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What next for SA-Israel relations?

By Howard Sackstein

This week the South African ambassador to Israel was summoned by his hosts for a severe reprimand. Our government’s increasingly aggressive stance on Israel has caused relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria to implode.

One by one we have watched our despotic friends in the Middle East tumble from power and we watch silently as tens of thousands of Syrians die at the hands of Bashar al-Assad and that country spirals towards civil war.

At the end of August SA will attend a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, seat of one of the most oppressive theocracies of the modern era. Oil and political donations triumph over policy!

Despite our manifest indifference to human suffering, Israel features prominently in our foreign policy.

When Israel stopped a Turkish flotilla from illegally breaking the blockade on Gaza, South Africa, Nicaragua and Ecuador were the only countries, other than Turkey, to withdraw their ambassadors from Tel Aviv.

In March South Africa granted entry to renowned Hamas terrorist Abdul Aziz Umar to visit. Umar was given seven life sentences for taking part in the CafĂ© Hillel suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem, which killed seven people. Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist and calls for the expulsion of Jews from the Middle East. Ironically, Umar was dispatched to South Africa to promote Israel Apartheid Week.

On August 22, cabinet approved a plan promoted by pro-Palestinian advocates “to require traders in South Africa not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory as products of Israel”. Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies denied the move was politically motivated. But he was soon contradicted by the deputy minister of international relations, Marius Fransman, who said “economic diplomacy could be one of the most effective weapons of change in the Palestinian situation. I am glad to inform you that our government released a government notice, as a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel”.

So sympathetic has South Africa become to the anti-Israel cause, that terrorists last month plotted a foiled attack on Israeli targets in South Africa.

When a group of South African Jewish organisations and business leaders attempted to address the poor service-delivery record of our government by training South Africans in Israel, Deputy Minister of International Relations Ebrahim Ebrahim applied pressure to scupper the trips.

Over the past 60 years Israel has been training people throughout the continent. Under the leadership of the Israeli trade union movement black South African civic leaders, trade unionists and NGOs have been trained in Israel since the 1970s. Yehuda Paz was banned by the apartheid government from entering South Africa. Today a post-apartheid government attempts to ban South Africans from travelling to Israel to meet Paz.

Last week Ebrahim informed South Africans that Pretoria discourages all South Africans from visiting Israel. He said “because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there”.

Probably the most scathing criticism of the deputy minister came from the chief rabbi of South Africa, Dr Warren Goldstein, who described the deputy minister as unfit to hold public office and demanded he resign. Goldstein said: “Your actions hark back to apartheid-style control of information and censorship. For the sake of peace and justice, we need more information, not less; we need more dialogue, not less; we need more connections with other societies, not less.”

Officials in Ebrahim’s own department told the City Press that Ebrahim was old and sometimes did not understand policy.

Israel has little to gain from its contributions to South Africa. In the mind of Israel, South Africa is underdeveloped, battling with corruption, spiralling unemployment, chronic under-education and crippling service delivery.

South Africans must worry that Israel may take action to restrict its technology from being used in South Africa. Many farmers in rural South Africa have moved from subsistence farming to commercial farming based entirely on Israeli know-how and technology.

South Africa’s bona fides have been further dented by the MTN-Turkcell court case in the US. Turkcell alleges that South Africa protected Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for awarding a cellular licence to MTN. Assisting Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, not only destabilises the entire Middle East, but puts South Africa on a collision path.

South Africa has abandoned its desire to play any meaningful role in Middle East peace. Its failure to take any moral stand on international conflicts other than Israel/Palestine has undermined its own credibility. Its pronouncements are mere platitudes to gain domestic Muslim votes in the Western Cape and while service-delivery protests spread across the country fewer and fewer South African government officials will receive the training in Israel they desperately need.

Howard Sackstein has a degree in law and international relations, a post-graduate law degree and a masters in political advocacy and international conflict resolution. He was one of the founders of the Jewish anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and was executive director of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission. He led the only ANC delegation to ever visit Israel and took Nelson Mandela to Brussels on behalf of the World Jewish Congress.

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