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Ambassador reflects on Israel’s place in the world

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“There are a lot of attempts to spread disinformation about Israel,” said Eli Belotsercovsky, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. “Some is out of ignorance, but a lot is done intentionally. There’s a consistent trend to generate emotional commitment while avoiding the facts. This is propaganda by a small but vocal minority that tries to discredit Israel.”

Belotsercovsky made these remarks in a webinar hosted by the University of the Free State on 31 May, titled “Israel’s place in Africa, the Middle East, and the global stage.”

The moderator, Professor Hussein Solomon, characterised relations between South Africa and Israel as “frosty”. Belotsercovsky said he hoped South Africa would appoint an ambassador to Israel soon. Pretoria recalled its ambassador in 2018 in the wake of violence on the Gaza border, and this post has been vacant ever since. He said economic relations were “flourishing”, and that about a third of Israel’s trade with Africa was with South Africa alone. “There are many people-to-people relations,” Belotsercovsky said, remarking that there was important two-way tourism, “but we would like to see more co-operation on the government-to-government level.” He also visualises many areas for deeper collaboration with South Africa, including agriculture, water, cyber security, and healthcare.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “a major challenge, and for us it’s obvious there’s a need for compromise”, Belotsercovsky said. “There’s a lively, ongoing debate about the extent of this compromise in Israel. But I don’t see [the Palestinians] having the will to compromise.”

He noted, nevertheless, that there had been numerous meetings with the Palestinian Authority at ministerial level. About 80 000 workers cross daily into Israel from the West Bank and 12 000 come from Gaza. Israel has vaccinated 150 000 Palestinians against COVID-19.

“We want the Palestinians to prosper and to reach an agreement – this is the biggest challenge for us,” he said. “We really need to get to the stage of negotiations with the moderate section in Palestinian society. The Palestinians are divided. They last held elections in 2007. We still see a lot of incitement and hatred towards Israel.” He said the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza rejected any attempt to reach agreement with Israel, and that possibly working with allies in the Arab world could change this if they used their leverage with the Palestinians.

The Abraham Accords, which normalised Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates “show a positive dynamic in the Arab world”. The ambassador also commended burgeoning ties with Africa, including through the training of thousands of African students in Israel and the granting of observer status at the African Union to Israel. The Jewish state now has diplomatic relations with 46 of the 55 African countries. Many severed ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but these have been restored since the 1990s. He noted that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a strong strategic interest in Africa. “Relations now are very vibrant, ongoing, and we look to strengthen them.”

Although the Abraham Accords seem to have lost steam after Donald Trump left the White House, the ambassador said he hoped they would expand to more countries and remarked on warming contacts with Saudi Arabia.

But he admitted “there’s still a way to go” with Arab countries. “Demonisation of Israel is still very strong. It’s time to put aside demagogic slogans that criminalise connections to Israel,” he said, referring to a law passed to this effect in Iraq. Iran is still a major source of destabilisation in the region.

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ambassador stressed Israel’s strong relations with both countries, and that it had attempted to mediate in the crisis. “But very quickly, we didn’t see the basis for our involvement at this time to end the conflict,” he said. Nevertheless, Israel has supplied humanitarian aid to Ukraine, set up a hospital, and accepted thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

Finally, turning to local Israeli politics, he characterised the current administration as a “rainbow coalition”, established with a small majority after four elections, and that it had defied predictions and lasted longer than anyone expected. “But Israel politics is very unpredictable,” Belotsercovsky cautioned. “It’s a vibrant democracy with new developments all the time.”

Observers will continue to watch Israel’s role on the world stage with interest.

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