Embassy downgrade would create discord

During the press conference at the conclusion of the ANC’s National Policy Conference in July, a proposal was made by the party’s International Relations Subcommittee for a “downgrade of South Africa’s embassy in Israel”.

This was one of four proposals and is intended as a sanction against Israel. Typical of discussions on the Middle East, there were vociferous arguments both ways. It was suggested that more research be done on the implications of this move, before a decision is taken at the elective conference in December.

Chairperson of the subcommittee Edna Molewa encouraged the SA Jewish Board of Deputies to be part of this research process. We have met with Molewa and members of her committee and have made various submissions expressing the real concerns about this proposed action.

While there is little clarity on what a downgraded embassy would actually look like, it is apparent that, practically, there is little difference between this and a closure. The ambassador would be recalled, leaving little ability for the embassy to function. Without a senior diplomat it would be impossible for South Africa to play a role in peace-building or have any government interaction. As much as this would hold true for South Africa’s presence in Israel, likewise it would apply in Palestine. South Africans travelling in both countries would have negligible support. The South African mission in Ramallah is reliant on our embassy in Tel Aviv for diplomatic support. Our interactions with Israel and Palestine would suffer.

And that is one of the greatest pitfalls of this potential move. South Africa has the potential to play a key role in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table, and bringing about peace in a region that desperately needs it. Shutting down the embassy would preclude the possibility of making a contribution. Our valuable history of dialogue and negotiation will be lost. With the ANC’s close relationship with the Palestinian people, it could share our successful transformation story.

The president’s envoys had already made great strides through their constructive interaction with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Detrimental effects

At a business forum held at Investec Bank last week, which looked at the economic implications of an embassy downgrade, Investec chairperson Fani Titi said: “It would be morally irresponsible for South Africa to effectively preclude itself from playing any meaningful diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine debate. In the years following the transition to democracy, South Africa had been seen as a trusted interlocutor in helping to resolve sensitive international disputes, such as over Northern Ireland. Why should it wish to undermine its potential to do so in the Middle East?”

Titi further pointed out the obvious contradiction between South Africa’s stated commitment to “critical engagement” with Israel and the proposed scaling down of the diplomatic relationship that would render such engagement impossible. Not only would the peace process suffer, there are numerous other ways South Africans would be negatively affected. The detrimental effects on trade and tourism would come at a time when our country can ill afford it.

There is the religious aspect, too. Prominent Rabbi Dovid Hazdan and Apostle Linda Gobodo from the Vuka Africa Foundation have expressed their concerns about the impact of a downgrade on fulfilling our spiritual needs. Hazdan noted that it would “have a devastating and far-reaching impact on Jewish life in South Africa”. Hazdan said Israel had been “the incubator, inspiration and source of instruction for Jewish leadership in South Africa”. Besides the educational challenges our local schools and synagogues would experience, access to kosher food and items required for religious practice would be compromised.

Gobodo cautioned that Christians would be negatively affected: “Christian pilgrimages to Israel bring the Bible alive. A visit to the Holy Land is the highest spiritual experience that any Bible-believing Christian could have. A downgrade would jeopardise that, since Israel might retaliate and shut down its embassy in South Africa, and could possibly reintroduce visas, necessitating travel to Israeli embassies in Kenya or Uganda to obtain these documents.”

Their concerns were highlighted by Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairperson of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. Her view was that a downgrade would negatively affect the constitutional rights of Jewish South Africans to practice and identify with their religious and cultural heritage.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva spoke about the importance of creating social cohesion and a spirit of national unity. In order to attain that, it was imperative that everyone felt that they belonged. She stated at an event last week that, ultimately, every decision of the ANC should fall within the Constitution and no action should overtake the rights of people who live in our country.

We can disagree on our views on the Middle East conflict, but we should never let that become divisive between South Africans.

Kahn is the national director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies