Tzipi Livni and Tony Blair Itzik Edry August 24, 2010
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Quartet envoy Tony Blair attending a conference in Herzliya on August 24, 2010. Photo by Itzik Edry
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South African Jewry's leading body this week condemned striking staff at Israel’s Foreign Ministry for obstructing a planned visit to the country by opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima.

A cancellation of the trip would deal a “devastating blow” to the local Jewish community, the chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Zev Krengel, told Haaretz on Monday.

The Board’s leadership “is extremely frustrated and disappointed by the lack of cooperation by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria's unwillingness to assist in finding a workable solution,” the group said in a written statement.

“South African leadership believe that while the labor issues faced by the Israeli Foreign Ministry are important, that internal Israeli politics are given prominence over the important concerns of the relationship between Israel and a Diaspora community is extremely disheartening.”

The year-old labor dispute between the Treasury and employees of the Foreign Ministry has escalated over the last few weeks, causing diplomats to go on strike. As a result, there has been a halt in assistance to Israeli officials on trips abroad, which jeopardizes Livni’s planed trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town later this month.

Earlier this week, the strike forced Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to cancel an official visit to Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned visit later this month may also be called off.

“The repercussions will be massive [if Livni’s trip is canceled]. We as a community haven’t hosted a major Israeli politician since [Ehud] Olmert in 2005,” Zev Krengel, the Board’s chairman, told Haaretz during a phone interview.

“This would really be a devastating blow. We’re not England or America, where there is a continuous flow of top Israeli politicians coming in and out. We don’t have that anymore. For us, this is just a very, very sad day. We promote Israel, we fight for Israel, and now Israel is stopping its own voice being heard in South Africa. We can’t believe it. We just can’t get over that.”

The head of the Foreign Ministry workers’ union, Hanan Goder, told Haaretz that he appreciates Krengel’s work and that Livni’s visit to South Africa is indeed important both for Israel and the local Jewish community. Nonetheless, he said, the industrial action meant that there would be no staff to work on the visit.

“…Unfortunately we are in the middle of labor disputes, and this dispute includes the fact that we will not assist Israeli members of parliament in their tours all over the world,” Goder said. “Our relations with South Africa are important. However, we are in a labor dispute and the only way for us to raise the issue is through the actions we are taking. I agree this is disturbing, it is not helpful for multilateral relations of the State of Israel. But we have to do what we have to do.”

But the South African Jewish community has “already spent hundreds of thousands of Rand on this visit” booking hotels and venues for events, Krengler said. “And the saddest thing for us is that there is the South African anti-Israel lobby that was trying to get [Livni] arrested [for alleged war crimes due to her role in Operation Cast Lead], which we are very confident we have averted. But now they’re going to get the victory. They’ll say that they put enough pressure on her and that Israel was too scared to send her.”

Maish Isaacson, the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (Israel), said visits of high-ranking Israeli officials to South Africa are “always welcome” as they strengthens the connection between Jewish community there and Israel. “It will be sad if such a visit does not take place.”