South African ruling party wants to downgrade embassy in Israel
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South African ruling party wants to downgrade embassy in Israel

ANC says it intends to demote mission to 'interest office,' a move Israel's envoy in Pretoria says would hurt South Africa's interests

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP/Ben Curtis)
A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP/Ben Curtis)

South Africa’s ruling party this week announced its intention of downgrading its embassy in Israel to an “interest office.”

At a major policy conference in Johannesburg, the African National Congress’s international relations committee decided on a number of recommendations to be adopted as official party policy later this year.

“The commission called for the downgrading of the South African embassy in Israel to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine,” the commission’s chairperson announced Tuesday.

Anti-Israel activists celebrated the move, while Israeli officials shrugged it off as a political policy recommendation that may never actually be implemented by the government.

South African president and African National Congress (ANC)'s president Jacob Zuma delivers a speech during the Party official launch of the Municipal Elections manifesto in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)
South African president and African National Congress (ANC)’s president Jacob Zuma delivers a speech during the Party official launch of the Municipal Elections manifesto in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)

“This is a major victory for human rights and for the people of Palestine,” according to a statement issued Wednesday by a regional branch of the ANC.

“Yesterday’s resolution is the strongest and clearest position taken by the ANC in our history as a governing party… We are under no illusion that Israel and its lobby will attempt to pressure the ANC but this mighty movement will remain steadfast in advancing the interests and solidarity of our people. We warn Israel not to interfere with our local politics, but instead to build a just peace with Palestinians,” it said.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Thursday, Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria, Arthur Lenk, highlighted the negative side effects such a move would have for South Africa.

“Any decision to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel would only hurt South Africans and would have absolutely no impact on Israel or the Palestinians,” he said. “Such a decision would limit opportunities for the promotion of South African exports, something that is radically important for economic or socioeconomic transformation.”

Pretoria’s ambassador in Ramat Gan could not be reached for comment.

South African diplomats stationed in Israel often try to downplay anti-Israel moves by the ANC — such as welcoming senior Hamas leaders — by stressing that the party, which is headquartered in Johannesburg, is not the same as the government in Pretoria. However, it should be noted that the ANC commands an absolute majority in the country’s parliament.

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas's honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)
Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas’s honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)

At the ANC’s National Policy Conference, which is held every five years, some 3,000 delegates from party branches all across the country routinely adopt hundreds of resolutions in various areas, including some on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recommendations made in this week’s summit are likely to be ratified at the ANC National Conference in mid-December, during which the party will select a new leader to replace its two-term president, Jacob Zuma.

“On Palestine, the committee reaffirms the ANC’s unwavering and steadfast commitment for the struggle of the people of Palestine,” the chairperson of the international relations panel declared Tuesday. “The committee expresses its disappointment by the Israelis’ lack of commitment towards peace with the Palestinian people. The commission debates the continued illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel, which is at its fiftieth year, and Israel’s non compliance with the international law.”

A “discussion document” published by the committee for this week’s conference calls for the rapid implementation of a two-state solution to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It goes on to predict that the “Palestinian crisis will be exacerbated” due to the US administration’s recent “pro-Israeli pronouncements.”

Furthermore, the ANC’s international relations committee warned against Israeli efforts to “galvanise support from Africa and elsewhere with a view to undermine the Palestinian cause.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Africa twice in the last 12 months and plans a third visit later this year. The ANC “shall engage progressive forces on the continent on the need to develop a common position and posture in preparation for the upcoming Israeli-Africa Summit scheduled for October 2017 in Togo,” the document stated.

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