South Africa quietly returns its ambassador to Israel

Four months after recalling Sisa Ngombane over deaths at the Gaza border, Pretoria presents ‘its compliments’ to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem

Raphael Ahren is a former 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)

South Africa’s ambassador to Israel has quietly returned to Israel, four months after he was recalled in protest of actions Israel took to fend off violent Palestinian protests at the Gaza border.

Ambassador Sisa Ngombane returned to Israel “a few days ago,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Nahshon declined to comment further on Pretoria’s surprising move. Just two months ago, South Africa’s foreign minister had announced that the country’s ambassador would not return to Israel until some kind of progress had been achieved.

In a letter, South Africa’s embassy in Ramat Gan said it “presents its compliments” to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and to all diplomatic missions accredited to the Jewish state, and “has the honour to inform” that Ngombane “has returned to Tel Aviv.”

The embassy “avails itself of the opportunity to renew” to Israel “the assurances of its highest consideration.”

Such flowery language is standard for diplomats, but noteworthy in the case of South Africa, which is arguably Israel’s harshest critic outside the Islamic world.

A copy of the letter was published Thursday evening by Channel 10 news:

Ngombane has been South Africa’s ambassador to Israel since early 2013.

He 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.

“The South African government condemns in the strongest terms possible the latest act of violent aggression carried out by Israeli armed forces along the Gaza border‚ which has led to the deaths of over 40 civilians‚” a statement from the country’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation read at the time.

Pretoria accused Israel of an “indiscriminate and grave … attack.”

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.

“While we, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation, regret the loss of life of civilians, we recognize that Israel as a sovereign state has the right to defend its own border and its own citizens,” a statement said.

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

On July 5, South Africa’s International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she was “very glad” to have recalled Ngombane, vowing not to reinstate him until “we are making headway.”

“It’s been a violation that has been going on for a long time, and we can’t be looking away,” she said at the time. “We are holding back on our ambassador until we are certain that we are making headway. For us this is an unacceptable situation, completely unacceptable.”

The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, resolved last December to call on the government to immediately downgrade the country’s embassy in Israel. But the government in Pretoria has yet to say whether it will implement the decision.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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