In the last six months of 2020 – the death spiral of the Trump presidency – a series of peace deals and normalisation agreements were signed between Israel and Arab countries: the UAE and Bahrain came first, in September, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Rumours are that Oman will be next. In November, Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. Apparently, while most countries were counting the minutes till Trump’s term would be over, Israel and a few monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world were squeezing the most out of his last weeks in office. Each delegation asked Trump, as if he were the Wizard of Oz, for what it most wanted in return for normalising relations: to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Sudan); to have its illegal occupation of other people’s land recognised (Morocco); to buy a few squadrons of F-35s (UAE); to put the Palestinian cause to sleep (Israel); possibly along with other promises we will never hear about.
The Israeli elections turned on the ‘ideological’ question of whether Binyamin Netanyahu should be prime minister or not. Other, less crucial topics – including the occupation of the West Bank, which has entered its second jubilee; the siege of Gaza, which has entered its 13th year; the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; the complete lack of negotiation with the PLO; the growing inequality in Israeli society; the deteriorating health system; the housing crisis and more – were all left largely undiscussed.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s relation with, control of and attitude to the media is a central component of his career and ongoing success. Through his years as a furniture salesman, ambassador to the UN and prime minister, Netanyahu has mastered the art of public relations. To stay in power, he has realised that he needs, on the one hand, to have as much control as possible over the media, over what they cover and what they don’t cover; while on the other hand, he needs Israelis to believe that the media are biased against him.
Yesterday, on the 67th anniversary of the establishment of Israel (Palestinians commemorate the Nakba today), Binyamin Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister. It’s taken him a while to put together a governing coalition of 61 seats, against 59 in the opposition. It’s worth watching the first minute of Netanyahu’s speech to the Knesset. You don’t have to understand Hebrew. ‘Tonight with God’s help,’ he begins, ‘we will create a government in Israel.’ He pauses for a second. ‘We will defend Israeli security.’ Another pause. ‘And we will strive for peace.’ At the word ‘peace’ (‘shalom’) many members of the Knesset couldn’t contain themselves.
‘We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,’ Golda Meir said in 1969, ‘but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ Forty-five years on, in the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza, with more than 800 Palestinians killed, about a quarter of them children, Israel’s government, its media and Israeli society have turned Meir’s idea of Israel being ‘forced’ to do unacceptable things into a vast and dangerous superstition. It refuses to take responsibility for the killing, just as it refused to take responsibility for the military occupation and the blockade: these, it tells itself, are what it has been forced into. Killing in Gaza in 2014, killing in 2012, and in 2008. But Israel has convinced itself, despite the rising numbers of dead, that it isn't killing anyone in Gaza. Hamas are the people doing the killing; they are responsible for the siege, the destruction, the underdevelopment, the poverty, the absence of peace talks, the postponement of a ceasefire and the use of UNRWA schools for military purposes.
Hosni Mubarak was the Israeli government’s favourite dictator, so it was hard for them, and for the mass media, to say goodbye to him. Coverage of the uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East has been fairly supportive of the protesters, but Egypt was a special case. As Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired head of the army, put it, ‘stability is preferable to democracy.’ The refrain throughout has been: 'Israel is anxiously following events.’ But on 26 January, the Israeli establishment was hopeful that its neighbours would fail in their struggle for democracy. The daily Ma'ariv, under the headline 'Trusting Mubarak', said: 'Israeli officials are optimistic: Egypt will overcome’ – ‘Egypt’ here and elsewhere meaning the despotic administration, not the people.
We met Seish a few days ago, when we stopped at his pub on our way from big-game spotting in the Pilanesberg National Park – where we saw elephants, giraffes and the USA squad’s tour bus – to Australia v. Germany. After making sure none of us were Australian, he gave us a lecture on the long-running sporting rivalry between South Africa and Australia (in everything from rugby and cricket to swimming and running). He then brought out a T-shirt with the slogan: ‘I support any team that plays against Australia.’
Durban advertises itself as 'the warmest place to be for the 2010 Fifa World Cup'. It's been a sunny 20 degrees here, while the temperatures in Bloemfontein, for example, have plummeted at night to minus five. The esplanade is crowded with tourists, as well as groups of Zulu dancers dressed in 'traditional' clothes (no shirts, lots of chest muscles, wooden shields and spears) and local artists making sand sculptures of crocodiles eating people (with the inscription: 'please donate money and help save the poor man'). The bars are full of foreign men and local women. Thousands of tourists have descended on the city – most of them European, most of them men – and the European-African (mis)match is evident. Every evening we have been approached by groups of young women: 'I am from Zimbabwe, I do not care about football, but I came for a month vacation during the World Cup.' Everywhere you look, large sweaty white men are buying drinks for attractive black women.
People have said there hasn't been much demand for tickets in South Africa, but no one seems to have told Patrick. For the last two months he has been sleeping outside the Maponya Mall in Soweto. He wakes at 4 o'clock in the morning, to stand alone in front of the Mall's doors. By the time they open at 9 o'clock a long queue has formed for the Fifa ticket centre, but Patrick is always first in line. He can only afford Category 4 tickets, which cost R140 (about £12). We asked him about tickets for the England-USA game. 'England tickets are like gold,' he said. Even in Category 1 (which cost £110)? Even in Category 1. 'I will try to find tickets for you, but there is no chance it will be successful.'
On the way into Soweto there are dozens of signs that say: 'Welcome World'. Since our first evening in the pub in Pimville, Zone 5, drinking the local Castle beer and eating pap, surrounded by the flags of Algeria, Ivory Coast, Slovenia and Paraguay, we definitely have felt welcome. Our hands were shaken over and over again. 'We hope you are happy here... Is everything all right?... We love you... Thank you for coming... Pleased to meet you... We are glad you are visiting us.' 'We', by the way, are Matt, my former university English teacher who still finds my English mistakes 'to be very disturbing', Simon, a BBC journalist who does not have any corrupt friends to supply us with England-USA tickets, and Ben, an Englishman who has been living in Holland for the last eight years and does a passable imitation of Afrikaans.