Why we met with Mahmoud Abbas - SAJBD and SAZF

Mary Kluk and Zev Krengel respond to criticism of the decision to meet with the Palestinian Authority President (Dec 1)

SA Jewish Communal Leadership meeting with Mahmoud Abbas

SAJBD and SAZF have come under fire from some members of our community, both for meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and for the statement it issued afterwards welcoming his stated commitment to a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ‘Naïve' and ‘ill thought-out' have been amongst the milder criticisms received; those less inclined to be kind have used words like ‘disloyal', ‘treacherous' and ‘despicable'. Clearly, there is a need to explain more fully how the meeting with the Palestinian delegation came about, and why it took the standpoint it did in its subsequent press release.

The meeting itself came about as a result of an invitation extended to the Board by President Zuma. This followed on the meeting we had had with him and members of his Cabinet in September. On that occasion the President, in addition to categorically restating his zero-tolerance for any form of antisemitism, reiterated his support for a two state solution, and pledged his government's support in helping to take the peace process forward. This undertaking, it must be stressed, came about despite the extensive pressure under which Mr Zuma has come from both within and outside the ruling party to break off ties with Israel altogether.

It also needs to be stressed that prior to our accepting the invitation, the matter was thoroughly discussed with and approved by senior ministers in the Israeli government. The latter were also thoroughly briefed about what took place afterwards.

In light of this background, we felt comfortable in accepting the invitation to meet with the Abbas delegation. Our position has consistently been to engage in dialogue, and hence we welcomed the opportunity to hear at first-hand what Mahmoud Abbas had to say regarding how the Israel-Palestine question should be resolved. We also believed that the mere fact he once again went on record as supporting the "two-state" formula was something positive in and of itself. It needs to be remembered that for those who believe that Israel should not be allowed to exist at all, a final status two-state solution that by definition recognises its legitimacy is anathema. Such lobbies exist in South Africa as well, and it is these who are most vociferous in pushing for a comprehensive boycott against Israel.

A failure to make progress on the negotiations front is exactly what such 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 Mahmoud Abbas is thus counter-productive, 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.

That our government is nevertheless continuing to engage with both parties in the conflict and support the broader "two-state" vision is thus a setback for these lobbies. It is therefore in the interests of our community to encourage such engagement. Obviously, that means that we need to be consistent. We cannot call for dialogue and peaceful negotiations towards a two-state solution if we ourselves decline to get involved when called upon to do so.

Had the main factions contesting South Africa's future not 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.

The situations in pre-democracy South Africa and the one facing Israel are obviously very different, but the ‘Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War' principle remains true in both cases. Sometimes, negotiations fail to prevent war or 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 with Mahmoud 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 neighbours. And it is not the Jewish way to give up on hope. Speaking to your enemies is not a sign of weakness, but it's 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, IS 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.

A negotiated, two- state solution necessarily precludes either party acting unilaterally, leaving such crucial final status issues as borders and security arrangements still unresolved. Recent moves by the Palestinian Authority to seek recognition from the international community clearly fall into this category, and if he is serious about reaching the kind of sustainable settlement with Israel that he spoke about, Mahmoud Abbas will need to abandon this strategy and recommit himself to the negotiations process. That he has at least gone once more on record reaffirming his commitment to a negotiated settlement is, in our view, a positive thing in itself, not least because it undermines those around the world who seek to delegitimise Israel altogether.

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. Nevertheless, we have an obligation, to ourselves and to future generations, to at least try.

Statement issued by Mary Kluk, National Chairman, SAJBD, and Avrom Krengel, Chairman, SAZF, December 1 2014

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