Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Monday met with two South African ministers, in what is being seen as a sign of warming relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria.
In Johannesburg, Hanegbi met with Environment Minister Bomo Molewa and Jeffrey Radebe, a minister in the office of President Jacob Zuma. Both are senior members of the African National Congress, the country’s ruling party. Radebe is the most veteran member of the current government, having already served under then-president Nelson Mandela in 1994, immediately after the fall of the country’s apartheid regime.
“Minister Hanegbi is the first Israeli minister to hold ministerial meetings in South Africa in the last five years,” his office said. “In the meetings, Israel-South Africa relations and prospects for the relaunching of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were discussed.”
During his stay in Johannesburg, Hanegbi (Likud) also met with the leaders of the local Jewish community.
In September 2016, then-director-general of the Foreign Ministry Dore Gold met with South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
In December, the ANC’s National Policy Conference will elect a new leader to replace President Zuma.
“The relationship between Israel and South Africa is gaining strength,” Hanegbi’s office said.
But the conference might also bring bad tidings for bilateral relations.
In July, the ANC’s international relations committee decided on a number of recommendations to be adopted as official party policy later in mid-December, including downgrading the South African embassy in Ramat Gan to an “interest office.”
“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 chairperson of the ANC’s international relations committee commission’s chairperson announced at the time.
The Palestinian ambassador in Pretoria, Hashem Dajani, last month endorsed the plan. “We believe such a step would place pressure on Israel to put an end to its illegal violations of Palestinian human rights, including settlement expansion, and to provide a positive atmosphere for launching a political process that will lead to the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of the independent state of Palestine,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Daily Maverick.
South African anti-Israel activists, too, celebrated the move, while Israeli officials shrugged it off as a political policy recommendation that may never actually be implemented by the government.
“This is a major victory for human rights and for the people of Palestine,” a regional branch of the ANC stated at the time.
“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.
Israel’s then-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 told The Times of Israel in July. “Such a decision would limit opportunities for the promotion of South African exports, something that is radically important for economic or socioeconomic transformation.”