South Africa’s foreign minister said the nation will not send a new ambassador to Israel after its last envoy ended his term and went home last year.
“We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party and stage one has been completed,” Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, said.
Her comments were made in a speech in Johannesburg Wednesday and were posted to her office’s website on Friday.
“Our Ambassador is back in South Africa and we will not be replacing him,” she said. “Our liaison office in Tel Aviv will have no political mandate, no trade mandate and no development cooperation mandate. It will not be responsible for trade and commercial activities. The focus of the Liaison Office would be on consular [services] and the facilitation of people-to-people relations.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last month the country was “in the process” of downgrading its embassy in Israel, while at the same time noting Pretoria’s desire to engage with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli officials confirmed on Saturday morning that South Africa has “no intention of appointing a new ambassador at this stage.”
Diplomatic sources told the Ynet news site they believed the foreign minister’s new comments on the matter were intended to shore up Muslim votes for the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) in May’s general election.
In December 2017, the ANC 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 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.
Ramaphosa has said his government’s 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.
“We are also concerned about the resurgence of confrontation and conflict in the region and about the grave humanitarian cost of further intransigence,” he said.
Former ambassador Sisa Ngombane was recalled to Pretoria on May 14 of last year 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 have 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,” they said, “South Africa is essentially walking away from playing any meaningful role in finding a sorely needed resolution to the conflict.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.