SA government is willing to re-engage over Israel
This strong message was conveyed by Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu to members of the South African Jewish community last week, when meetings were held between the parties.
Jewish communal leaders made it clear that if South Africa wanted to “remain relevant” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it needed to fully engage with all parties involved in the prolonged struggle.
“There is going to be a deal signed one day and the big question is whether there will be a seat reserved on that day for South Africa or not,” said vice-president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Zev Krengel, this week.
He said that by recalling Sisa Ngombane, South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, and by having no envoys on the ground in the troubled region, South Africa had made itself “irrelevant in the conflict”.
This sentiment was expressed during the hour-long meeting, held in the minister’s parliamentary office in Cape Town last Friday.
Ngombane and Sisulu met with members of the SAJBD and the SA Zionist Federation. This followed a week of intensified violence on the Gaza border which saw 60 Palestinians killed.
The ANC-led government sharply criticised Israeli’s military actions, after which it speedily recalled Ngombane – a move which seriously rattled the local community. This, as well as a strongly worded anti-Israel statement from the ANC, sent ripples throughout the community.
Sisulu was quick to condemn Israel’s military actions following the violence which erupted during the Palestinian March of Return marking Nakba day. She later responded in Parliament to a call by the local Jewish community to engage with her on the issue.
“It is very impressive that a meeting took place so quickly,” said Zev Krengel.
At the meeting, described by board members this week as “warm and constructive”, Ngombane expressed his frustration at the lack of movement in the peace process.
The communal leaders said it was vital that if South Africa wanted to play a role in bringing about a two-state solution, it had to “get its hands dirty” by going to the region and actively engaging with all parties. Members emphasised the importance of having a functioning SA embassy and an ambassador in Israel.
Board chairman Shaun Zagnoev emphasised the value that South Africa could bring to the peace process, provided it remained fully engaged.
Said Krengel: “South Africa feels it has a role to play, but we made it clear that Israel at this stage doesn’t feel that it is a fair and honest broker. The government needs to see first-hand what is going on before making comments or decisions based on newsflashes and headlines.”
The board also said that the community was feeling “unwelcome in their country” following the recent ANC statement regarding Israel’s military action last week at the border.
SAJBD’s national director, Wendy Kahn, said: “The animosity seen in the media and on social media was making the Jewish community feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It was also causing hostility and hatred between fellow South Africans, splintering the fabric of our country and impacting on the social cohesion we all strive for.”
On a positive note, members of the board said Sisulu and the ambassador listened to the concerns raised. The minister assured delegates that she would be reporting back to President Cyril Ramaphosa on the matter.
“We felt the minister had listened carefully to our concerns,” said Kahn. “She made it clear that Mr Ngombane had been recalled for consultation and discussion, and that no decision had yet been made in terms of the next steps in this regard.
“The delegation was encouraged by the good spirit in which the meeting was held and the willingness of the minister to continue to engage with the region and the local community.”
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Pretoria has urged the South African government to remain engaged with the Middle East by returning its ambassador.
US embassy spokesperson Cynthia Harvey said it was “disappointed” in South Africa’s decision last week to recall Ngombane.
“We hope he will be returned. We want to see continued South African engagement with Israel through normal diplomatic practices.”
She noted that the ANC had a proud tradition of engaging “even with those with whom it disagrees” and urged it to continue engagement.
“As the secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] has said, Israel has a right to defend itself. Recent events only underscore the need for finding solutions to the serious humanitarian challenges facing Palestinians living in Gaza.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that Hamas bears primary responsibility for the dire humanitarian and economic situation. Hamas’ control of Gaza endangers the lives of Gaza’s people.”
She said the US was committed to pursuing a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that promises a brighter future for both. “We invite South Africa to join us in this continued goal and hope the government will reverse this decision so that it may remain fully engaged.”