JOHANNESBURG – There is "no plot" against Israel on the part of South Africa, says Rob Davies, South African minister of trade and industry.

Davies was reacting to comments made by South African Jewish community leaders and Israeli ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg regarding his decision that imports from Israel must bear an indication if originate in "Occupied Palestinian Territory" (as opposed to pre-1967 Israel).

Representatives from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation asked him to reverse his decision.

They also criticized him for not having discussed the issue with them beforehand and for referring openly in the notice to "Open Shuhada Street," the South African anti-occupation non-governmental organization that had asked him to introduce the legislation.

"We should indeed have met before the notice was issued," Davies agrees, "but there were scheduling difficulties on both sides about getting a meeting together so we never did. As for ‘Open Shuhada Street,’ what did the delegation want? Did they want me to lie, to be less transparent about my motivations?

"And as for withdrawing the notice, no, we will not. This is fundamentally a matter of South African customers. They are entitled to know from where goods emanate. They are entitled to accurate country of origin information. This is not a boycott against Israel. What the SAJBD has to do by the beginning of July is put in a submission on the issue – and we will consider it fairly."

In terms of the gazetted notice of May 10, which announced Davies' intentions and solicited comment, interested parties had 60 days in which to voice their opinions on the matter.

Israel's ambassador to South Africa, Dov Segev-Steinberg, says Israel was indeed treating the issue "very seriously indeed".

"This is because, whatever might be said, even though the word ‘boycott’ is not being used, this was an unashamedly political step. It is not merely a technical trade issue. It is moreover discriminatory – because it is being aimed at Israel and not at anyone else," Segev-Steinberg said.

Segev-Steinberg said he was also troubled that, shortly after the notice had been gazetted, the Western Cape Member of the Executive Council (a province-level administrator) for Agriculture, due to attend a conference in Israel, had allegedly been urged by the South Africa Department of International Affairs and Cooperation (a.k.a. the South Africa Ministry of Foreign Affairs) not to attend.

Similarly, the mayor of Pretoria had been scheduled to attend a conference in Israel but had cancelled for no apparent reason.

Third, an address by Israeli deputy ambassador, Ya’akov Finkelstein, at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal had been cancelled because, it was said, it might "create bad publicity". 

"I have to ask," said Segev-Steinberg, "whether the South African government is clearly hinting to Israel that it is changing its policy towards us. I think this is all a shame because who gets hurt in the end? The Palestinians, those working in the affected industries, they get hurt."

Worried in Jerusalem

It has also emerged that it is the Israeli government, far more than South Africa or local Jewish organizations, that has been exercised by the decision.

Hearing the news of Davies' notice, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently sent Minister of Culture and Sports, Limor Livnat, out of a cabinet meeting on May 10 to phone South African community leaders she had met on a visit in February, to find out what had happened.

Representatives of the SAJBD and the SAZF, who met Davies on May 24, have made no secret of their unhappiness about the meeting.

They claimed to have been treated "disdainfully" and more importantly, that Davies had "not really been listening."

Aside from failing to consult with them before he gazetted the notice, they argue that in any case, the notice was "discriminatory" because Davies had specifically focused on imports from Israel/Palestine, ignoring other equally-controversial origins (Northern Cyprus, Tibet, Western Sahara, and Taiwan). 

Regarding Israeli imports, he had been subjected to an odd range of ad hominem arguments, Davies says.

"An Israeli journalist asked me if I am an anti-Semite or if I’m a self-hating Jew. It seems to me that whether I’m Jewish or not is not an appropriate question. Anyway, I’m not Jewish. But I know all about the Holocaust and I reject with utter contempt the suggestion that I’m anti-Semitic. There does exist however the question of the rights of Palestinians – let’s not hide away from this," he says.

"This government’s views on Israel and Palestine are well known. Nothing has changed. The idea that there is a secret plot against Israel is off the wall," he said.

He does understand why the Israeli government could be annoyed, he says.

"Once one country does something like this, the rest of the world might climb in. But if something is drawn to my attention, I am obliged to respond. And I repeat, South Africans are entitled to correct country-of-origin labeling."

A Jewish activist, who had worked with the ANC in the past and did not want to be named, said the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement had been born at the infamous Durban anti-racism conference in 2001 and that the call for the labeling of goods from occupied territories was merely one example of the BDS movement at work.

"I think," he said, "that this has been coming along the line for a while and I think the Israelis should have reacted more strategically. They should have kept it a technical trade issue and away from politics – kept it away from the local community and have let the embassy deal with it – and then, if necessary, have taken it to the World Trade Organization. But it’s too late now."

"On the other hand, do you know South Africa sells about 3 billion rands’ worth of coal to Israel? This is not insignificant. Why is Davies messing with things like a few cosmetics and so on from the territories, when he should be keeping his eye on more important things?"