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Israeli ambassador dusts off his suitcase for home

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As Israeli ambassador to South Africa Lior Keinan repacked his dusty suitcase – that has long been ready for a potential emergency exit – he marvelled at the South African Jewish community.

As his four-year tenure came to an end this week, he told the SA Jewish Report he will miss a community that’s probably the closest knit and most Zionist in the world.

“I’m so impressed with how much this community is willing to risk to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel, Keinan said. “Many communities around the world would be timid when challenged about Israel, especially the way that it happens in South Africa. But not South African Jews. They stand proud. I really admire that, and have made it known back home.”

“Israel knows and really cares that this community stands by it,” Keinan said.

He’s not, however, going to miss the anti-Israel sentiment from government and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The amount of energy spent discussing Israel in government was something he was shocked by when he first got here. “It’s astonishing how much Israel gets discussed in politics here. It’s strange and something that people wouldn’t expect in Israel,” he said. “It’s truly exaggerated.”

However, in spite of the challenges and threats, which made him question his longevity here (and ensured he kept his bag packed), he’s grateful that none of the threats were realised.

“There were no academic boycotts. Although the government brought the South African ambassador to Israel back home and didn’t replace him, it hasn’t downgraded the embassy.

He was also pleasantly surprised to find that while the political front may be unfriendly, the reaction he got from most South Africans was welcoming.

Not least of those the 400 000 rural people whose lives his embassy helped to change by providing fresh running water.

He’s proud of this initiative that was fulfilled in 80 villages using Israeli technology, working closely with donors and non-government organisations.

“We evaluated the ground, put up solar panels, drilled until we found water, then pumped it out with a series of pumps,” Keinan said of the process.

“Now, instead of walking for kilometres with a bucket to get polluted water, the villagers have taps next to their homes,” he says, referring to the biggest bilateral project between South Africa and Israel during his term.

“I took my whole embassy to the inauguration, and I will never forget the eyes of the children when they saw fresh running water coming out of a tap.”

When he first arrived in South Africa, Keinan felt confident that he was familiar with the country as he is married to a South African and had been here before.

What he wasn’t expecting was the love he would get from people around the country. “I was amazed at how many people we met not only knew about Israel, but loved Israel. They wanted to take us into their homes and find out all about us,” he said.

He wanted to put the BDS “noise” into perspective. “We need to separate the noise they make from what’s happening on the ground,” Keinan said. “The past 20 years that BDS has been acting have been our best time in Israel. We have tripled our GDP [gross domestic product] and we haven’t done this because the world is boycotting us. The truth is, Israel, with its nine million people produces more than 60 million in South Africa. So, we simply don’t react to all the demands and protests.”

He said he has made it known to the authorities in Israel how supportive South African Jews have been. He’s positive that the relationship between South African Jews and Israel will get even better, not least because the new president, Isaac Herzog, and the minster of diaspora affairs, Nachman Shai, have both visited South Africa in the past four years.

“They are both very supportive of this community as they have first-hand experience of it,” said Keinan. “In fact, President Herzog has been keeping in touch with what has happened here since his visit.”

Although the relationship with the South African government hadn’t been easy, Keinan said he has had a few meetings with government members. “Some were co-ordinated and some were at events where we orchestrated a meeting,” he said. “They were mostly positive under the circumstances.”

However, trade between Israel and South African businesses has grown substantially, and the Israeli trade office has been the “matchmaker” in these deals.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 didn’t help him achieve all he wanted to do. Keinan spoke of his time here as divided into “before corona”, when he could get more done, and “during corona”, when life has been tough.

“It was also difficult as we couldn’t see our two children who are soldiers in Israel,” he said. “My wife and I will miss South Africa and our friends and family here, but we are going back to our soldiers, and we are going home.”

He doesn’t know what the future holds for him back in Israel because nothing had been finalised, but he hopes his next diplomatic mission will be as exciting and as challenging as it was here.

His advice to his successor was not to sit in Pretoria, but visit all around “this marvellous country” where “he will find friends wherever he goes”.

“I will also tell him not to let the anti-Israel noise hold the narrative about Israel hostage as those behind it are marginal in their influence. The ones that make the most noise aren’t the most powerful influence.

“I will always be available to him, but I won’t interfere as I don’t believe ex-ambassadors should do that,” Keinan said.

He was grateful that he managed to get to the end of his tenure without having to use his packed suitcase. “I always worried if I was going to be here the following day. At least three times, I wasn’t sure. First, when there was a call to downgrade the embassy, then when the South African ambassador was brought back, and most recently during Operation Guardian of the Wall.”

His suitcase is now no longer dusty and en route to Keinan’s home in Israel.

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