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Stop shouting from across the oceans




The link with Israel is a thorny issue this Cabinet must tackle for Jewish citizens to feel their interests are taken seriously. Although the diplomatic relationship is “correct”, it is cold. Jews feel South Africa is hostile towards Israel and sees only the Palestinian viewpoint, even though its official policy is support for the two-state solution.

South Africa must take the bull by the horns and actively engage with Israel, including on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Zuma has never shown himself to be fundamentally antagonistic, and in his final term he may feel politically able to do things he couldn’t do before.

South Africa’s present ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, has proved willing to listen and debate – a breath of fresh air compared with his predecessor, Ismail Coovadia. He is trying to improve ties while still telling it as he sees it.

In a wide-ranging, frank interview this week in the Times of Israel, he commented on several hot topics. Some of his views will please Jews; others will rile them. He said that “the ANC consideres itself a friend of Israel”, but also that the government is opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and that while urging Hamas to abandon violence and seek to co-exist with Israel, he considers Hamas “a national liberation movement”, rather than a terrorist organisation.

On another note, he said: “I’m hoping that the President [Zuma] will feel in his second term that he needs to see ways how to engage, not from afar, not from a distance”, adding that a first step towards warming ties with Israel would be sending a senior Cabinet minister on an official visit to “see what’s happening” in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The South African Embassy, he said, had “a lot of plans for visits” and is urging Pretoria to send ministers to Israel.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are above criticism. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that if a minister visits Israel, he will come back giving it a glowing report – other South Africans have gone there and returned still negative. However, if South Africa regards itself as a “friend”, it must criticise through genuine dialogue, not basic hostility.

High-profile visits like this are exactly what should happen. Is it inconceivable that even Zuma himself might take the leap? Imagine the diplomatic flurry from that!

The government has been wary of too much open friendliness towards Israel in order to avoid appearing disloyal to the Palestinians and South African Muslims. But South Africa’s guiding philosophy – for which it is respected – is that sometimes it’s better to talk to people, even if you don’t always agree with them.

It is important to keep the conversation going. This means candidly talking to Israel about the Palestinian situation, rather than – in the ambassador’s words – “shouting at each other from across the ocean”.

The era of iconic figures like former President Nelson Mandela, who made a dramatic visit to Israel accompanied by Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris – whom he called “my rabbi” – is over. We now need serious, thorough diplomatic engagement aimed at fostering healthy relations and possibly even prodding Israelis and Palestinians towards a rapprochement.

Pope Francis gave a superb example of the hands-on approach this past past week by visiting the Middle East and spending time at major emotional sites for both Palestinians and Israelis, such as Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank and Yad Vashem.

The message is that you have to actually go there, with an open mind, to understand the feelings of each side.

Let’s stop shouting from across the oceans and engage directly at a high level. Israel and South Africa have a lot to give each other.

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