The president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, on Sunday drew a direct link between the November 13 terror attacks in Paris and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that terrorism, wherever it occurs, can be traced back to the Middle East and the absence of peace.
“The organized attacks in Paris have brought sharp focus onto the problem of global terrorism. Our continent has also been hit hard with ongoing attacks in Nigeria, sporadic attacks in Kenya and this weekend with attacks in Mali and the Cameroon,” Zuma told Jewish leaders in Johannesburg.
“All these attacks, wherever they occur, put the spotlight on the Middle East peace process,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine peace in the world without the achievement of peace in the Middle East. South Africa continues to contribute to attempts at finding peace in the Middle East especially with the age-old Palestinian-Israeli question.”
Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, said he appreciated Zuma’s appearance at the conference but was critical of the connection made between global terror and the Middle East conflict. “President Zuma’s linkage of recent terror attacks in Europe and Africa to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was both unfair to the memory of the victims of those attacks and a misunderstanding of the real threats of Islamic extremism today,” Lenk, who attended the speech, told The Times of Israel Sunday night.
Last week, Israel reacted furiously when Sweden’s foreign minister invoked Palestinian frustration while discussing the Paris massacre — claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group — which killed 129 people.
Addressing the Biennial National Conference of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Zuma said his country has many lessons to offer to the conflicting Israeli-Palestinian parties.
“We were able to put the past hatred and anger behind us and to work together to build a new society. We have a responsibility to assure nations that are going through conflict that peace is possible and achievable,” he said.
Pretoria believes that the key to peace in the Middle East is a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as capital, “co-existing in peace with the State of Israel,” Zuma said.
The current government’s staunch support for the Palestinian cause “is in no way against the existence of the State of Israel and the safety of the Israeli nation,” Zuma added. “On the contrary, we believe that the establishment of the State of Palestine will lay a solid foundation for lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have long been fraught over the latter’s harsh criticism of Israeli policies and its staunch support for the Palestinians. Last month, the African National Congress — the country’s ruling party — hosted the leader of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal. Zuma, the ANC’s chairman, met Mashaal and the two men exchanged gifts.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem expressed “shock and outrage” at the warm welcome the chief terrorist received in South Africa and summoned the country’s deputy ambassador in Israel for a reprimand. South African diplomats later explained that the ANC’s embrace of Hamas should be seen in the context of “party-to-party relations” and not be confused with official government policy.
In remarks not included in the official transcript of his speech, Zuma acknowledged on Sunday, “The coming of Hamas into South Africa has caused some concern among the Jewish community. The manner in which Hamas was received concerned the Jewish community. We are aware of that, and it is noted. We are also aware that we did not communicate with the Jewish community beforehand. But we believe that South Africa can play a role and we are in the process of making a stronger interaction on both sides. I hope we work together, as we did before, with the Jewish community.”
Zuma also used his speech Sunday evening, attended by the Jewish community’s most senior leaders as well as World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, to pay tribute to Jewish South Africans’ contribution to the fight against the apartheid regime.
“As we mark 21 years of freedom and democracy, we also reiterate the heroic role that our Jewish compatriots played during the dark days of struggle and are still playing to this day,” Zuma said. “They did this as proud and patriotic South Africans who wanted to see an end to racism and racial oppression in their country.”
After listing several Jewish South Africans who played important roles in opposing the racist apartheid regime, Zuma concluded that the country’s Jewish community has a “proud place in the history of the South African struggle for liberation.”
Lenk, the Israeli ambassador in Pretoria, said it was “positive and important” for Zuma to participate in so central an event for the local Jewish community. “His message about important Jewish roles in South African struggle history was noteworthy and offers an important inclusive message.”