Israeli chief calls on ‘silent majority’ to help stop downgrade
Behar – who was in South Africa this week – specifically to discuss the current Israel-South Africa relationship, the initiative to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel and to improve his understanding of the relationship between the two countries.
He met with the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in this regard, as well as with the Jewish community and Christian religious leaders.
He made it clear that Israel’s vision was to strengthen co-operation with the South African government, with increased trade ties between the two countries.
Far from downgrading the embassy in the Jewish State, it wants to see initiatives to upgrade it, says Behar.
“Let us hope that it will not happen,” he says of the potential downgrade. “I have discovered that there is lots of public sympathy here towards Israel and much interest in strengthening the relationship between the two countries.
“I hope that the friends of Israel in South Africa who wish to see a stronger relationship and better co-operation between the two sides, will not let it happen.”
And do these friends include members of the South African government? “From what I’ve seen, I do believe so,” he replies.
Acknowledging the strong anti-Israel lobby in South Africa, he repeats that “the silent majority, which is an overwhelming majority, has love and sympathy for Israel and I think that these people, especially religious leaders, should be more expressive in the way that they want to see the relationship developing between the two countries”. Should this happen, he is confident that the politicians will listen.
Behar warns that should the resolution to downgrade the embassy be ratified at the ANC’s elective conference in mid-December, it could affect trade as well as visa requirements – at present South Africans do not require visas to travel to Israel.
“We do not want to face these issues – on the contrary, we want to see initiatives that upgrade the relationship. But of course we are concerned – we are concerned because the Jewish community here is very concerned. Many of the negative ramifications would be for them.”
As to Israel’s ability to prevent the development, Behar says it is “first and foremost” a South African issue. “I think that people in this country such as Christian leaders, the business community et cetera, should understand that this (downgrade) is in contrast to the spirit of modern South Africa which is a spirit of democracy, of dialogue, of co-operation and not a spirit of disengagement.
“We hope that these people will understand that such an initiative is against the interests of South Africa.”
Behar cannot recall such a development having taken place elsewhere. “In fact we are improving our diplomatic status in the world.” As an example, Israel re-established diplomatic ties last year with Guinea-Conakry, an African Muslim country.
While agreeing that South Africa is a hotbed of sophisticated BDS activity, Behar feels that one has to look beyond this level of engagement and move forward with building the relationship. “There is so much from which both countries can benefit – trade, tourism and the sharing of technology,” he says.
“As an example, here in South Africa you suffer a lot from water shortages, especially in the Western Cape region and Cape Town. Israel has excellent technologies which are free to be used, that can help alleviate these shortages and prevent problems.
“We are the number one country in the world in terms of treating sewerage water. Do you know that agriculture in Israel survives only because we use treated and purified water from households and industry?” Desalinised seawater is used in towns and cities and it is this that is later treated.
As for rising anti-Semitism in this country, he feels that it can be linked to anti-Israel sentiment. “I think it is related to BDS which sees Jews as supporters of Israel – for them weakening the status of Israel is achieved by weakening and downgrading the position of the Jewish community in South Africa.
“This is how they operate everywhere. I do not know any BDS website or movement in the world that is not anti-Semitic,” he states.
Relations between Israel and African countries are improving, Behar says, mentioning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attendance last week at the inauguration of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, where he held several meetings with African leaders.
“We see a very strong desire in Africa for co-operation with Israel, for aid from Israel and usually this is concentrated around the major challenges of Africa, which are food production, agriculture and water.
“Security is also an important subject today, because of radical terrorism in many places in Africa – a challenge and a burden for all of us. There is also a strong desire to co-operate on the issue of cyber security,” something Behar describes as “an essential issue” in the development of Africa.
If African financial institutions want to be part of the international financial system, he says, they must have cyber protection. It is in this sphere that Israel is a leading force and can assist greatly.
He also mentions climate change and desertification as two of the most challenging problems facing the world today, especially in Africa. Behar says international co-operation is needed to tackle them. “This is what we are doing in Africa.
“The problems of Africa are Israel’s problems – we are its most immediate neighbour, the only country in the world to share a territorial border with it. Everything that happens in Africa affects us directly and we want to be part of the solution of its challenges.”
The World Bank is in full agreement and support of this stance, he says of his talks with the institution in Washington last month. “They are very enthusiastic and very thrilled about co-operation with Israel in the fields of water and agriculture.
“They see the problems and the potential and they understand that Israel holds solutions because we have gone through this process. We know how to combat desertification and we are self-sustaining with water production.”