THE LEVANT – President Jacob Zuma raised his concerns about the Gaza conflict for the third time on his US visit on Tuesday when he met US Vice-President Joe Biden on the margins of President Barack Obama’s US-Africa leaders’ summit.
Zuma raised eyebrows when he sharply criticised both Israel and Hamas in addresses to the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Press Club on Monday.
Some US business interests were surprised that he used a speech at the Chamber of Commerce that was mainly intended to drum up trade and investment, to criticise Israel for “the senseless shelling of civilian shelters by Israel”.
He did not criticise Hamas in that speech but in a later speech to the National Press Club he corrected that by also condemning “the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas”.
“We call upon all sides to lay down arms and work towards a negotiated solution, that will lead to the internationally recognised and supported two states solution.”
Replying to questions at the club, Zuma also repeated the government’s message that there would be no point in expelling the Israeli ambassador or recalling South Africa’s ambassador to Israel when South Africa needed to maintain communications to share its own experience of negotiating a peaceful resolution.
After meeting Biden on Tuesday, Zuma told the SABC that he had raised the Gaza issue again where he was able to gain an understanding of the US position – and that Biden had appreciated the points he had raised which had “helped them also to take another thinking in terms of the issues we were raising”.
“I think they are keen to work with us from our point of view and they know the issue is a difficult one, they’ve been with it for a long time but they agree that an attempt should be made, and again we should try to find a way of working together. At least they accepted that kind of an approach.”
Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj explained that it had been absolutely necessary for Zuma to raise the Gaza issue with the Americans as it was an important issue for the president’s own constituency back home.
It was also important that Zuma should reiterate in the US his own firm position within the tripartite alliance that it would not help to expel the Israeli ambassador or recall South Africa’s ambassador. The government is resisting growing pressure from South African civil society, including some of its own alliance partners to expel and withdraw the two envoys to isolate Israel.
But Zuma has chosen instead the route of mediation, recently appointing former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and former cabinet minister and high commissioner to the UK Zola Skweyiya as his special envoys to the Middle East.
They travelled to Israel, Ramallah, Egypt and Qatar to meet officials and to discuss ways of advancing peace talks.
Maharaj said Zuma’s failure to criticise Hamas at the US Chamber of Commerce meeting was a simple omission which he had corrected in the press club speech in which he criticised both sides.
He also put Zuma’s raising of the Gaza issue so prominently in the US in the context of Zuma’s belief that it was necessary to put relations with the US on a more equal footing by making sure South Africa’s voice was heard.
Later on Tuesday, Zuma was due to participate in the closing panel discussion of the business forum meeting which Obama would later close.
On Wednesday, Zuma is to participate with about 40 other African heads of state and government in the summit proper at which the leaders will discuss key African issues with Obama, including peace and security, trade and investment, health, food security and electrifying Africa.
He has been devoting much of his time to lobbying for South Africa’s continued participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which gives duty-free access to the lucrative US market for most African exports.
Some competitive US business interests have strongly lobbied the US Congress to “graduate” South Africa from Agoa when it comes up for renewal next year both because they say South Africa is an upper-middle income country which does not need it but also because they complain South Africa is discriminating against US imports with high tariffs or “unscientific and unfair” health restrictions.
Zuma raised Agoa with Biden and then later made a direct appeal to key legislators in Congress – Senator Chris Coons, chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate foreign relations committee, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives foreign relations committee.
Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies told journalists that the government was addressing the concerns of US meat producers who had lobbied against the renewal of South Africa’s Agoa benefits because of health and other restrictions placed on imports of their products.