SA embassy in Israel downgrade still in limbo

  • Page2NalediPandor
South Africa’s planned downgrade of its embassy in Israel is still very much in limbo, according to statements made by Naledi Pandor, the minister of international relations and cooperation, at a department of international relations and cooperation portfolio committee meeting on 8 July.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 16, 2020

This is in spite of the belief by many that the downgrade already occurred some time ago.

“There are other countries that don’t have an embassy in Tel Aviv, which have an embassy perhaps located outside of Israel, which is set to service Israel. So these are all considerations that my department and ministry must put before cabinet so as to make a decision on the final model that will be utilised,” Pandor said in a Zoom meeting.

At the African National Congress’ biannual national conference in December 2017, the party unanimously passed a resolution to downgrade its embassy in Ramat Gan into a “liaison office” in an expression of support for the Palestinian people. It withdrew its ambassador from Israel in May 2018, but hasn’t yet officially downgraded its embassy.

Minister Pandor was responding to a question by the department’s chairperson, Tandi Mahambehlahla, who said, “I hear that there is a decision on downgrading our representation there [in Israel]. There is a view that the embassy must be closed. My question is, will that be viable, because in my view, our offices there also service Palestine, which we are told isn’t far from there. Do you think closing that embassy will do justice to the people of Palestine if we close it completely?”

Pandor responded, “What we have to do now that we’ve had experience of several months of downgrade where there is no ambassador assigned to Israel, we have to look in terms of international law exactly what form of South African office or embassy we should have in Israel.

“You’re correct with respect to the issue of Palestine. As you know, we have an embassy in Ramallah. If we don’t have an office in Israel, it may very well impact on our ability to maintain the Ramallah office, which may [have an] impact on our ability to influence and support Palestine. But this doesn’t affect the downgrade that we are proposing.” She then went on to make the comments above.

After reviewing these comments, local political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga told the SA Jewish Report, “I don’t think the downgrade will be done unilaterally. The two countries have strong trade relations, so they will mostly likely engage further on this. There will most likely be bilateral or even multilateral engagements between Israel and Pretoria regarding how this unfolds,” he said.

“South Africa is emphasising here that its presence in Israel is also for the purpose of supporting and influencing Palestine. Does this mean that South Africa will establish an office outside of Israel/Palestine? I don’t think it will get to that point, in spite of the diplomatic tensions that often arise between the two countries.”

Sara Gon, the head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, said Pandor might be alluding to the fact that “most countries that don’t have ambassadorial relations with a country usually have an arrangement with a nearby country with which they do have relations to grant visas to the latter country’s people”.

“Certainly Ms Mahambehlahla’s question is asked on behalf of those who would like to see the embassy downgraded, although they realise that so doing might prejudice Palestinians. It probably would be kept open for that purpose alone. Arguably, if the South African government only wants to serve Palestinians, it can do so through Amman or Cairo,” she said.

“It seems that Pandor is agreeing with this position, and that there is an intention to downgrade further, but she would prefer to have some international legal support for it. As far as I can see, South Africa can do what it wants with its embassy, but whether it’s allowed to maintain an embassy at all is Israel’s choice in terms of the United Nations’ Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.”

Darren Bergman, the Democratic Alliance shadow minister of international relations and cooperation, believes that now is the time for brave steps from South Africa. “Instead of closing the embassy that services both Israel and the Palestinian territories, South Africa should identify a person willing to give South Africa a seat at the negotiating table and act decisively when it comes to representing South Africa in Israel, and should appoint that person as an ambassador.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) said it continued to engage with the South African embassy in Israel on issues of great importance to the community. “Last year, the embassy supported our efforts in repatriating a deceased young Jewish community member who passed away in Israel to ensure that his return was expedited for Jewish burial. Last month, the SAJBD worked closely with the South African embassy in the repatriation of South Africans who had been waiting to return home during COVID-19,” says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn.

“It’s of great comfort and importance for Jewish and other South Africans to know that at times of crisis, our government has the ability and capacity to support all South Africans irrespective of our religion. To not have a functioning embassy in a country regularly frequented by all of our citizens, be they Jewish, Christian, and other is detrimental to us all,” she says.

“The SAJBD reiterates its stance that an embassy downgrade is a punitive measure that will in no way impact the Israeli-Palestinian issue and neither will it bring the two parties closer to a sustainable peace. All it will do is give a clear message that the rights of South African citizens are less important than the rights of Palestinians.

“We see it as hypocritical, as it’s inconsistent with the way in which the ANC seeks to engage with other countries. Practically, it would also affect South Africa’s trade, cultural, educational, and economic growth,” said Kahn. “There’s no upside to a downgrade. All the downgrade will achieve is to further harden positions and exclude us from peace-building at a time when our experience of dialogue and negotiation is needed globally.”

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said, “It’s vital that South Africa retains her embassy in Israel in order to affirm her international credibility in the Middle East alongside her fellow BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] partners, as well as to be seen to be a role player in discussions between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Closing the South African embassy ostensibly to show support for the Palestinians will only harm South African interests, and will be of no assistance to the Palestinians. On a practical level, South Africa’s political posturing should not prejudice the tens of thousands of Christian and Jewish South African citizens who travel to Israel each year and require consular assistance.”

The SA Jewish Report sent questions to the minister, but they weren’t answered in spite of repeated requests for a response over a number of days.

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