South African Jews slam Israel for banning minister

Two countries ‘should encourage greater interaction, lift restrictions,’ say Zionist Federation and Board of Deputies, in rare critique of Jerusalem

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

Blade Nzimande (photo credit: State Department / Wikipedia)
Blade Nzimande (photo credit: State Department / Wikipedia)

South Africa’s leading Jewish organizations on Tuesday criticized the Israeli government for denying entry permission to a South African cabinet minister, saying they prefer interaction and dialogue.

The rare note of criticism came after Pretoria Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and three aides were refused permission by Israel to visit their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah via Jordan. The officials were forced cancel their travel plans after they were not issued the necessary paperwork to pass through the Allenby crossing, which Israel controls.

“This is most regrettable,” the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the country’s Zionist Federation said in a joint statement, noting their “concern” over Jerusalem’s move.

Both organizations have “long argued that regular interaction between Israel and South Africa and mutual visits of political leaders, parliamentarians and government officials, as well as business people, media, tourists and family visits, are to the benefit of both South Africa and Israel and foster greater understanding between the two countries,” the statement read.

“We believe both countries should encourage greater interaction at all levels and lift restrictions in this regard, in the interests of relations between Israel and South Africa and the broader interests of peace and stability.”

Despite the Israeli ban, Nzimande will “definitely” visit Ramallah, though how he will get there has yet to be established, his spokesman Alex Mashil told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Pretoria might “take action” if the ban is not lifted, he threatened.

“We will not allow Israel to determine for us which minister in the cabinet can or cannot visit Palestine. That undermines our sovereignty and national self-determination and we will not allow it,” Mashil said.

Nzimande reacted furiously to Israel’s refusal of a visa, calling it a “declaration of diplomatic aggression on our government” and vowing to intensify nationwide efforts to boycott Israel.

The leader of South Africa’s Communist Party, Nzimande is known to be ferociously critical of Israel, but other senior South African officials with similar views have been receiving visas in recent months, including Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau and Deputy Minister Obed Bapela, the head of the ruling ANC party’s international relations committee.

In their statement, the two Jewish organizations said it is “most unfortunate” that South Africa has recently “imposed restrictions on the free movement of officials between this country and Israel, and thereby on opportunities to engage in regular consultation and dialogue in the interests of peace and stability” between Israelis and Palestinians.

The statement was likely referring to a 2013 interview by South Africa’s Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, in which she said that it was now Pretoria’s policy that government ministers do not visit Israel.

“Our Palestinian friends have never asked us to disengage with Israel [through cutting diplomatic relations]. They had asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the regime,” Nkoana-Mashabane said at the time. South Africa has “agreed to slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with that regime until things begin to look better,” she said.

The minister’s comments caused a stir, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, accusing 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.” The South African government later asserted that it had not imposed “a ban on travel to Israel by government officials.”

“The culture of dialogue and engagement is something that is deeply embedded in South Africa’s recent history of peaceful democratic transition, and we know that any future resolution of the problems between the Palestinians and the Israelis will only be successful and lasting if there is dialogue and mutual understanding,” the Jewish group’s joint Tuesday statement read.

“The practice of discouraging interaction between South African officials and their Israeli counterparts is contradictory to the way South Africa has traditionally engaged in conflict resolution, both domestically and in its foreign policy in general.”

Last year, South Africa’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Sisa Ngombane, told The Times of Israel that he was actually exerting “pressure” on Pretoria to send ministers to Israel. “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.”

Nzimande, the higher education minister, was meant to meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Khawla Shksheer, to discuss the implementation of a memorandum of understanding between Ramallah and Pretoria signed in November by presidents Jacob Zuma and Mahmoud Abbas, Mashilo, hisspokesperson, said.

“This cooperation agreement has to be taken forward, whether the Palestinian minister comes to South Africa or the South African minister comes to Palestine. But we will not abandon our quest to demand the right to visit Palestine,” Mashilo said.

Nzimande and three aides had attempted to reach Ramallah via Jordan, but as Israel controls the border crossings into the West Bank, the South African delegation asked for visa permits. The minister had no intention of meeting with any Israeli officials, Mashilo confirmed.

“Israel has no right to determine who the Palestinians associate with,” he told The Times of Israel. “We experienced apartheid in the past. We can’t let that happen again.” Restricting access to the Palestinian territories constitutes a violation of international law, which Pretoria was unwilling to accept, he added, threatening to “take action” if Israel upholds its policy.

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