Ever since the signing of the Abraham Accords late last year between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), United States of America (USA), Israel and Bahrain, a number of African states have quickly moved to also normalize relations with the state of Israel.

The new developments opened a new chapter in which both Israel and the UAE share economic interests. For example, Covid-19 research where the two states are already collaborating, oil sales, tourism, high tech sector which accounts for more than 40% of Israel’s exports, collaboration in areas of water and food security, and of course, the sectors of security and surveillance.

From the early 70s, when president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan had referred to Israel as “the enemy” to 2020 where amid Covid-19 an agreement emerged supported by both parties, this represented a major policy reverse for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had long pushed for policies that would have made it impossible for Israel and the UAE to fully normalize their diplomatic relations. Henceforth, it was expected that they will exchange embassies and ambassadors and begin cooperation across the board. While this development has been hailed by some like India and Egypt, with others including Saudi Arabia opening their air space for Israeli flights, the agreement was also rejected by the likes of South Africa, Iran and of course Palestine.

Implications of these new developments in Africa

Whereas Israel currently has only ten diplomatic missions in Africa, out of 54 states, only 13 African states have diplomatic representations in Israel. This number is about to increase due to the announcement of normalization of relations with Israel by Morocco and Sudan and the movement of Malawi of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Are there regional or continental motivations for this shift?

Of interest to note, has been the silence from South Africa on this sweeping African normalization trend by some. It is public knowledge that despite the presence of diplomatic representatives between the two states, South Africa and Israel do not have normal relations. In the contrary, South Africa has adopted a hardline stance in dealing with all matters Israel.

This is informed by the strong political ties between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Palestinian liberation struggle. Although South Africa has an embassy in Tel Aviv, its ambassador has been withdrawn and an ANC resolution has recommended that it be downgraded to a low-grade office, yet both countries have not completely severed relations. Top on the list of demands from South Africa is that Israel must completely set the Palestinian people free. Until that is done, the radical approach in dealing with Israel will be maintained even at the highest multilateral body like the United Nations (UN). As a leading nation on the continent, South Africa commands huge respect for its historical liberation struggle against apartheid. And, this is the background that influences its foreign policy on Israel. A foreign policy which is nobly based on respect for human rights. Yet, this policy has not been evenly adhered to.

Nevertheless, scholars of international relations and diplomacy are now busy predicting against and in favor of an escalation of normalization of relations between more African states and Israel. In this article, I examine the possibilities and opportunities that exist in the event of normalized South Africa-Israel relations. I arrive at these based on lessons drawn from history.

Possibilities and opportunities of normalized South Africa-Israel relations

Following violent protests at the USA’s capital by hardliners aligned to President Donald Trump, during an exclusive interview with SABC News on January 9th, 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that, emanating from its democratic transition experiences, South Africa is ready to take the USA through certain peace negotiations traits that can strengthen their democracy and restore peace in the superpower. One can only conclude that the possibility of this happening is informed by the existence of diplomatic relations between South Africa and USA. The regular political differences between South Africa and the USA, some influenced by variant positions on foreign policy dynamics, have never resulted in the de-escalation of diplomatic relations between the two. In fact, history records that South Africa differs with the USA on many more issues than they do on the Palestinian question with Israel. Meaning that there may be far more areas of convergence between Israel and South Africa than there are between USA and South Africa.

As a matter of historical fact, President Nelson Mandela accused the USA of behaving like the policeman of the world while they had committed far too many atrocities in the world. Therefore, while it is honorable for President Ramaphosa to offer South Africa’s services to the USA, it is equally ideal for him to offer his expertise and those of the country to resolve the Israel-Palestinian question. As a gifted negotiator himself credited with his country’s peaceful democratic transition, President Ramaphosa has the opportunity to present South Africa to both Palestine and Israel as a credible mediator. However, that can only happen if South Africa is willing to assume an objective role.

Just as it differs with the USA on a plethora of international issues but still maintains civil and cordial diplomatic relations, South Africa should continue to differ with Israel; and equally, offer itself as a mediator in that Middle East conflict. After all, the isolation position has not assisted neither the Palestinian cause nor the much sought peace in the region.

Since the removal of the ambassador from Israel, South Africa has nothing to show as an advancement of the Palestinian struggle following that decision. It therefore comes as good news to hear that President Ramaphosa does recognize the mediatory role that can be played by South Africa in international politics.

For his legacy, President Ramaphosa could seize the opportunities that have been created by the signing of the Abraham Accords and the normalization of relations by various African states, to work towards the attainment of peace between Israel and Palestine. The trusted mediators have failed and are the same ones to whom President Ramaphosa wants to offer his services. Just as he saw that opportunity in the USA, it also exists in the Middle East and Africa, obviously.

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Mpho Tsedu is the CEO of the Institute of Foreign Affairs.

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