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 https://www.sajr.co.za/images/default-source/People/single/ngombane-sisa-chanukah.jpg” 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.