The tragedy of not finding a way to two-state solution
All of us must hold our leaders’ feet to the fire. South Africa because of its history must help us to do this, Israel’s ambassador Arthur Lenk told Janet Smith
Janet Smith: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week won cabinet approval for a highly controversial bill. It seeks, for instance, to put the Jewish state into constitution-level law and there is a fear that it will remove Arabic as a national language. It is widely seen as discriminatory and divisive, even by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. You would have a homeland for only Jewish people.
Arthur Lenk: There are 193 countries in the world – Christian and Muslim countries, a Hindu country or two – and out of these there is only one that is a Jewish state.
Israel is very much a vibrant democracy and a country of our citizens… our ancestral homeland and that’s not going to change.
This week, we faced the question of whether to throw other ideas into parliament. You know, to the credit of both of us, Israel and South Africa, that parliamentary process is vibrant, interesting and alive. If you throw them in, you never know what will come out.
There are many countries that would give their eye teeth to have democracies. But let’s bring the issue back to Palestine.
We understand this is a big question for South Africa, a country which really cares, and it is clear that it is a topic that interests people more than other topics many should be interested in.
The girls kidnapped by Boko Haram are still not back yet. We don’t see any protests and rallying. The shootings in Kenya at the weekend… when people were pulled off a bus and made to recite parts of the Qur’an and if they couldn’t they were killed – they don’t attract this kind of attention.
JS: There are increasing calls for solidarity with the Palestinian people from around the world, including in South Africa. What’s the relationship like between us and Israel? This week, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas was here on a state visit, and President Jacob Zuma said Israel was undermining prospects for a two-state solution.
AL: We believe South Africa has a wonderful story, while your conflicts and dilemmas are different from ours. You solved a problem that was unsolvable. We can certainly be inspired by that.
And because South Africa cares so much, it can use that voice for positivity, but it is not necessary to solve our dilemma the way you did yours.
We have to face down the tough challenges. Times are changing. Things have to be different. South Africa should tell them (Palestine) as an older brother or sister: “We did it, now you go do it.” It’s compromise… accepting the other. I am not saying they are the enemy. They are not. They are our neighbours. We have a need to face a seemingly impossible problem.
South Africa can be pragmatic and helpful, because you have made that leap. You can be helpful and inspirational.
But as long as there’s a tension, when people bring pigs into supermarkets, when they go onto university campuses using language that is not peaceful, it becomes frightening – not for Israel, but for my brothers and sisters in your rainbow nation.
There were big rallies this year in Joburg supporting Israel, and in Cape Town, you had people walking down the street saying: “We are Hamas”. Really? You’d like to be Hamas? They say there should be no state of Israel. They took over Gaza in a coup. Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic. I would say they are the same as Isis – they have the same methods of dealing with the other in common.
JS: But Hamas is not saying that, and has not been saying that for a while. Their leader, Khalid Mishal, has been absolutely clear that they do not seek Israelis to be wiped off the face of the Earth. They believe Palestine could even be a bulwark against Isis. He says they attack Israel as an occupier, and only in retaliation. Aren’t you the occupier?
AL: This is a dilemma for Israel. They are our neighbours. There should be a Palestinian state where Palestinians should have a right of return, just like Jews should find their homeland in the state of Israel.
But who do you negotiate it with and how do you meet these challenges?
We’ve been taking one step forward and two steps back. We are in a two-steps-back moment (right now).
JS: We achieved freedom in 1994, but the ANC also used armed resistance to get there. There are similarities between what the ANC did and what the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), different factions of the PLO, did and do in order to realise freedom for the Palestinians. How do you relate to that when dealing with the ANC which, as you say, has historic ties with the Palestinian people?
AL: During the 1970s, the ANC and the PLO were very close; they had a brotherhood. But the ANC never went into coffee shops with suicide bombers. Their approach was totally different.
Gaza is not a nice place. I wouldn’t want to be there. Neither of us would. There is a lot of suffering and we regret that, but Hamas is responsible.
JS: Tomorrow is the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Does this day matter to Israel?
AL: Do you know why they call it that, on November 29? It’s because of what happened on that day in 1947. The UN had just been founded and passed a resolution on Israel, and two-thirds, the majority of states, voted for it.
The Jews said yes, the Arabs said no. It was a tragedy in a simple way. They missed it.
They passed (it), and in May 1948, we won and Israel came to be.
So the question still today, 68 years later, is how do we find that solution?
How are we to be safe in a crazy neighbourhood – Isis, Syria… phew. Right. Those are some neighbours. Don’t even talk about Iran.
It is a tragedy that we can’t find the way to a two-state solution… but we must, all of us, hold our leaders’ feet to the fire. In South Africa, because of your history, you have to be a place to hold their feet to the fire, too.
It has to be respectful to all sides.