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Dirco plays ping pong on SA ambassador’s return to Israel

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Has the South African ambassador to Israel returned to work in the Jewish state or not? That is the million-dollar question that is confusing politicians and civilians alike.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Oct 11, 2018

It remains a mystery as to whether Ambassador Sisa Ngombane is back in Israel in his official capacity, or whether he has merely gone back to sort out some personal things before returning home.

The South African public is being told totally different things.

Local Jewry are quietly celebrating that Ngombane is back in Tel Aviv and opening the way for South Africa to become a role player in future peace negotiations in the troubled region.

“He is back,” said Zev Krengel, the Vice-President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). “We are not popping champagne because our enemies are fighting hard, and it doesn’t guarantee that a downgrade of the SA embassy won’t happen,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week.

But, for now, he said, the community was happy.

Ngombane’s return to work has been refuted vehemently by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), which insists that Ngombane remains “recalled until further notice”.

Dirco spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya insisted this week that Ngombane was in Tel Aviv for “personal reasons”. When asked when he could be expected back, he said, “Does it matter when he’s back? When his personal reasons are completed, he’ll come back. He may even be back, I don’t know.”

He said the embassy continued to “function fine”. It was like a school. “If you are a school and the principal goes on holiday, the school is still a school. The embassy is still an embassy,” he said.

When the SA Jewish Report visited the SA embassy in Israel this week, it was all but deserted. There appeared to be only one person on duty, and it was very quiet. The person who was in the front booth, apparently answering the phone, would not say who he was or what his position was. He was clearly not the ambassador. He said he knew the status of the embassy, but was not allowed to talk to anyone, let alone journalists.

Many people who have sent South African passports in for renewal have waited six months or more. When asked about this, the man at the embassy said it could take up to eight months.

The SA Jewish Report requested an interview with the ambassador almost as soon as Ngombane went back to Israel. After repeated requests, the newspaper got a response saying that the “ambassador is unfortunately not able to meet with you for an interview”.

“Communications on the matter of Ambassador Ngombane’s recall is a matter that is entirely the prerogative of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, our headquarters in Pretoria,” writes Teddy Ceke, the Tel Aviv Counsellor Political for Dirco.

Ngombane – who slipped quietly into Israel on 17 September without fanfare or announcement – clearly finds himself in a diplomatic seesaw. His future hangs in the balance as politicians attempt to figure out the conundrum.

Ngombane was recalled hurriedly to South Africa on 14 May in protest against Israel’s actions to defend itself against violent Palestinian protests at the Gaza border which resulted in the death of about 55 people. Ngombane, who has been South Africa’s ambassador to Israel since 2013, was recalled “until further notice”.

Only two months ago, Dirco said it would not return its ambassador until progress in the conflict had been made.

So, news of his hushed return came somewhat as a surprise. The South African embassy in Ramat Gan sent a formal letter to the protocol department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcing his return.

Dated 20 September, the letter said that the South African embassy “presents its compliments” to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem and to all diplomatic missions accredited to the Jewish state, and “has the honour to inform” that “Mr Sisa Ngombane has returned to Tel Aviv”.

Although there were ongoing negotiations for a long time, Krengel said, “We were pleasantly surprised. We are very happy and we believe it is the right thing to do. We believe President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC are being true to the ANC’s policy of engagement.”

Israel’s Channel 10 published a copy of the letter on Thursday, 21 September. This was followed by other media outlets reporting that the ambassador had “quietly returned” to Israel.

As soon as local media ran the story, there was a backlash from Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS-SA) and other pro-Palestinian lobby groups who lashed out at the government.

Dirco immediately issued a statement that clearly contradicted the message from the embassy to Israel. It said Ngombane was “still recalled for consultations, and has not resumed his duties as an ambassador for SA in Israel”. It added that he had returned to Israel to deal “with urgent family and personal issues”.

International Affairs and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has been under increasing pressure from Palestinian support groups including BDS-SA to implement the decision taken by the ANC in December 2017 to downgrade the SA embassy in Israel.

These anti-Israel groups slammed the government for resuming ties by sending its envoy back to Israel, calling it the “return and not-return” of the ambassador.

Insiders believe the swift yet silent return of the ambassador has something to do with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to the United Nations (UN). Some speculate that Ramaphosa made sure Ngombane was in Israel before he (Ramaphosa) would come face to face with world leaders including President Donald Trump.

Ramaphosa left South Africa on 22 September along with his delegation, which included Sisulu, to attend the UN General Assembly in New York.

The two would have rubbed shoulders in every diplomatic corridor with world leaders, many of whom might have enquired about the status of the South African ambassador in Israel.

During Ramaphosa’s visit to the assembly’s 73rd session, he outlined South Africa’s foreign and domestic policy goals and priorities in his inaugural address, as well as the country’s land-reform programme.

“Our resolve to end ongoing conflict and our determination to root out terrorism must be matched by action and by the appropriate deployment of resources,” Ramaphosa told the UN.

“The fact that the people of Palestine have endured occupation and suffering for nearly as long as the United Nations has existed, makes their plight no less pressing, nor their suffering any less acceptable.”

Ramaphosa met the chief executives of major global companies as part of his drive to attract foreign direct investment to help boost the South African economy.

Apart from numerous trade agreements South Africa has with the US, there has been recent concern about the Trump administration cutting aid to South Africa, as it has threatened do to other nations that frequently vote against the US in the UN.

“Ramaphosa is walking a tightrope on this issue,” said Krengel, “There’s an ANC resolution to downgrade the embassy and pressure from the BDS on one hand, and there is pressure from Western leaders on the other hand. Ngombane, for now, is back. That’s the main thing.”

Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the SAJBD, said this week, “The SAJBD reiterates our call to Dirco to look for ways to contribute to resolving the Palestinian Israeli conflict. South Africa, with our history of attaining resolution through dialogue and negotiation, has a pivotal role to play in facilitating dialogue between the parties. We have applied this to many conflict regions in the world, and we urge [the government] to apply this same international relations strategy to this situation.”

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