SA, Israel in diplomatic spat …as Pretoria downgrades embassy in Israel

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Colleta Dewa

Johannesburg – The diplomatic relations between Pretoria and Tel Aviv have been further strained after the South African government, last Sunday, announced that it had downgraded the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

Addressing journalists in Johannesburg, International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the move followed South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) decision more than a year ago.

“We will not be putting up a nomination for a representative at the level of an ambassador in Israel. The office will remain at the level of a liaison [office] and that is how it will operate,” said Sisulu.

Sisulu added that the liaison office in Tel Aviv will have no political mandate, no trade mandate, and no development cooperation mandate.

She emphasised that the office would focus on consular and people-to-people relations only.

ANC has in the past voiced its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, which many South Africans see as similar to the struggle against white minority rule in South Africa, which ended in 1994.

Last May, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel after at least 52 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during protests over the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Following the announcement by the minister last week, the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) accused her of contradicting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statements on the matter.

SAJBD also called on the South African government to “reject politically biased and discriminatory calls to break off ties with Israel and instead find ways to re-engage in the region through maintaining open channels of communication with all parties”.

“The SAJBD remains strongly of the view that an embassy downgrade would not achieve anything in terms of advancing Middle East peace prospects, but would run counter to South Africa’s own objective interests, particularly in terms of stimulating Foreign Investment,” the SAJBD has said

ANC, however, hit back at the SAJBD’s statement saying “both the President and the minister are ANC deployees, who are bound by the decisions of its highest organ ‑ which is the conference.”

“The ANC lauds the decision by the Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel. The ANC resolved to downgrade its embassy, and these conference resolutions are binding on all of its members, including those deployed to Cabinet,” said the ANC.

Special Advisor to the Minister for International Relations, Zane Dangor, also responded to the SAJBD allegations saying the president and the minister could never be divided on such sensitive issues.

“The SAJBD statement erroneously seeks to suggest that there are different approaches within government to downgrading South Africa’s diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. Both President Ramaphosa and Minister Sisulu are committed to implementing a resolution pertaining to this issue that was passed unanimously by the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).”

Dangor referred to the President’s response to a question posed to him in the National Assembly on March 7 on progress in implementing the ANC resolution to downgrade relations with Israel.

“Government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy in Israel. Our approach is informed by our concern at the ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the refusal of the government of Israel to enter into meaningful negotiations to find a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict,” Ramaphosa said, “The South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel.”

Labour union, Cosatu, also accused the SAJBD of attempting to divide the ruling party and the South African government in its decision by trying to isolate Sisulu.

“This is the decision of the ANC and we do not believe there have been any contradictions between the President and the Minister in this regard; we condemn this attempt to confuse everyone. South Africa is not a confused state,” Cosatu has said.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) also welcomed the downgrading of relations with Tel Aviv saying it was a significant move.

“We applaud this significant move to break relations with Israel, an arrogant and racist colonial state that denies equal rights to all citizens through apartheid laws. The measures announced by Minister Sisulu demonstrate that our government can take practical actions in line with political and moral imperatives that will put us on the right side of history,” said PSC.

The PSC also referred to a UN Human Rights Commission report published last month, which found that Israel’s use of lethal force against protesters warrants criminal investigation and prosecution and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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