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One year into the Israeli ambassador’s tenure in SA

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Israeli Ambassador Lior Keinan’s first year in South Africa has been busy – and it doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon. “Our countries are at a challenging crossroads,” says the ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Madagascar.
by PETA KROST MAUNDER | Sep 06, 2018

Keinan is doing his best to disperse misconceptions about South Africa in Israel, and Israel in the eyes of those influenced by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.

On the one hand, he is trying to paint a realistic picture of South Africa for Israel, which sees only negative media about how the Jewish state is perceived here.

On the other hand, while he is cautious in his dealings with the South African government, he is discovering a great deal of interest in and fondness for Israel around the country.

“From the mainstream South African media, you would imagine all South Africans looked for the bad in Israel, and were totally disinterested in the country,” Keinan told the SA Jewish Report this week. “However, I have discovered that most ordinary South Africans are fascinated by Israel, and want to hear more about what we do.”

Travelling around the country since he arrived, he has been amazed at the friendship offered to him by “ordinary South Africans”, such a contrast to what he calls the “BDS-captured media”.

He spends his time trying to convey this genuine message of friendship from ordinary South Africans to Israel so that Israelis get a true picture of the situation. “What I have realised is that this country is a whole package, not just what you see in the media.”

When he was appointed ambassador to South Africa, Keinan said he kept getting “condolences” for such a tough posting. “In Israel, all you hear about this country is how strong BDS is, how the government wants to boycott Israel, and downgrade the embassy. So, while it is well known that the South African Jewish community is well respected in Israel, Israelis never hear anything good coming from here.”

When he first arrived, he came to understood just how much of an ally of Israel the South African Jewish community is. “I know this isn’t news, but I had no understanding just how deep and valuable this relationship is,” he said. “It is so important, especially with so many challenges in this environment.”

Keinan said he was amazed at the disproportionate attention Israel got in the South African media, insisting that it is “BDS-captured” because it “seems to seek out anything it can find that is negative and run it – there is no balance”.

“Israel is not perfect, and we don’t expect to be seen as such. Like everyone, we make mistakes. But to be criticised by an organisation like BDS, which is energised and sponsored by the worst and darkest regimes in the world is too much,” he says.

“We are our first and toughest critics. If there is a law Israeli citizens don’t like, hundreds of thousands of them take to the streets. The Supreme Court will check it out, and if it doesn’t work, it will be changed. The Israeli checks and balances are good. If the country is dissatisfied, the government will change. But it is unacceptable to be preached to by an organisation supported by regimes that are so far behind what we are doing in tikkun olam (social welfare), innovation, women’s rights, and gay rights.

“One should wonder why leading political figures lean towards this propaganda that BDS puts out without checking whether it is truth or lies.

“It can’t be easy for BDS seeing Israel thriving and doing better and better each year. Our economy, trade, tourism, industries are all flying,” Keinan said.

But, in spite of the negative media and BDS publicity, trade is thriving between the two countries. “Trade between small Israel and South Africa is similar to that between huge Russia and South Africa. And South Africa is not a big market for us, either.”

Keinan has what he calls a “fragile” relationship with the South African government.

Of late, Israel’s relationships with countries in the Middle East have improved. It has good relationships with the other countries in BRICS, like Russia, China, India, even Brazil. “We also have better and better friendships on this continent, and we are opening more embassies in Africa and African embassies in Israel,” he said. “We have a record number of African leaders coming to visit Israel, so why should South Africa stand alone? There is no logic to this.”

From his experience of BDS protests and condemnation of everything to do with Israel, Keinan said the organisation has nailed its colours to the mast. “The fact that it stands with Hezbollah flags outside Israeli embassy events says everything. Hezbollah has nothing to do with Palestinians, and everything to do with Iran and the destruction of Israel. Whatever BDS says, this makes it clear it wants to see the total destruction of our country.”

If everything goes according to plan, Keinan will remain in South Africa for another three years to see out his tenure. That is, if South Africa doesn’t downgrade its embassy in Israel, and cut ties with the Jewish State, as has been threatened. “Anything can happen, but I hope it won’t,” Keinan said.

Keinan’s move to South Africa necessitated the uprooting of his family. “It is always tough to leave Israel to move to a new place. My family do so courageously for my career. Two things really helped them integrate and settle here. First, it was that South Africans speak English, and second, we have family here.” Keinan’s wife, Sarit, was born in South Africa. “That was a key element in the kids adjusting to the move.”

Going forward, his challenge is to convey to Israelis a true picture of South Africans and their real views on Israel. “It would help to put things into perspective, and enhance the relationship between the countries based on reality.”

Keinan believes that the South African government has a potentially big role to play in helping bring peace to the Middle East because of this country’s valuable experience in ending conflict peacefully. “If it downgrades the embassy, it would scupper any chance of that [happening]. I really hope they don’t. I want them to contribute to my neighbourhood.”

Whatever happens over the next three years, there is no doubt that his next mission abroad is likely to be quite boring in comparison.

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