South Africa’s ruling party resolves to downgrade embassy in Israel

Pro-Palestinian activists and PA officials praise planned switch to ‘liaison office,’ while Jewish groups decry it, though it remains unclear whether it will be implemented

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

President of South Africa Jacob Zuma attends the last day of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 20, 2017, during the African National Congress (ANC) 54th National Conference (AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET)
President of South Africa Jacob Zuma attends the last day of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 20, 2017, during the African National Congress (ANC) 54th National Conference (AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET)

South Africa’s ruling party resolved on Wednesday to call on the government to immediately downgrade the country’s embassy in Israel.

During the last days of the African National Congress’ biannual National Conference this week in Johannesburg, the party unanimously passed a resolution to turn the embassy in Ramat Gan into a “liaison office.” However, it is unclear whether the government in Pretoria will implement the decision.

“In order to give our practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine; the ANC has unanimously resolved to direct the SA government to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office,” the resolution passed Wednesday stated.

Pro-Palestinian activists in South Africa celebrated the move, which had been endorsed by senior Palestinian Authority officials.

“This is a huge step in the right direction and a massive gain for the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement,” BDS South Africa said in a statement. “The ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, which benefited from boycotts and sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, has provided direction and we look forward to others following suit.”

A group called South African Jews for a Free Palestine also welcomed the vote. “This move by the ANC actively applies pressure on Israel’s government to end its violations of international law,” it said in a statement. “As members of the Jewish community we believe that this is one of the most practical things that South Africa can do to contribute towards a just peace in Israel-Palestine.”

The Palestinian terror group Hamas praised the ANC’s decision as well. “This measure is an important step towards isolating this entity and exposing its crimes and policies,” a spokesperson tweeted on Thursday. “We demand more of these measures, whether by parties, states or institutions, in the face of unjust American and Israeli policies against the Palestinian people, their land and holy sites. ”

African National Congress delegates cheer the closing speech of newly elected African National Congress (ANC) President, Cyril Rampahosa, on the final day of the 54th ANC conference at the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg (AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET)

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the country’s Zionist Federation issued a lengthy joint statement decrying the move.

“We question the motives behind this discriminatory decision that would effectively prevent South Africa from playing any mediatory role in bringing about peace or dialogue between Israel and Palestine,” the organizations said in a statement. “This downgrade will do nothing for the Palestinian people, and have a detrimental effect on South Africans. We further question the motives of organisations and individuals who have managed to ‘capture’ the ANC’s international relations agenda including the BDS.”

South Africa would be “poorer” in many aspects, the groups added, noting, among other things, bilateral trade and tourism and the fact that South Africa, “with its close relationship with the Palestinians and with its experience of negotiations, has a unique position to facilitate engagements to peace,” and stands to lose its position as a possible broker between the sides.

SA Jewry feel betrayed by ANC call to downgrade SA Embassy in IsraelThe South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD)…

Posted by South African Jewish Board of Deputies on Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Israeli embassy could not be reached for comment, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not reply to requests from comment.

Nabil Shaath, a senior diplomatic adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, had expressed support for the move during a visit to South Africa last month.

“We really see it as a political act; we really don’t see it as just a diplomatic act. All the diplomatic complications have to be worked out by the government,” he said at the time.

“But the people of South Africa, in supporting a downgrade of that relations with Israel, are giving the Israelis and the world a lesson: There are matters that cannot be accepted, that cannot be negotiated,” he said. “The history of South Africa makes it impossible for South Africans to accept that something like apartheid still exist against the Palestinians people they way it existed against them.”

In July, the ANC’s international relations committee decided on a number of recommendations to be adopted as official party policy during the National Conference.

“The commission called for the downgrading of the South African embassy in Israel to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine,” the chairperson of the ANC’s international relations committee announced at the time.

Israel’s then-ambassador in Pretoria, Arthur Lenk, highlighted the negative side effects such a move would have for South Africa.

“Any decision to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel would only hurt South Africans and would have absolutely no impact on Israel or the Palestinians,” he told The Times of Israel at the time. “Such a decision would limit opportunities for the promotion of South African exports, something that is radically important for economic or socioeconomic transformation.”

It is far from certain that the government of South Africa will actually implement the ANC’s decision. In the past, South African diplomats have pointed out in private discussions that the party, for domestic political reasons, often takes a hardline pro-Palestinian position that is not reflected in the government’s policy toward Israel.

Last month, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi met with two South African ministers, which he interpreted as a sign of warming relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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