Coming in From the Cold: Can Israel and South Africa Restore Warm Ties?

The two countries have had their fair share of diplomatic ups and downs. Can renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks bring a change for the better?

Geoff Sifrin
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Geoff Sifrin

The absurdity that sometimes occurs when politics clash with pragmatism was on display in Johannesburg recently, when hatred for Israel clashed with saving lives and fighting AIDS. South Africa’s Department of Health, which is battling the HIV/AIDS scourge and trying to prevent young black men who undergo ritual circumcision from dying when their wound turns septic, recently began using a non-surgical Israeli circumcision device called PrePex. It is approved by the World Health Organization and ranked among the best such devices available.

But that didn’t matter to Patrick Craven, a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – one of the three partners in the country’s governing coalition. "The point is not whether this device is the best or not,” he said. “There should be a wholesale boycott of all products from Israel, including this one."

The past decade has not been good for ties between South Africa and Israel, which are essentially frozen. South African diplomacy toward Israel is “correct” but has been noticeably unenthusiastic, as when a low-level official was sent to an Independence Day celebration in May at Israel’s embassy, contrary to higher-level representation previously. Two of three members of the government’s “tripartite alliance” - the ANC, Communist Party and Cosatu, which represents more than a million workers - align with BDS. The ANC, which has long claimed to have a balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, is the lone holdout.

The government’s own functionaries slate Israel publicly, often in contrast to official policy. For example, in August last year, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim declared that South Africans shouldn’t go to Israel, but denied this was a boycott, since diplomatic relations are maintained. Then, a month ago, recently retired ambassador to Israel, Ismael Coovadia, rejected the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s goodwill gesture of planting trees in his name in a Jewish National Fund forest.

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders worry that government inaction in reining in such officials may point to a hardening in attitude.

South Africa’s changing tides

A brief sketch of the history of South Africa’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians is instructive.

South Africa was among the 33 countries who voted at the UN in 1947 for Israel’s creation. In the 1960s, Israel focused on relations with newly independent sub-Saharan African states and distanced itself from the apartheid regime.

Then, when African nations severed ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel drew closer to South Africa – another international “pariah.” South African Prime Minister John Vorster even made an official visit to Israel at the height of apartheid, causing disquiet among the local Jewish community. Then in 1987, with South Africa ablaze in violent protests, Israel followed other Western nations and restricted ties. Black South Africans still remember, though, that throughout their struggle the PLO helped the liberation movements, forging bonds which still endure.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the fluctuations continued. Alon Liel, Israeli ambassador from 1992-1994, commented in an interview that, during his term, the ANC treated him in “a fair, honest and reasonable way.” But four years later the negative attitude was “simply incomparable… And the change is not in the ANC – it is in Israel… I think it would have been entirely different if the Oslo process was alive and if we were closer to peace with the Palestinians.”

South Africa is Mandela’s “miracle”nation, where dialogue between warring sides brought democracy and averted a bloodbath. Could the country offer something to the Mideast in conflict resolution? When Mandela visited Israel in 1999 at President Ezer Weizman’s invitation, he suggested he could be a mediator. But his views were seen as simplistic.

The dialogue route was pursued several years later when South Africa hosted Israelis and Palestinians for a three-day retreat at the Spier wine estate near Stellenbosch. The eight-member Palestinian delegation included negotiator Saeb Erekat. Leading Israeli Labor party members attended, such as Yossi Beilin and Avraham Burg. Then-President Thabo Mbeki Mbeki and senior government politicians participated.

The affair was tinged with irony, coming soon after the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which turned into a open display of anti-Semitism, and Water Affairs Minister Ronnie Kasrils’ attempt to get local Jews to sign a declaration against Israel called “Not in my name.” Jewish leaders like Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris criticized the government for being willing to spend three days at a retreat on the Mideast situation “at a time when Zimbabwe is in crisis, Angola and the Congo are engaged in their wars and problems proliferate from Zambia to Madagascar.”

For its part, the ANC has long supported a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians and has also maintained robust links with the 70,000-strong largely Zionist South African Jewish community. In addressing the local Jewish Board of Deputies’ centenary gathering in 2003, Mbeki was unequivocal, saying the ANC supports the Road Map for peace proposed by the Quartet (U.S., UN, EU and Russia) and “an independent Palestinian state and a state of Israel within safe and secure borders.”

Yet after the subsequent year of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli killings of Palestinian leaders, the atmosphere worsened dramatically and South African sympathies veered toward the Palestinians.

In the past decade, things have chilled considerably between the two countries, despite a written assurance from President Jacob Zuma to the Jewish community that the ANC’s two-state position had not changed. When Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals during the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, Pretoria recalled its ambassador from Israel “for consultations,” one of only a few countries to do so. Some South Africans perceive Israel as intransigent, particularly regarding the West Bank settlements, and simplistically view Palestinians as similar to blacks under apartheid. And, goes the feeling, who would know better about apartheid than South Africans?

Meanwhile, the BDS movement is vocal on campuses and elsewhere, even claiming ANC support, for which there is little hard evidence. Early this year an Israeli-born pianist, Yossi Reshef, had to abandon his concert at Wits University midway when students stormed the auditorium in protest.

Feelings are apparently reciprocated. The Israeli government seems to regard South Africa as an unfriendly entity, one that is biased toward the Palestinians. But could the relationship turn for the better? It remains to be seen. Renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may help thaw ties, if Israel is perceived to be making serious compromises for peace. But if the talks fail -- yet again -- the result may be further frayed ties, not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and South Africa as well.

Protest against a proposal to label West Bank goods as coming from 'Israeli Occupied Territories,' Cape Town, South Africa, Friday, June 29, 2012.Credit: AP

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