South Africa Leads Fresh Critique of Israel at BRICS Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa accused Israel of actions “tantamount to genocide” in Gaza, as the BRICS group of nations held a virtual summit aimed at counterbalancing the US and its allies over the Hamas war.

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Ramaphosa, speaking at the start of the gathering, reiterated South Africa’s allegation that Israel’s use of force in Gaza was a war crime. He and other leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping lent their voices to a call for a cease-fire and underscored what they said was BRICS bloc’s “vital role” in an effort to achieve peace.

“We all agreed that this crisis has gone on for far too long and now needs to be resolved,” Ramaphosa said.

The BRICS nations that joined the summit — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — didn’t agree on a joint declaration, and it remains unclear what concrete action the bloc intends taking toward ending the war.

But it was part of a broader push by the group to exert more influence on the global stage and offer a counterweight to what they see as US dominance. Officials from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates, who’ve been invited to join the bloc from next year, also participated.

Ramaphosa did condemn Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and the European Union, for the attack that started the war. That initial attack killed about 1,200 people and saw Hamas take about 240 hostages.

The BRICS leaders’ comments marked one of the first times the group has sought to assert itself in a conflict that has gripped the world’s attention and underscored how the US, Israel and their allies have failed to win over the Global South in their arguments that Israel has the right to root out Hamas.

The BRICS viewpoint “represents a tacit rejection of the US-led approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict,” said Bilal Bassiouni, head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting for consulting firm Pangea-Risk. “This development also signals a growing effort to find a moderating role in international affairs outside the western mainstream.”

South Africa last week joined five other developing nations in referring Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes over its conflict with Hamas.

The BRICS initiative and parallel talks that China has been hosting with senior officials from the Middle East are likely to be welcomed by Arab leaders who argue that the US is biased toward Israel. It is, however unlikely to gain any traction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration.

Even if the BRICS talks don’t go anywhere, the stand taken by the bloc is indicative of its intent — previously voiced at its last annual summit in Johannesburg in August — to play a bigger role in global affairs.

The decision to increase the size of its ranks was taken at that gathering, while plans to reduce their reliance on the dollar and gain more sway over key political institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council, World Bank and International Monetary Fund were discussed.

While the bloc has struggled to assert itself so far, it has become harder to ignore. Its current members’ share of global output already eclipses that of the Group of Seven nations and it accounts for 42% of the world’s population. That will rise to almost half once the new members are included.

The BRICS nations’ stance on Gaza is the first real test of the expanded bloc’s ability to reach common ground, according to Karin Vazquez, a Shanghai-based associate professor of diplomatic practice at India’s O.P. Jindal Global University.

“We’ve yet to see what concretely they will be able to achieve in terms of common positioning,” she said. “The big question mark is how far they will be able to come as a group — as a coalition not as individual countries.”

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