OPINION by Peter Fabricius.
What is the real purpose of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to South Africa this week to meet President Jacob Zuma in Cape Town on Tuesday?
Both Pretoria and Ramallah have indicated it’s about the French initiative to try to achieve a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine and at last establish a fully independent Palestinian state.
Paris announced earlier this month it was calling a conference of foreign ministers of several interested countries – but not Israel or Palestine themselves yet – for May 30 to prepare a bigger meeting to launch the French peace process.
But US Secretary of State John Kerry couldn’t attend because of another engagement and asked France to postpone the meeting. It’s now likely to take place early next month. The French are not saying yet which countries will attend.
It would seem the Palestinians, though, are expecting a large turnout from countries sympathetic to their cause, including the Brics countries. So perhaps one of the purposes of Abbas’s meeting with Zuma will be to try to ensure his International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is at the Paris meeting to swell the chorus of Palestine praise-singers.
South Africa has also been playing another role in the Middle East peace process and that is to try to reconcile Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which governs the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, with the more radical Hamas which governs Gaza in the south.
The PLO – more particularly its largest component, Abbas’s Fatah – and Hamas have fought terrible battles in the past and remain severely estranged, despite many efforts to patch up their quarrels.
One of the goals of Zuma’s two special envoys to the Middle East – former cabinet minister and high commission to the UK Zola Skweyiya and former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad – have been to try to reconcile Fatah and Hamas.
That’s part of their overall mission to try to add to international diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. Since their appointment two years ago, Pahad and Skweyiya have undertaken three visits to the Middle East, meeting officials in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Syria.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation this week suggested Abbas’s visit should be seen in the light of the efforts by the two special envoys, without elaborating.
If South Africa’s role in reconciling Fatah and Hamas is on the agenda of Tuesday’s talks, then Pretoria should bear a few things in mind, in the opinion of diplomatic sources who follow the Middle East peace process closely.
They advise there is no point in bringing the Palestinian factions together as they already talk. The aim should be to get them to have real and open discussions about the issues that split them.
Here South Africa could make a contribution, adding value to what Western mediators would be able achieve by offering this country’s own “Rainbow Nation” experience, however faded that notion might seem to be.
Zuma, as ANC leader, might also have some experience to offer the Palestinians about giving up the armed struggle, something which Hamas is clearly reluctant to do.
Abbas faces a real problem in trying to patch things up with Hamas. His leadership of Fatah is threatened by the failure of the peace process to deliver an independent state and to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Fatah has to hold its congress to renew the mandate of its leadership before it can proceed with a reconciliation process with Hamas, the diplomatic sources say.
Rather than just a quest for reconciliation with Hamas, though, Abbas’s visit might also, on the contrary, also be an attempt to score points against its rival. Fatah was not amused when Hamas leader Khaled Mashal visited South Africa in October last year at the head of a large delegation.
Though the ANC was at pains to stress that Hamas was a guest of the party rather than the government, this evidently did not placate Fatah which evidently saw it as a slight on its long-standing friendship with the ANC.
So perhaps Abbas’s “official” visit – at the head of a “high-powered” delegation, the South African government says – is also designed to remind South Africans, Palestinians and the world about who South Africa’s real ally in Palestine is.[Source: Sunday Independent]