More than 60,000 people have signed a petition calling for South Africa’s ambassador to Israel to be reinstated and for the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv to not be downgraded.
Earlier this month, International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s announced that South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv had been downgraded and that the ambassador to Israel would not be replaced after he was pulled last year following violence on the Israel-Gaza border during the March of Return.
“We are in the process of following the downgrade resolution of the ruling party and stage one has been completed,” Sisulu said during a speech to the South African Institute of International Affairs. “The office will remain at the level of a liaison and that is how it will operate.”
“Our ambassador is back in South Africa and we will not be replacing him,” Sisulu 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 facilitate people-to-people relations.”
In December 2017, the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), took a decision at its national conference to downgrade the embassy to a liaison office.
The petition, which has been circulating for the last few days, was started by the South African Friends of Israel and stated in its description that “the last few days have seen a furious reaction from around the world against the utterances by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, regarding relations between Israel and South Africa. Our petition for the reinstatement of the South African Ambassador to Israel, and the rejection of the proposed downgrade, is growing daily.”
Those who signed shared their anger and dismay over the downgrade, saying it was a “disgrace,” and that South Africa would feel the effects more than Israel. Numerous Christians signed the petition, openly standing with Israel and making it clear that it was the government that wanted this, not the people. South Africa is a majority Christian country and many of its Christian leaders have thrown their support behind Israel in the past, including the Zionist Christian Church, which boasts 15 million members.
“What a disgrace from the ANC government and in South Africa we are highly upset and angry about this,” wrote Willie Viljoen after signing, while Norman McDermid said he wants “the world to know that it is not the general populace who want to sever ties with Israel... It is only the government.”
Johan Brand also shared that “I support you wholeheartedly. The ANC government does not represent millions of Christians... who love and support Israel.”
Others said the decision was “misguided,” and that it would have “major economic ramifications” for South Africa. Debbie Epstein, who also signed, wrote that “South African politicians are so short sighted. They are going to be the big losers! Very sad.”
Last week, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said that Sisulu’s comments “completely contradicts [South African] President [Cyril] Ramaphosa’s own words on the subject.”
“Speaking at the Garden’s Synagogue in Cape Town last September and at the SAJBD Gauteng conference the following month, President Ramaphosa assured SA Jewry that his government was looking to ‘play a constructive role that will bring all parties together so that we find a solution to a problem that seems intractable in the Middle East,’” the Jewish leaders said. “By downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel, however, South Africa would obviously render itself completely irrelevant in terms of any role it might play in finding peace in the region.”
The SAJBD further noted that to become official policy in the country, “the question of downgrading the SA Embassy in Tel Aviv has first to be discussed by parliament and then ratified by cabinet. Changes in policy cannot simply be declared by a government minister.”
The Jewish body went on to say that it “remains strongly of the view that an embassy downgrade would not only achieve nothing in terms of advancing Middle East peace prospects, but would run counter to South Africa’s own objective interests, particularly in terms of stimulating foreign investment.”
“A downgrade would further be inconsistent with how South Africa has always conducted its foreign policy, which has been to engage with all sides and never to resort to the politics of boycott,” the Board continued. “In reality, the ability of South Africa to influence the Middle East peace process is limited. Where our country can genuinely make a positive difference is by sharing its own story of a negotiated transition with Israelis and Palestinians, thereby helping them achieve a similar resolution.”
The SAJBD added that “were ties with Israel to be downgraded, however, South Africa would obviously only be sabotaging any prospect of playing any useful role in that process.”
Also last week, South Africa’s trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), blamed leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community for trying to divide the government and the African National Congress, the country’s ruling party.
It made the comments in response to the SAJBD’s statement, saying that “the utterances by the Jewish Board of Deputies in their attempt to divide the ruling party and the South African Government in its decision [to downgrade the Embassy in Tel Aviv] by trying to isolate Minister Sisulu.”
Meanwhile, last month, Ramaphosa responded to a question posed in parliament about the downgrade in which he said that the “government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy in Israel.”
“Our 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,” Ramaphosa highlighted. “The South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel.”
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