Menu Close

Severing relations weakens SA’s role in Palestinian mediation

Share This Article:

Picture: Yasser Qudih / AFP / Taken November 6, 2023 – People flee following Israeli air strikes on a neighbourhood in the al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 6, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Thousands of civilians, both Palestinians and Israelis, have died since October 7, 2023, after Palestinian Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip entered southern Israel in an unprecedented attack triggering a war declared by Israel on Gaza.

By Kingsley Makhubela

The definition and functions of diplomacy resonate differently with different people, however, as a student of diplomacy, I am fascinated by Cardinal Richelieu’s definition of the complex and at times misunderstood strategic pillar of statecraft.

Richelieu, in his 1638 seminal article, “The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu”, argues that diplomacy is continuous negotiations, and negotiations are innocuous remedies which never do harm.

Other scholars further suggest that negotiations are what diplomacy traditionally has always been about, finding accommodation among intrinsically self-interested parties. The general observation on the importance of diplomacy suggests that states receive many benefits from uninterrupted diplomatic interactions on a plethora of issues, including management of potential conflict, and cultural, economic and social exchanges.

Diplomacy also provides a platform for contested views by predominantly state actors, therefore, states that are seen to succeed in the diplomatic sphere are those who have developed institutional capacity and have internalised diplomacy as a critical instrument of statecraft.

A recent diplomatic dispute between South Africa and Israel, triggered by wanton killings of Palestinian civilians, particularly women and children, has resulted in the recall of the entire diplomatic staff of South Africa from Israel, with unintended consequences that would leave Palestine without South Africa’s diplomatic representation.

The Palestinian territories are under Israeli occupation, and the Israelis are unlikely to allow South Africa to have any form of diplomatic representation in the occupied territories. The withdrawal of the entire South African diplomatic staff is said to be for consultation, which is unprecedented in the field of diplomacy that the entire staff is recalled for consultations.

It should be stated that South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, in 2018, mainly as a protest to new Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The recall of the entire diplomatic staff comes in the wake of the ANC conference resolution which advocated for severing diplomatic ties with the state of Israel. The conference resolution is an emotional one and failed to appreciate the strategic value of diplomacy in advancing the Palestinian cause for statehood, alongside the state of Israel.

South Africa has previously offered to mediate in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, recent developments suggest that the country has disqualified itself from any possible role in the process. One of the fundamentals of mediation is that the mediator must be accepted by all parties to the conflict, and I don’t see Israel accepting any possible future role for South Africa.

The literature on conflict resolution emphatically states that states mediate violent conflict because they have an interest in bringing it to an end, otherwise, they would not get involved in mediation.

Mediators’ tasks are to assist disputants in exchanging concessions in reaching an agreement. There is often a reference to the neutral mediator, however, there is no such thing as a neutral mediator in theory and practice in the study of conflict resolution, to qualify this argument, the principle of mediation postulates that the mediator is neutral on issues under dispute, and has an inherent interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

To this end, South Africa has a mediation dilemma, in that the country has an ambition to play a major role in the Palestinian-Israeli mediation, yet the country has taken an antagonistic posture by throwing out of its toolbox the use of diplomacy so articulated by Cardinal Richelieu many centuries ago. Uninterrupted diplomacy remains a fundamental instrument for world peace and security and should be pursued with utmost prudence and circumspection.

The Israeli government has, since November 20, recalled the country’s ambassador, Eliav Belotsercovsky for consultations. The recall is an indication that diplomatic engagement between Pretoria and Tel Aviv is untenable, and remains to be seen if any rapprochement could salvage what remains of diplomacy between the two countries.

The tit-for-tat diplomacy we are seeing between South Africa and Israel is indicative of the Cold War international relations and diplomacy.

The South African parliamentary motion to sever diplomatic relations with Israel is also unprecedented in the history of the country’s democracy. It has always been the prerogative of the executive branch of the state to open new diplomatic missions and to close them. Failure of the executive branch to provide leadership has forever altered the legislative and executive functions in the affairs of the South African state.

The legislature would henceforth, by precedent, get involved in the decisions and management of the country’s diplomatic function as opposed to exercising oversight over the executive branch of the state. Failure of the executive branch to provide strategic leadership will encourage further encroachment by other branches of the state.

On November 2, Parliament voted 248 in favour of cutting diplomatic relations with Israel, and 91 votes against. It remains to be seen what would be the next step, as this is an unprecedented parliamentary vote.

South Africa did not need to terminate diplomatic engagement with the state of Israel to make a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The country could have exercised its rights and obligations concerning Article 14 of the Rome Statute, which allows state parties to make a referral where they suspect the violation has occurred about Article 5 of the statute which defines and identifies the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Dr Kingsley Makhubela is Director at RiskRecon Consultancy and a former ambassador, chief of state protocol and director-general