South Africa ‘in the process’ of downgrading Israel embassy, president says

A year after ruling party resolved to demote Ramat Gan mission to ‘liaison office,’ President Ramaphosa notes ‘responsibility to continue engaging with all parties to the conflict’

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

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa makes his State of the Nation address in parliament, in Cape Town, South Africa, February 7, 2019.  (Rodger Bosch, Pool via AP)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa makes his State of the Nation address in parliament, in Cape Town, South Africa, February 7, 2019. (Rodger Bosch, Pool via AP)

South Africa’s government is “in the process” of downgrading its embassy in Israel and is working on “the modalities” of such a move, the country’s president has said, while at the same time noting Pretoria’s desire to engage with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy in Israel,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday in a response to a parliamentary query.

In December 2017, the African National Congress, the country’s ruling party, at its biannual National Conference Johannesburg unanimously passed a resolution calling on the government to turn Pretoria’s embassy in Ramat Gan into a “liaison office.”

Local pro-Palestinian activists and senior ANC politicians, including Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, have since repeatedly called for the decision to implemented.

The last South African ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, last year ended his tour and Jerusalem does not expect Pretoria to send a replacement in the near future, which could be described as a de facto downgrading of bilateral ties. But no formal downgrade has taken place.

On Thursday, after a speech to the National Assembly in Cape Town, MP Ahmed Shaik Emam asked Ramaphosa about the progress in downgrading the embassy.

“Our approach is informed by our concern at the ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the refusal of the government of Israel to enter into meaningful negotiations to find a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict,” the president replied.

“We are also concerned about the resurgence of confrontation and conflict in the region and about the grave humanitarian cost of further intransigence,” he went on. “Our approach is also informed by an appreciation of the constructive role South Africa is being called upon to play in the quest for peace in the Middle East.”

His government supports the establishment of a Palestinian state “alongside the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbors,” he added.

“In implementing this conference resolution, we are mindful of South Africa’s responsibility to continue engaging with all parties to the conflict to see where we would be able to provide assistance. As such, the South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African embassy in Israel, and we will communicate once Cabinet has fully finalized on this matter.”

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Ramaphosa’s statement.

Arthur Lenk, a former Israeli ambassador to Pretoria, said that South Africans are the ones losing out by South Africa’s refusal to send a new ambassador to Ramat Gan.

“They are not getting the full benefits and consular service and trade development that a fully staffed embassy staff provides,” he told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Ngombane was recalled to Pretoria on May 14 “until further notice,” in protest of the deaths of at least 55 Palestinians in violent clashes with Israeli troops on the Gaza border. The Hamas terror group that rules the Gaza Strip later said that most of the dead were its members.

He later returned for a short time to take care of personal affairs before leaving permanently.

Jewish leaders in South Africa termed the government’s decision to withdraw the ambassador “outrageous,” said it displayed “gross double-standards against the Jewish state,” and urged that the move be reconsidered.

“By withdrawing its ambassador,” their statement said, “South Africa is essentially walking away from playing any meaningful role in finding a sorely needed resolution to the conflict.”

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