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“It’s nice to know SA Jewry has my back”




Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk told a packed hall at Beyachad last night that it was up to SA Jewry to attend to their relationship with the SA community and government. My job here is as a diplomat representing a foreign country, said Lenk, adding that “it’s nice to know that SA Jewry has my back.”

You as South Africans have to speak about domestic issues. But from what I have seen I think that my brothers and sisters here in SA are skilled at showing why SA Jewry is important.

The new ambassador of Israel in South Africa, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland. His Excellency Ambassador Arthur Lenk spoke to a sell-out community audience at Beyachad last night.

FROM LEFT: Krengel, Lenk, Reich & Fisher

The sell-out talk was hosted by Likud-SA and Zionist Federation and the Jewish Report Online was live-blogging from the event as the ambassador spoke on: “Israel and South Africa: Imagining the possibilities!”

Media interest ran high and five journalists requested accreditation for the event. Mike Fisher, chair of Likud-SA Gauteng, welcomed the guests and acted as MC.

First to speak was SAZF national chair Avrom Krengel who said that although the new ambassador and his deputy had only been in SA for three and a half months, they had literally criss-crossed the country and engaged the Jewish community and the country at large. The amount of work they had done in such a short time, said Krengel, made it seem that they have been in SA a lot longer.

Lenk Arthur Amabassador podium lo-resReferring to the political events between the Israeli and SA governments over the past two weeks, Krengel pointed out that the relationship between SA and Israel can flare up at a moments’ notice.

But, Krengel said, he believes the new ambassadorial team can do great things for the relationship between the two countries. Krengel thanked Likud-SA for setting up the event.

Ambassador gets
roar of applause.

On taking the podium Lenk received a roar of applause. Ever the joker, he thanked the audience and said he hoped they felt at the end that they had received their R30’s worth – which was the price for attendance and refreshments.

Lenk said that in his short time in SA, he and his family had been overwhelmed by the welcome from the Jewish community. What he called “the legendary relationship between SA Jewry and Israel” is clearly correct, he said.

The ambassador said that he sees so much potential for the relationship between Israel and SA.

Lenk spoke of experiencing the “dynamic excitement” in an SA 20-years after Apartheid. The only other general community vibrance of this sort he had ever experienced in the world, said the US-born diplomat, is in Israel.

On being assigned to SA, he said, the conventional wisdom was that this was going to be a tough assignment. He told the audience that he had not experienced it as such. To be sure, he added, this is certainly a challenging posting, but not a bad post. Rather, Lenk sees his appointment as privilege.

He heaped praise of the SA Christian community and their general admiration for Israel. When he was invited to Moria for a major ZCC event, he said, it had stunned him. He felt like THE VIP.

Regarding trade relations between SA and Israel, there is US$1-billion a year bilateral trade between SA and Israel. Bilateral tourism, he said, is also huge.

Also on SAJR Online:

 The ambassador said that he had been impressed in the amount of interest and coverage he had enjoyed in the SA media and that, after his short time in SA, there are “two big take-aways” he has found:

  1. There is a need to put Israel’s narrative out there; and
  2. There is a need to talk about the issues the two countries have in common.

“What we (Israel) need to do in SA,” he said, “is to tell our story about how we want to live in peace and prosperity with all of our neighbours.”

Katz Ant bloggingThe ambassador spoke at UJ recently and, quoting from SA policy documents, told the students that everything SA says it wants to do – like creating jobs, exporting produce due to the opposing seasonality, water issues, agriculture, innovation, high tech – “these are all things that SA itself says it has need for, and Israel has the ability and expertise to assist,” said Lenk. All over SA emerging farmers are already benefiting from Israeli technology.

PIC: Ant Katz spent the night with his head down live blogging


“Israel is a start-up nation,” said Lenk. Not because he says so, but because Facebook says so. Because Google says so, and Apple, Intel, and Microsoft. He said Israel was considered the most high tech innovator site outside of the West Coast of the US.

“What can Israel get from SA?” asked Lenk rhetorically.

The idea that unsolvable problems can be solved is an SA lesson to the world. One that Israelis need to hear about. One that Palestinians AND Iranians need to hear about too.

The big difference between the peace process in SA and that in Israel, explained the ambassador, is that “in South Africa you needed to get married; we and the Palestinians need to get divorced.”

But Israel and the Palestinians need to talk. “And we need to talk more… and more.” This is the policy of the State of Israel. It always has been, said Lenk, and Prime Minister Netanyahu had reiterated this several times over the past few days.

The truth, said Lenk, is that to the north of Israel “we have the awfulness of a leader killing and gassing his own people. We are pleased for the people of Syria” that there seems to be a resolution regarding decommissioning gas stockpiles.

“To the south we have Egypt. Clearly, what they call the Arab spring has a long way to go,” Lenk said.

Then, he said, there is Iran. From an Israeli perspective nothing would be better than Iran being brought back to (nuclear) normalcy. It’s a question of strategy vs. tactics, he said. Israel wants the P5+1 to push Iran, and push it hard.

South Africa/Israel relations

Ambassador Lenk said that Israel is engaging very actively with SA – as is SA Jewry. We have to get out and tell that story. It is an honour to be among you tonight, concluded the ambassador to raucous applause.

Clearly his audience felt that they had, indeed, received their R30’s worth!


Q&As with Ambassador Lenk

The Ambassador then took questions, numerous and tricky ones. He answered all except he would not comment on his Avigdor Lieberman, he said, as that was his new boss. The names of those posing questions were not stated and hence we are unable to provide them. But Ambassador Lenk was open and forthright in his responses. Both the questions and the ambassador’s answers are paraphrased unless in quotation marks.

QUESTION: What do you think of Lieberman’s lack of knowledge of SA?

AMBASSADOR LENK: He’s my boss, but, okay let me say this: There is constructive engagement between the two countries.

QUESTION: Your predecessor had difficulty with Parliament’s Foreign Affairs subcommittee. Have you?

LENK: I haven’t met them here yet, I will be soon. I met them in Israel before I came out. I see my role as meeting with everyone. “It is my job and my responsibility to meet with people who don’t agree with me.” And to convey their feelings back to my government. But I will say that “it’s nice to know that SA Jewry has my back.”

QUESTION: How can Israel engage with Palestinians when they want all of Israel?

LENK: Good question. There is a split in values of Fatah and Hamas. I agree with you on Hamas, but not regarding Fatah. They are not Zionists. They (Fatah) should be Palestinian patriots. They should negotiate, go back to their people and discuss pragmatically that they (and us) are going to have to live alongside each other. I hope that both our leaders and Palestinian leaders are fighting hard for (a lasting) peace. Can we find peace? I don’t know. But we have to try. As we did with Egypt and Jordan.

QUESTION: The population of Israel is very diverse in culture but is the only democratic country in region. Do you think Israel will ever have to choose between being a Jewish State and a democratic State.

LENK: I really hope not. It has never been our desire to rule over other people. I don’t know that compromise is close – but I think the desire (for compromise) has been there in Israel forever.

QUESTION: It is heartening to hear that Israel has many friends in SA. But not in our government, at DIRCO, Trade & Industry, electioneering rhetoric, etc.

LENK: I can only speak to one side of it (SA/Israel relations). You as South Africans have to speak about domestic issues. But from what I have seen I think that my brothers and sisters here in SA are skilled at showing why SA Jewry is important. My job here is as a diplomat representing a foreign country. I think there are enough people in Christian and Jewish SA who realise that SA has much to gain from better relations with Israel.

QUESTION: I cannot see the Israeli government uprooting 600,000 citizens (in the West Bank).

LENK: I don’t know what the plans that are being talked about are – and if I did, I wouldn’t say. But it is common knowledge that land swops are part of the discussions. I believe that (Palestinian) societies gain by having Jewish neighbours.

QUESTION: Are there actually negotiations (between Israel and Palestinians) going on?

LENK: I think that we are five or seven months down the line. The fact that we are hearing nothing is good news. There are tough issues at hand. As an Israeli with three daughters I believe we have to try – and keep trying.

QUESTION: The way I see it is that we (Israel) make concessions all the time. Why do you believe they (Palestinians) will compromise?

LENK: I am not a spokesman for the Palestinians. But on both sides there are those who have the realisation that we are going to have to live alongside each other. The reality is that there are going to be two States. It is a hard reality for people on our side and theirs (to accept).

QUESTION: I get the impression that this whole peace plan is just marking time until Obama leaves (office). How does the US situation in the US play into the question of the peace talks.

LENK: I am not prepared to speak on behalf of US. But, interestingly, Obama visited both SA and Israel this year and he convinced both the people of SA and Israel that he was friendly. Regarding the Israel/US relationship – this is not a new one. The US has been the closest ally of Israel for the past 40 years. If I had to choose a best friend for Israel, it would be America. Wouldn’t you?

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Choni

    Nov 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

    ‘If I were ambassador, I would say TROLLING, sorry – ED’

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