MK Dov Lipman last week visited the South African National Assembly, the first Israeli lawmaker to enter the country’s parliament in half a decade.
The trip opened the door for improved bilateral ties, and especially the revival of the long-defunct Israeli-South African parliamentary friendship group, said Lipman, of the Yesh Atid party. The freshman lawmaker met with members of parliament from several parties, including the country’s ruling African National Congress, which has recently made several statements viciously critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
“At times it was contentious, but it wasn’t unfriendly. It’s what happens when you have a dialogue,” Lipman explained. “They set aside a special room, they had flags of Israel and South Africa set up,” he commented about his meetings with two parliamentarians from the ANC, including the chair of the International Relations Committee, Moses Masango. “The way it was done was very respectful. They took it seriously.”
Masango said that South Africa views Israel as an important country to have a relationship with, according to Lipman. The Israeli lawmaker then addressed his hosts, speaking about Operation Protective Edge and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. He hinted that harsh criticism from Pretoria is counterproductive, but did not explicitly address the anti-Israel statements the ANC made during this summer’s 50-day war with Hamas.
“I told them that certainly any threatening tones from other countries don’t help us — they actually hurt us, because all they really do is strengthen the more extremist voices in Israel. What we really need is voices of support and encouragement,” said the US-born Lipman.
One of the ANC MPs “took offense” when Lipman called Hamas a terror organization, the MK continued. “He said they [Hamas] have the right to fight for what they believe in and that they don’t see any other options if you’re not going to talk to them.” Lipman retorted that, as long as the Hamas charter calls for Israel’s destruction and the murder of Jews, there is no way to hold any kind of dialogue.
“They said in their next meeting with Hamas, they will bring up the charter and challenge them about it,” Lipman told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “At least [the South African legislators] appreciate the fact that this [the Hamas charter] is wrong. I’m not saying that any earth-shattering change will come about because of [my visit], but at least they were open to hearing our side.”
Lipman, who attended the funeral of former South African president Nelson Mandela in December 2013, talked at length to his hosts about the hardships of Israelis living under the constant threat of rockets attacks and terrorists emerging from tunnels. “I can’t tell you that I moved mountains or that they did an about-face,” he said about the South African legislators’ reaction, “but they listened to me.”
When US-born rabbi Lipman entered the Knesset last year, he was given the task of chairing the “Israel-South Africa Parliamentary Friendship Group” — but no such group currently exists. Lipman tried to reestablish it during his visit, and said he found an open ear in Pretoria. “These meetings were a critical first step in improving cooperation and friendship between Israel and South Africa,” he declared. “Channels of dialogue are now open.”
The lawmakers he met with also stressed that they “see no scenario in which economic ties would ever be cut off,” Lipman said.
Meanwhile, senior leaders of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies on Thursday met with South African President Jacob Zuma and several ministers, including Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, at his official residence in Pretoria to discuss anti-Semitism and the Middle East conflict.
“In the course of the meeting, President Zuma rejected unequivocally all forms of anti-Semitism and intolerance, and stressed that his government remained committed to combating such prejudice,” the board said in a statement.
“On the Palestinian-Israeli question, both the President and the SAJBD expressed their support for the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peaceful co-existence and reiterated South Africa’s willingness to support all sides to find a solution,” continued the communique.
The statement described the meeting as “very warm and constructive.”
Last weekend, the ANC co-signed a declaration that called for a boycott against Israel, and condemned it as a nation founded on the basis of apartheid. It also branded the establishment of the state as a crime against humanity.
In July, the ANC published a statement comparing Israel’s actions during the Gaza war with those of Nazi Germany and accusing Jerusalem of turning the Palestinian territories into “permanent death camps.”