In sign of thaw, Israel’s top diplomat meets S. African foreign minister

On sidelines of UN assembly, Dore Gold discusses bilateral ties with Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who in 2013 said Pretoria ‘curtails senior leadership contact’ with Israelis

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. (US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)
South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. (US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK — The director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry met on Wednesday with the Foreign Minister of South Africa, who three years ago declared that officials from her country do not engage with Israel.

Dore Gold’s meeting with Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who has been Pretoria’s minister of international relations and cooperation since 2009, took place at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed the meeting took place but initially kept mum about its content. Gold tweeted a photo of him shaking hands with Nkoana-Mashabane, adding that he was “[e]xploring the ties between our nations.”

“We consider the very fact that this meeting was held an extraordinary achievement,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

During the meeting, Gold discussed the importance of South Africa-Israel relations, particularly in the context of Jerusalem’s renewed push to engage with all countries on the continent, the official added.

In 2013, Nkoana-Mashabane said that due to the Palestinians’ plight, South African officials refuse to engage with Israel.

“Ministers of South Africa do not visit Israel currently. Even the Jewish Board of Deputies that we engage with here, they know why our ministers are not going to Israel,” she said at the time.

Nkoana-Mashabane further said that South Africa has “agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better… The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle,” she declared.

Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments caused a stir, and the South African cabinet later asserted that it had not imposed “a ban on travel to Israel by government officials.”

Relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have long been fraught over the latter’s harsh criticism of Israeli policies and its staunch support for the Palestinians. Last year, the African National Congress — the country’s ruling party — hosted the leader of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, a move protested by Israel.

Earlier this year, Gold embarked on a three-day visit to South Africa, meeting with Jewish community leaders and government officials.

“The meetings were a very important start. To say that we’re about to have a completely different relationship is premature. But there was a readiness to hear our arguments,” Gold told The Times of Israel at the time. “There’s potential. Now, everything is in the follow-up.”

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with about a dozen leaders from African countries, part of a push to forge stronger trade and diplomatic ties with the continent. It is not clear whether South African officials will be present.

During his current trip to New York, Gold also meet with the foreign ministers of Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

South African President Jacob Zuma is currently in New York, where he addressed the UN General Assembly Wednesday. In his speech, he said that the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “remains a major concern for us.” It is time for the UN to “carry out its historic mission” and help resolve the conflict, which he called one of the “longest outstanding decolonization and occupation issues.”

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