Guest Column

No defending the DA's indefensible visit to Israel

2017-01-19 12:28
 DA leader Mmusi Maimane met Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. Picture: Twitter/@ArthurLenk

DA leader Mmusi Maimane met Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. Picture: Twitter/@ArthurLenk

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Na'eem Jeenah

No one should have expected, least of all the Democratic Alliance, that its recent visit to Israel be free of controversy, harsh criticisms against the party, and political point-scoring. If the DA believed that its attempt to meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas would protect it from the attacks, it would have been naive.

The DA must now ask itself whether it was worth the effort. While its pro-Israel backers will be trying to convince the party that it was, it is unlikely that the benefits of the trip outweigh the political cost.

Indeed, the DA squandered the possibility to claim the moral high ground based on the liberal values it claims for itself.

There are many ways in which the DA today is a different version to that under Tony Leon, including its position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Leon’s DA was firmly in the Israeli camp; he certainly did not believe Palestinians should ‘fight back’ against Israeli ‘colonialism, occupation and apartheid’ (the HSRC’s description).

But the unequivocal support for Israel began to wane under Helen Zille. While the party’s official position seemed not to have changed, its members did not regard support for Israel as an important part of their platform.

At the February 2014 ‘Solidarity Conference in support of the Peoples of Palestine, Western Sahara and Cuba’ organised by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations, DA MPs engaged vigorously in discussions on Palestine. They discussed the human rights situation, and voted in favour of a resolution that called on the South African government to ‘deal with’ South Africans who serve in the Israeli Defense Force.

They also supported boycotts and divestment against Israel, and called for sanctions against Israel ‘until it complies with all applicable UN resolutions and international law and ends its occupation’.

Later that year, at an election debate in Johannesburg, DA youth federal chairperson Yusuf Cassim said his party supported the BDS campaign. He was probably incorrect, and it seems he was disciplined for the comment, but the point is that the DA of the past few years has not been unquestioningly behind the Israeli narrative, and was allowing different viewpoints to be expressed.

This was an opportunity for the DA: to encourage a debate within its ranks, and match its claimed liberal values of freedoms, rule of law (including international law), and economic freedom to what Israel is doing to the six million Palestinians it rules (and the other six million outside its borders who, under international law, have the right to return to their homes).

The South African pro-Israel lobby realised the DA was slipping from its grasp. The South African Zionist Federation, before the 2014 national election, scored the DA lower than the ACDP for its support of Israel. That situation had to be remedied, and Zionist DA members took up the cause, with lobbying and, recently, this trip. The ANC was more difficult, especially after it laid out the red carpet for a senior Hamas delegation, but the DA could be enticed back into the Zionist camp.

This will harm the DA, which has found itself forced to defend the indefensible. For it is indefensible to argue that you want to learn from all sides, when your visit is organised by only side, and that being the occupying power which repeatedly violates international law and human rights with impunity (a few days before the visit, the UN Security Council virtually unanimously adopted a resolution criticising Israel’s violations of international law).

It is indefensible that a delegation that wanted to learn from both sides has nothing to say about the houses of eleven Palestinian families in Israel (in the village of Qalanswa) that were demolished while they were there; and about the destruction of an entire Palestinian village in the Negev just after they returned (A Jewish town will be built on the ruins of the village. Does anyone remember the Group Areas Act?)

It is indefensible for a black South African to visit an apartheid state and be hosted by that state as it attempts to hide its apartheid from him.

It is indefensible for a Christian pastor – who said that one reason for his trip was to visit Christian sites – to not ‘listen’ to what his Palestinian co-religionists have to report – both about how the oppression Christians daily experience, and about the systematic attack on their churches and their community.

As expected, the ANC responded gleefully (or angrily, depending on your reading), both directly and through its unofficial Palestine desk, BDS-SA. As many commentators have since responded, however, the ANC and its deployees in government talk the talk but find it difficult to walk the walk.

Despite the party (and government’s) instruction to government officials not to visit Israel, a number of ANC members (and, reportedly, officials of the Department of Water Affairs) have visited Israel quietly – the opportunities being, no doubt, too tempting.

Although the ANC has officially adopted BDS, its government seems not too keen to follow through, and it seems unwilling to discipline those who step out of line – like the senior foreign affairs official who met an Israeli deputy minister without authorisation, or the South African ambassador to Israel who blamed Palestinians for being bombed and massacred by the IDF in 2014.

Other parties have been quiet about the DA visit, partly because many of their leaders visited Israel last year as guests of the Israeli government. The EFF’s silence is perhaps related to its new alliance with the DA.

Whatever the attitudes of these other parties, or what some have called the ‘hypocrisy’ of the ANC, the real loser in this whole controversy will be the DA, which has expressed, through this trip, its willingness to return to the DA of Tony Leon, and, in the process, to undermine the liberal principles it espouses.

- Na'eem Jeenah is Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre.

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