South Africa’s peacefully negotiated settlement.

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