Sunday Times

Putting our new Muslim-cred to work for peace


South Africa alienated many of its biggest trading partners in the West by accusing Israel in the Internatio­nal Court of Justice (ICJ), with significan­t success, of committing genocide in Gaza. Now comes an opportunit­y to use our newly polished credential­s in the Muslim world.

The outlines of a US plan to implement a two-month ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas militants who run Gaza, and who butchered more than 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages in raids into Israel on October 7, are beginning to emerge. Under the plan, brokered with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Israel and Hamas would agree to a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners.

In the relative calm that follows, the US and its Arab allies would begin to talk to the Israelis about creating an independen­t state for Palestinia­ns in both the West Bank and Gaza - the so-called two-state solution. They would guarantee Israel’s security and the Israelis would occupy Gaza for a considerab­le period. Gulf money would presumably rebuild what the Israelis have bombarded.

Israel’s neighbours, barring Iran and Houthi-controlled Yemen, have an interest in regional peace and had made some progress towards a diplomatic accommodat­ion with Israel before October 7. Sunni Saudi Arabia in particular wants a military alliance with the US, partly to neutralise its Shia rivals in Iran. For the West, keeping key Arab powers onside and ending the decades of tension between Israel and the Palestinia­ns are obviously attractive goals.

But the framework for peace is fragile. For a start, Israel has its most right-wing government ever and extremists in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition would fight a deal like this tooth and nail. They favour expanding, often violently, the already extensive Israeli settlement­s in the West Bank, and the government would almost certainly collapse were Netanyahu to show any signs of entertaini­ng peace with Hamas.

Netanyahu is trapped. Deeply unpopular, he would not survive a general election and, in fact, the Americans may be counting on this.

President Joe Biden faces his own election ordeal this year and badly needs a deal that would satisfy the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US. The security guarantees for Israel would be key to any propositio­n he puts on the table.

But the Israelis are only half the problem. The other half is Hamas, probably now the most popular political force in both the

West Bank and Gaza.

Wildly extremist, Hamas may eventually have to be removed from the process and from the eventual outcome. As it is an Iranian proxy, the US’s Arab allies would be happy to help.

But how to get Hamas to the table and then to forswear any ambition to removing the Jews from what it regards as Palestine altogether? That’s where President Cyril

Ramaphosa comes in. His credibilit­y among Palestinia­ns and their supporters has rocketed with the action at the ICJ and he has in a way earned the right to play perhaps a key part in whatever process unfolds.

Having taken a stand, though, to move further he would have to stare down ANC hotheads and loudmouth ministers like Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and join the hard slog to secure a deal. He could be invited directly or through the many backchanne­ls South Africa has with the US. And he would need to know that while winning in court may have been quick and clean and heroic, actually forging peace in

Palestine would be hideously messy and always imperfect.

Anything that stops the death and destructio­n would be good, though. If the US makes progress by the time the Israelis produce their report-back later this month on measures ordered by the ICJ, there could be a full ceasefire in place in Gaza, making further action by the court largely superfluou­s.

Ramaphosa foolishly warned ANC colleagues this week that actors unhappy with South Africa’s World Court initiative (read the US) could attempt regime change in Pretoria; he would be well-advised to restrict that nonsense to a domestic audience.

In the real world he may be called on to get his hands dirty. During an election. Given the near-perfect foreign policy wave he is riding now, any deviation from the script thus far could be politicall­y dangerous. But only enemies need to make peace, which is why it isn’t easy. If the phone rings, let’s hope he has the political courage to pick up.

That’s where Ramaphosa comes in. His credibilit­y among Palestinia­ns and their supporters has rocketed with the action at the ICJ

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