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SA Ambassador has hopes for improved Israel relations




“The formation of a new government in South Africa following recent elections there could lead to a new era in Pretoria’s troubled relationship with Jerusalem, the country’s ambassador in Tel Aviv said, raising the possibility of an upcoming high-profile visit by one or more South African ministers to Israel,” wrote Ahren.

“Ambassador Sisa Ngombane expressed the keen desire to improve ties with Israel, but defended his government’s mostly pro-Palestinian stance, calling for talks with Hamas and comparing the situation in the West Bank with that of apartheid-era South Africa, with Israeli soldiers ‘ready to shoot’ anyone who makes a wrong move.”

During their frank and far-reaching interview, the envoy criticised the SA Zionist Federation for “ostensibly suggesting, before the elections,” that local Jews shouldn’t vote for the ANC. He also slammed Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, for having called on SA’s 70 000 Jews to move to Israel in order to escape a looming “pogrom” incited by (the ANC).

The May 7 election, said  Ngombane, presented an opportunity to revisit what had occurred in relations between SA and Israel. “I’m hoping that the president” alt=”Ngombane Sisa Chanukah” title=”Ngombane Sisa Chanukah” />Right: Last Chanukah Ngombane hosted members of Israeli foreign affairs and other diplomats at the SA Embassy

Ngombane proposed that a first step towards warming of ties could be “to send a senior (SA) Cabinet minister on an official visit to Israel”, said Ngombane, to see what’s happening in Israel and not just in the Palestinian territories.

The SA Embassy planned numerous visits, said the ambassador, and was actually exerting pressure on Pretoria to send ministers to Israel.

Ngombane has always believed the SA could assist in peace-making efforts and expressed the government’s view that “sometimes it’s better to talk to the people, even the people we’re not going to agree with on every point…

“For us, it is important that we keep the engagement, (to) keep the discussions going,” he said.

Things not always as they seem

Although SA’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (who has retained her post while her two deputies did not) said in November that the government has “agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime [Israel] until things begin to look better.”

But, while Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments caused a stir at the time, the Cabinet later dismissed this assertion by association by squashing the CAPE TOWN DECLARATION and thus showed the first signs of a split between the Government’s pragmatic position on growing trade with Israel – against the ANC party rank and file that have been pushing government to act on the party’s promises to support Palestine and cut many ties with Israel.

Speaking to The Times of Israel last week in his spacious office in a high-rise in Ramat Gan, Ngombane said Lieberman’s words were “unfortunate”.

Lieberman was to visit five African states in early June he said this week, but SA was not part of his itinerary. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources, however, say that Lieberman does hope to visit SA in the near future.

Lieberman could be welcomed by the ANC-led government, Ngombane told the Times, “If he comes ready to deliver a message of hope, [saying] the government of Israel is ready to move honestly and sincerely in removing these problems [the conflict with the Palestinians], then he is quite welcome. But if he goes to tell South Africans: ‘Forget it, this is our land, there are no Palestinians there, there is nobody’ – then there are going to be problems, of course.

“I don’t think those views can be allowed in South Africa to really go unchallenged,” the ambassador told the Times.

It would constitute a “diplomatic nightmare” if Lieberman insisted on visiting SA and espousing there his usual hawkish views, the Times quoted Ngombane as saying.

Scared at checkpoints

During the Times interview, Ngombane, who joined the ANC while in exile in 1980, stopped short of explicitly endorsing the Israel apartheid analogy, but he said he was reminded of apartheid policies whenever he entered the West Bank.

Read more on the subject:

That ‘unfortunate’ ad in SA Jewish Report

The question of the ANC’s friendship with Israel came up a few days before the May election when the Fed ran a newspaper ad rating the country’s major party based on their policies vis-à-vis the Jewish state.

Headlined, “Are you voting for a friend of Israel?” the ad’s “score card” graded five parties according to three main criteria: “Policy and approach to Israel,” “Public support for Israel”, and “Combating anti-Israel activities”.

“Even senior Israeli figures dealing with bilateral relations told The Times of Israel they thought the Zionist Federation’s move was misguided,” the ambassador told the newspaper.

But Fed Chairman Avrom Krengel told the Times that he believed the ad was “simply an analysis of each party’s policies toward Israel and based on that analysis giving a score card of each party. We understood that there would be fallout and controversy and we’re very comfortable with it,” said Avrom Krengel, adding that he had no regrets “at all” about the advert.

There were many factors playing into how people vote, he said, and among SA Jewry, Israel was a factor.

Presenting a party’s record on an issue “is not different from AIPAC or the NRA (in the US) or any other interest group in a democracy”, insisted Krengel.

Krengel’s brother Zev, who is president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, told The Times of Israel that in his view there was nothing wrong with publishing research on the political parties’ positions on Israel.

“I don’t think the South African Jewish community is so shallow that they’re going to vote only about what that party’s views toward Israel are. I think that’s an important part but they’re not going to vote just because of that for a specific political party,” Zev Krengel told the Times. He admitted, however, that “maybe they (the Fed) should have phrased it better”, referring to the ad’s headline.

Ngombane condemned the ad as “unfortunate,” especially since, as he saw it, it distracted from an important occasion: the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. “Now to get this thing mixed it up with whether somebody likes Israel or does not like Israel – it was a painful thing for us,” he said in the interview.

Sisa Ngombane’s position was that the suggestion that SA Jewry care more about Israel than their country of residence “can be damaging”. But, he added, the incident would not hurt the ANC’s relations with Israel or the local Jewish community.

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  1. Why Israel?

    May 29, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    ‘Pretoria has no problem with Israel per se, the ambassador asserted, but is staunchly opposed to Jerusalem’s treatment of the Palestinians. While the South African government urges Hamas to abandon violence and look for ways to coexist with Israel, Ngombane said he still considers Hamas “a national liberation movement” rather than a terrorist organization.“Hamas is the product of Palestinians wanting a better life,” he said, adding that in apartheid-era South Africa he was called a terrorist himself. “Being called a terrorist doesn’t make you a terrorist,” he said, adding that Hamas has to “graduate” and realize that armed resistance will not bring freedom. Rather, he said, Hamas must “sit down and negotiate.”Jerusalem has a “legitimate demand” when it says Hamas needs to disavow violence and recognize the state of Israel, Ngombane allowed. “But the question is how do you deal with it. What can be done to keep them in the fold and not have them be a rogue element?” Efforts need to be made to integrate Hamas into the Palestinian Authority, rather than having them embrace radicalism, he said. “We tell Hamas, you will only get peace if you lay down your weapons and recognize the state of Israel.” But demanding that Hamas “shouldn’t exist” is an “argument that brings us nowhere.” The ANC has traditionally been close to the Palestinians, seeing the Palestinian struggle as reminiscent of its own fight against apartheid.During the interview, Ngombane, who joined the ANC while in exile in 1980, stopped short of explicitly endorsing that comparison. But he said he is reminded of apartheid policies whenever he enters the West Bank, and he spoke of “very similar patterns of people who cannot really do what they want to do.”Similar to what he experienced in apartheid-era South Africa, he said, in the West Bank he observed a “situation where’s there’s a preponderance of force that is ready to be used at any given point” against unarmed Palestinians. “Soldiers deployed left and right, and you don’t pass a day without seeing Israeli soldiers — that tells you that something’s wrong.” the veteran diplomat said.“Every time I go [to the West Bank], I’m meeting girls and boys who are ready to shoot me,” he said, suggesting that he is scared to make a wrong move or gesture while at the Israeli checkpoint. “That’s the truth. And this is how we lived.”‘Every time I go to the West Bank, I’m meeting girls and boys ready to shoot me’Asked whether the South African government considers itself balanced in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ngombane spoke of the “power imbalance” in the region. Israel’s army is one of the largest in the world and uses “brute force” against “people who’ve got nothing,” he said.While he said he is aware of the Israeli argumentation that the army is needed to safeguard Israeli civilians, he called such arguments “a fallacy… You don’t create security by oppressing other people.”And yet, the ANC considers itself a friend of Israel, Ngombane insisted. “Friends tell each other the truth. You can’t be my friend if you don’t tell me if I do something wrong.” The “baseline” of the ANC’s friendship toward Israel is its recognition of the country’s right to exist in peace and security, he expounded. “We recognize your right to exist, your right to defend yourself and to protect your citizens… That’s friendship to us. But when there are things we feel are wrong, we will say, ‘This is wrong, we can’t agree with it.’”…

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