Former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE Democratic Alliance (DA) has always maintained a balanced position on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It advocates a two-state solution that recognises the right of Palestinians to self-determination and for Israel to exist within secure and agreed borders — as close to the 1967 "Green Line" as possible.

It argues that while it is necessary that the Israeli government stands firm against right-wing extremism, it fulfills its plan to disengage from Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank. In turn, that it is equally necessary that the Palestinian government stop allowing terror to continue and that it ends anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media.

The party has set out its policy in a position paper and, in the past, in numerous speeches and statements on the subject.

Recently, however, that position seems to have changed. Earlier this month, its representative at a parliamentary conference on Palestine uncritically adopted a range of highly hostile resolutions on Israel and registered no reservation in endorsing the final, entirely pro-Palestinian declaration. This siding with Palestine, without qualification, suggests the DA has now officially abandoned any onus it placed on Palestine to act with responsibility for its actions.

The party now wholly attributes any and all culpability for the conflict to Israel whose conduct it completely condemns. That is a position it has now declared and it will support the Africa National Congress (ANC) government in pursuing it.

Either that or this represents yet another communications foul up, as its representative again failed to understand DA policy or articulate it properly in key moments that require conviction, not ambivalence.

The portfolio committee on international relations hosted The Parliamentary Solidarity Conference in support of the peoples of Palestine, Western Sahara and Cuba in the Good Hope Chamber in Parliament, Cape Town on February 6 .

It was described by portfolio chairman Tisetso Magama as "the first of its kind in Parliament" and was attended by representatives from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party, the ANC, the Congress of the People (COPE) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Other attendees included the Coalition for a Free Palestine, the Friends of Cuba Society, the Western Sahara Solidarity Forum, Kairos Southern Africa, the Media Review Network and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP). BDS South Africa and some members of the South African Jewish community "who identify with the struggles of Palestine, Cuba and Western Sahara" also attended.

Bill Eloff, a member of Parliament and the party’s deputy shadow minister on international relations, represented the DA. A second DA MP, Justus de Goede, was there for some of the time.

The official purpose of the conference was spelt out in Orwellian cuttlefish ink by the committee as follows: "It is a culmination of extensive work carried out by the committee in response to the call by President (Jacob) Zuma in his successive state of the nation addresses since 2010, with a message that solidarity is and should feature as a strong element of South Africa’s internationalism."

The conference description stated elsewhere that the plan was "To produce an ACTION-ORIENTED DECLARATION for a Parliamentary Plan of Action taking the solidarity movement forward towards a peaceful resolution of the challenges facing the three nations".

The blunter, unofficial purpose was to further entrench the ANC’s and the government’s rabid anti-Israel stance, confirm that Israel is an "apartheid state" and show uncritical "solidarity" with Palestine while condemning Israel.

From the record, it appears the DA played its part by endorsing the key sentiments without registering so much as a whisper of opposition.

Ahmed Kathrada opened the conference. He was followed by South Africa’s Deputy Minister of International Relations, Marius Fransman — a man who has demonstrated little more than contempt for Israel and the Jewish community in South Africa — and finally Magama.

You can read the full set of 15 resolutions adopted by the conference on Palestine here. They formed the foundation of the final declaration, officially titled the Cape Town Declaration, and included the following:

• South Africa establish a "special court" to deal with war crimes and that it address Israel’s conduct and South Africans serving in the Israeli Defence Force.

• Parliament adopts a 2009 Human Sciences Research Council report that found Israel guilty of apartheid.

• South Africa stops all financial transactions with Israeli companies and lobby for financial support for Palestine.

• Complete military, financial and political sanctions must be applied against Israel until it complies with all applicable UN resolutions and international law and ends its occupation.

• The South African government and Parliament campaign for Israel to be suspended from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication banking network.

• The South African government and Parliament table the conference resolutions at the African Union, United Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Those resolutions were adopted almost exactly as they came out of the relevant working group that produced them. Whether or not Eloff was part of that group is unclear. The subject for the working group was: "Palestine: Intensifying the struggle for self-determination and efforts to bring about a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Significantly, not a single resolution was critical of Palestine in any way, shape or form. Likewise, no Jewish or Christian organisations were invited to make submissions, although some did attend after being tipped off. Outside the conference venue anti-Israel posters were on display. Inside, Palestinian scarves were handed out most parties, including the DA representative, wore them. The only noticeable exception was the ACDP. The Palestinian ambassador was invited to address the conference. The Israeli ambassador was either not invited or declined to attend.

From the agenda alone, there could have been no doubt as to what the purpose of the conference was. And, from the official record, there can be no doubt that the DA failed to raise a single objection.

On her blog, Marthie Momberg, who describes herself as an "advocate for justice and peace in South Africa and in Palestine and Israel", sets out how events unfolded.

"Different political parties attended the proceedings and the ACDP was the only party to distance itself from the declaration," she wrote. "They voted against it, and so did three members of the public."

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) has uploaded on its website audio recordings of the events. You can listen to them here and here At no point in any of the recordings did Eloff express any reservations.

On the 31st minute in recording one, the group is asked if anyone has any reservations against the draft declaration by show of hands. The DA kept silent. Instead, someone rose to suggest that any reference to a "two-state solution" be exorcised on the grounds it was effectively promoting a "Bantustan" policy.

On the 39th minute again in recording one, the chair formally asks if anyone is against the declaration. Four people register their opposition. They included the ACDP representative Cherylin Dudley and Ncedi Mayekiso, Vivien Myburgh and Myron Phillips — members of the public. Eloff was not among them. "We will record four people that are against the declaration but the majority of people are ecstatic, so thank you so much," said the chair to loud applause.

In his closing remarks, Magama, clearly far more politically aware of what was happening than the DA, stated: "We have always sought to bring together all parties and so, up to this point, in spite of the difference of opinion, in fact even on the Palestine question, there are differences of opinion, but there are resolutions that were taken, presented to Parliament… and so they are resolutions of Parliament, not of the committee anymore...

"When that happens all participants of the process, including the parties, are now bound, they are now part of those resolutions, and that is why we have now been able to work together with ACDP, DA, COPE and IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) and others in engaging on this level, despite of the differences."

After listening to every draft resolution being read out and the adoption of the final declaration, Eloff rose to endorse the outcome. But not before the Magama said he would like to "personally thank" him for his role. The recording cuts before Eloff speaks but, among other things, he noted that the conference was a "historic moment", the "first of its kind" and that it had been a "great success".

In the written minutes of the conference on the PMG website, it records the vote of thanks given by Eloff as follows:

"Mr Eloff thanked every participant at the meeting and said that the discussions and engagements of the day had been very fruitful. This was a mark of progress in the right direction in fostering solidarity to build a just and better world. He declared the conference closed."

It might have been the "right direction" for the conference, but for the DA it represents a sudden hand break turn into a brick wall.

The question that now faces the DA is two fold. First, there is the question of what exactly its position on Israel is. "A couple of atrocities have been committed — many more on the Palestinian side — but wrongs have been done," DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said in June 2012. "Palestinian disadvantage" had to be addressed alongside "Palestinian responsibility".

"Israel needs to be held accountable for excessively violent and military responses, likewise the Palestinians (for) terrorising Israelis."

However, that position of mutual moral accountability was nowhere to be found in the Cape Town Declaration. The relevant sections on Palestine entirely condemn Israel and make no effort even to mention Palestinian atrocities. The DA does not agree that Israel is an apartheid state. Or does it? The resolutions are unequivocal. The DA does not support sanctions against Israel. Or does it? The DA does not support the establishment of a war crimes court that targets Israel. Or does it?

Despite Magama’s claim, this was not a formal committee and its findings have no implications for Parliament, the law or official government policy, which is lucky for the DA. Although, that said, the Department of International Relations took the occasion seriously and these resolutions will no doubt put to Parliament at some point. Thus, they are not insignificant.

Second, the problem of poor judgement DA public representatives exercised seems to be something of a contagion and many appear infected. For the second time in the party’s recent history, a DA MP seems to have gone rogue much like the party’s two representatives on the labour portfolio did last year when considering new affirmative action legislation. They were both effectively fired from their positions as a result.

In this case, Eloff too appeared unable to identify the import and volatility of the subject in front of him, was unfamiliar with DA policy on it and lacked the wherewithal to articulate it properly at key moments. The result, if the party has not changed its position on Israel, is another MP who has damaged the DA’s reputation through naive ambivalence.

And make no mistake to the South African Jewish community in particular — many of whom are fervent DA supporters, even donors — this conference and its resultant declaration will be seen as nothing more than an official and openly hostile assault on Israel. Ironically, they will now consider turning their affections to the ACDP. It might not be the stuff of front-page headlines but to those for whom this kind of thing matters intensely, this decision will be interpreted as an absolute affront.

Perhaps if the resolutions do come before parliament, the DA will have a chance to rectify its abdication of principle and policy. Until then, once again, it has some explaining to do.