Handshakes with terrorists and peacemakers

Jacob Zuma and Khaled Meshaal shaking hands, Pretoria, October 2015

Two milestones occurred in the past few weeks: The twentieth anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination; and the provocative visit of a Hamas delegation to South Africa as guests of the ANC, where President Jacob Zuma’s warm conversation with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was publicised widely in the media.

In 1993, Rabin signed the Oslo agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had until then been regarded only as a terrorist leader aiming at Israel’s elimination. The iconic photograph of the two of them shaking hands on the White House lawn in the presence of a beaming US President Bill Clinton, is one of the most famous images in international diplomacy. It was an interim deal involving a partial Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and creation of the Palestinian Authority. An outcome was formal recognition of Israel by the PLO, and the PLO by Israel as the representative of the Palestinians. Many hoped the accord would lead to lasting peace, but it also engendered vicious opposition from different factions on both sides. Rabin’s murder at a Tel Aviv peace rally by a Jewish religious extremist in November 1995 dealt a major blow to its chances of success.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, watched by Bill Clinton

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, watched by Bill Clinton

It’s a good time to reflect on South Africa’s changing attitude towards Israel in the past two decades. South Africa has become one of the most hostile political environments towards Israel in the world, where members of the ruling ANC and its allies Cosatu and the SACP openly support BDS and Israel’s enemies, and hatred of Israel sometimes merges into blatant anti-Semitism. This is notwithstanding the fact that the government maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, its official policy still supports the two state solution, and trade between the countries is healthy. Hamas, on the other hand, rejects Israel’s right to exist and is officially listed as a terrorist organisation in many parts of the world.

When Rabin was assassinated, Mandela sent Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to represent South Africa at the funeral in Jerusalem. In addition, Mandela attended the memorial service organised by the Jewish community at the Oxford shul in Johannesburg, accompanied by ANC personalities like Tokyo Sexwale and Walter Sisulu. In his address, he lauded Rabin’s courage and quest for peace.

Mandela – whose handshake with apartheid-era President FW de Klerk after his release from jail is another famous image – also made a point of visiting the Rabin memorial in 2001 during a hush-hush visit to Israel to meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Foreign Minister David Levy and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. SA Jewish leaders Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Russell Gaddin and Marlene Bethlehem went with him to Yad Vashem and a walk on the Via Dolorosa.

But Mandela was also intrinsically sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Five years before Rabin’s murder, he angrily rejected criticism from Jewish leaders after he was photographed embracing Yasser Arafat warmly in Namibia in 1990, soon after his release from prison. Mandela retorted that he had also once been called a terrorist, but said his position enabled him to intervene where the Jewish community could not. It was long before the Oslo agreement, when the Israeli Prime Minister would himself shake Arafat’s hand in Washington.

The anniversary of Rabin’s murder comes amidst high tension over control of the Temple Mount site in Jerusalem, terrorist attacks throughout Israel, and a chaotic and violent Middle East generally. Some people are saying the Third Intifada has begun. It is another reminder of the intractable nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the hatred that thrives when hopes for finding a solution die and visionaries like Rabin are lacking. An often-quoted statistic says 70 per cent of Israelis support a two-state solution, but 70 per cent also believe it is not possible to get there.

Many people believe Oslo – Rabin’s legacy – is all but dead and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, cannot survive much longer. What comes afterwards no-one knows.

South Africa’s attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to ebb and flow with the existence of a peace process. When Rabin was alive and the chances for peace looked better, South Africa’s attitude was more positive towards Israel. Now that there is essentially no peace process, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders express little vision for a peaceful future, it gives fuel to Israel’s enemies.

Rabin came closer than any other leader to forging Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. His assassination means we will never know whether peace – and the handshake – was an illusion based on wishful thinking, or stood a real chance.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on October 30, 2015)

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