South Africa’s envoy: West Bank reminds me of apartheid

Sisa Ngombane hopes for new era in relations with Israel, but also says it would be a ‘diplomatic nightmare’ were Liberman to visit espousing his hawkish views

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

South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane signs the guestbook at the residence of then-president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, February 28, 2013. (Issac Harari/Flash90)
South African Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane signs the guestbook at the residence of then-president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, February 28, 2013. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

The formation of a new government in South Africa following recent elections there could lead to a new era in Pretoria’s troubled relationship with Jerusalem, the country’s ambassador in Tel Aviv said, raising the possibility of an upcoming high-profile visit by one or more South African ministers to Israel.

Ambassador Sisa Ngombane expressed the keen desire to improve ties with Israel, but defended his government’s mostly pro-Palestinian stance, calling for talks with Hamas and comparing the situation in the West Bank with that of apartheid-era South Africa, with Israeli soldiers “ready to shoot” anyone who makes a wrong move.

During a frank and far-reaching interview, the envoy criticized the South African Zionist Federation for ostensibly suggesting, before the elections, that local Jews shouldn’t vote for the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress. He also slammed Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman for having called on South Africa’s 70,000 Jews to move to Israel in order to escape a looming “pogrom” incited by their government.

“The election presented an opportunity to revisit every aspect of what was done in the last five years,” Ngombane said, referring to relations with Israel. “I’m hoping that the president [Jacob Zuma] will feel in his second term that he needs to see ways how to engage, not from afar, not from a distance.” A first step to a gradual warming of ties would be to send a senior cabinet minister on an official visit to Israel, to “see what’s happening in Israel and the other side [the Palestinian territories], Ngombane said.

The South African Embassy has “a lot of plans for visits,” and was actually exerting “pressure” on Pretoria to send ministers to Israel, Ngombane said. “South Africa has always had a view that sometimes it’s better to talk to the people, even the people we’re not going to agree with on every point… For us. it is important that we keep the engagement, keep the discussions going.” A frank discussion about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — the main reason the two governments are at odds with each other — is better than to “shout at each other from across the ocean.”

So far no travel plans have been officially announced, but the ambassador’s comments are especially significant in light of statements South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane made in November, when she said the government has “agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime [Israel] until things begin to look better.”

Nkoana-Mashabane’s comments caused a stir, and the cabinet later asserted that it had not imposed “a ban on travel to Israel by government officials,” yet an actual visit by a senior figure was not considered likely. Tensions reached new heights after Liberman, commenting on Nkoana-Mashabane’s statement, accused Pretoria of “creating an atmosphere of anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Semitism that will make a pogrom against Jews in the country just a matter of time.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel last week in his spacious office in a high-rise in Ramat Gan, Ngombane said Liberman’s words were “unfortunate. I think he began to realize later on that it was an issue that should not have been handled in that way,” because South Africa, after it overcame apartheid, started treating all its citizens equally, and Jews had no need to worry.

No problem with Israel per se

Liberman is to visit five African states in early June, seeing strong ties with the continent as one of the pillars of his foreign policy. Statistics show that Israel “must invest resources and effort” to regain political support from African states, he said this week, referring mostly to humanitarian assistance and trade relations. South Africa is not part of his itinerary this time, but according to Foreign Ministry sources, Liberman does hope to visit the country in the near future.

Would Liberman be welcomed by the ANC-led government, which staunchly supports the Palestinian cause, and includes many members who openly support a boycott of Israel? Ngombane said it would depend on his attitude. “If he comes ready to deliver a message of hope, [saying] the government of Israel is ready to move honestly and sincerely in removing these problems [the conflict with the Palestinians], then he is quite welcome. But if he goes to tell South Africans: ‘Forget it, this is our land, there are no Palestinians there, there is nobody’ — then there are going to be problems, of course. I don’t think those views can be allowed in South Africa to really go unchallenged.”

It would constitute a “diplomatic nightmare” if Liberman insisted on visiting South Africa and espousing there his usual hawkish views, Ngombane said.

‘Hamas is the product of Palestinians wanting a better life’

Pretoria has no problem with Israel per se, the ambassador asserted, but is staunchly opposed to Jerusalem’s treatment of the Palestinians. While the South African government urges Hamas to abandon violence and look for ways to coexist with Israel, Ngombane said he still considers Hamas “a national liberation movement” rather than a terrorist organization.

“Hamas is the product of Palestinians wanting a better life,” he said, adding that in apartheid-era South Africa he was called a terrorist himself. “Being called a terrorist doesn’t make you a terrorist,” he said, adding that Hamas has to “graduate” and realize that armed resistance will not bring freedom. Rather, he said, Hamas must “sit down and negotiate.”

Jerusalem has a “legitimate demand” when it says Hamas needs to disavow violence and recognize the state of Israel, Ngombane allowed. “But the question is how do you deal with it. What can be done to keep them in the fold and not have them be a rogue element?” Efforts need to be made to integrate Hamas into the Palestinian Authority, rather than having them embrace radicalism, he said. “We tell Hamas, you will only get peace if you lay down your weapons and recognize the state of Israel.” But demanding that Hamas “shouldn’t exist” is an “argument that brings us nowhere.”

Scared at checkpoints

The ANC has traditionally been close to the Palestinians, seeing the Palestinian struggle as reminiscent of its own fight against apartheid.

During the interview, Ngombane, who joined the ANC while in exile in 1980, stopped short of explicitly endorsing that comparison. But he said he is reminded of apartheid policies whenever he enters the West Bank, and he spoke of “very similar patterns of people who cannot really do what they want to do.”

Similar to what he experienced in apartheid-era South Africa, he said, in the West Bank he observed a “situation where’s there’s a preponderance of force that is ready to be used at any given point” against unarmed Palestinians. “Soldiers deployed left and right, and you don’t pass a day without seeing Israeli soldiers — that tells you that something’s wrong.” the veteran diplomat said.

“Every time I go [to the West Bank], I’m meeting girls and boys who are ready to shoot me,” he said, suggesting that he is scared to make a wrong move or gesture while at the Israeli checkpoint. “That’s the truth. And this is how we lived.”

‘Every time I go to the West Bank, I’m meeting girls and boys ready to shoot me’

Asked whether the South African government considers itself balanced in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ngombane spoke of the “power imbalance” in the region. Israel’s army is one of the largest in the world and uses “brute force” against “people who’ve got nothing,” he said.

While he said he is aware of the Israeli argumentation that the army is needed to safeguard Israeli civilians, he called such arguments “a fallacy… You don’t create security by oppressing other people.”

And yet, the ANC considers itself a friend of Israel, Ngombane insisted. “Friends tell each other the truth. You can’t be my friend if you don’t tell me if I do something wrong.” The “baseline” of the ANC’s friendship toward Israel is its recognition of the country’s right to exist in peace and security, he expounded. “We recognize your right to exist, your right to defend yourself and to protect your citizens… That’s friendship to us. But when there are things we feel are wrong, we will say, ‘This is wrong, we can’t agree with it.’”

‘Unfortunate’ ad

The question of the ANC’s friendship with Israel came up a few days before the May 7 elections in South Africa, when the local Zionist Federation ran a newspaper ad rating the country’s major party based on their policies vis-à-vis the Jewish state. Headlined, “Are you voting for a friend of Israel?” the ad’s “score card” graded five parties according to three main criteria: “Policy and Approach to Israel,” “Public support for Israel,” and “Combating anti-Israel activities.” The ANC received two out of 10 points and the rating “Not a friend.” Other, much smaller parties, were labeled “Good friend” or “Friend.”

The ad stirred up some controversy, with critics warning it was akin to endorsing certain fringe parties while cautioning voters not to support the ruling ANC. Others charged that the ad could ignite accusations of dual loyalties. Even senior Israeli figures dealing with bilateral relations told The Times of Israel they thought the Zionist Federation’s move was misguided.

But the Zionist Federation’s chairman, Avrom Krengel, said the ad was “simply an analysis of each party’s policies toward Israel and based on that analysis giving a score card of each party.”

“We understood that there would be fallout and controversy and we’re very comfortable with it,” Krengel told The Times of Israel, adding that he had no regrets “at all” about the ad. There are many factors playing into how people vote, and among the country’s Jewish citizens Israel is a factor, he said. Presenting a party’s record on an issue “is not different from AIPAC or the NRA or any other interest group in a democracy,” he insisted.

Krengel’s brother Zev, who heads the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, told The Times of Israel that in his view there is nothing wrong with publishing research on the political parties’ positions on Israel. “I don’t think the South African Jewish community is so shallow that they’re going to vote only about what that party’s views toward Israel are. I think that’s an important part but they’re not going to vote just because of that for a specific political party,” Zev Krengel said.

He admitted, however, that “maybe they should have phrased it better,” referring to the ad’s headline.

Ngombane condemned the ad as “unfortunate,” especially since, as he saw it, it distracted from an important occasion: the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. “Now to get this thing mixed it up with whether somebody likes Israel or does not like Israel — it was a painful thing for us.”

Anything that could possibly suggest that South African Jews care more about Israel than their country of residence “can be damaging,” the ambassador said, asserting, though, that the incident would not hurt the ANC’s relations with Israel or the local Jewish community. “We assumed it was a misrepresentation of the Jewish people. We’ve got to be careful about how things are done.”

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