After racism forum, potential African-Arab rift


JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 16 (JTA) — The strains that have emerged between African countries and Arab nations following the U.N. World Conference Against Racism are creating a potential rift that could benefit Israel.

Many African countries are angry with the Arab bloc for nearly ruining the racism conference. The conference ended Sept. 8 with a compromise on the Mideast conflict that deleted the harshest attacks on Israel, but only after a last-minute attempt by Syria and Pakistan to restore tough anti-Israeli language was defeated on a procedural vote.

“It’s become obvious that the Arabs were hell-bent on forcing through the agenda against Israel, even if it meant wrecking Africa’s vital objectives at the conference,” complained a key South African conference figure, who requested anonymity. “This is bound to affect the way we view those we thought were our brothers.”

The main focus of African delegates was to condemn slavery and colonialism, extract an apology for the slave trade and win promises of development aid and trade concessions.

The final declaration addressed those issues only in watered-down form.

The South Africans feel betrayed because, they claim, they were vital in helping the Palestinians to find acceptable compromise language after the American and Israeli delegations stalked out of the conference, and France threatened to follow suit.

“If we had not worked so hard to convince the Europeans, there would have been not a single word about the Middle East in the final declaration,” a conference source stated.

“This is how they repay us,” another South African source said. “The Arabs wanted to have their cake and eat it.”

It’s still too early to tell if or how African countries might change their policies toward Israel in light of the anti-racism conference, but analysts see several potential benefits for Israel:

• reluctance on the part of African states to agree to harsh criticism of Israel in future U.N. General Assembly and Security Council declarations;

• exploration of trade and aid deals with Israel, especially in agriculture, technology and use of appropriate computer and Internet technology;

• willingness by African states to speak out against the continued use of slaves and slave-like workers in Mauritania, Sudan and some Gulf States;

• less focus on Israel as the primary human rights violator in the Middle East, with more mention made of the plight of the Kurds and other minorities in Arab states.

“We have always seen ourselves as backers of the Palestinian cause,” a senior South African source said. “But now we are wondering what we are getting in return.”

Other African representatives have been even more scathing. They recall that Israel provided significant aid, especially in agriculture, to several African states prior to the Yom Kippur War.

Pressure from Arab countries, in the form of steep oil price increases, led most African states to break off ties with Israel soon after that 1973 war.

“We did not get really preferential oil prices, and we wonder what the Arabs have actually done for us black Africans,” said one senior African commentator who attended the conference.

The commentator pointed out that two anti-black riots have exploded in the Arab countries of North Africa in the past year, resulting in loss of life. Africans also say they feel discriminated against when seeking work or studying in Arab countries, especially in Persian Gulf states.

The feeling is growing, the commentator said, that Africans are being used as “pawns” by Arab nations whose sole agenda is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are not interested in promoting African interests.

The terrorist attacks on the United States this week have added another worry — that Africa may be drawn into extremist violence stemming from the Mideast conflict.

Africans already are smarting from the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 Africans died in the attacks — attributed to Osama bin Laden’s militant Muslim group — along with a handful of Americans.

The South African regime is considered unlikely to abandon the Palestinian cause. However, it is expected to become much more suspicious of potential Islamic terrorism in its own cities following a spate of bomb attacks in Cape Town.

The bombings have abated in recent months, but authorities have attributed the attacks to Islamic hardliners among the city’s Malay population.

Many leaders in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress continue to feel an affinity with self- described national liberation movements such as the PLO. Anti-American sentiment also is common, as many here feel that the United States did little to bring down South Africa’s old apartheid regime.

In addition, after their success in “saving” the recent racism conference over the Mideast issue, South African leaders hope to play a role in mediating any future Mideast peace talks.

Few expect a sudden turnaround in South African politics — but the seeds have now been sown for a more even-handed approach to the Middle East conflict.

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