durban anti-israel 88.
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South Africa's largest trade union umbrella organization, which has nearly two million members in fields as varied as healthcare, agriculture, engineering, mining and the arts, has called on its government to end diplomatic ties with Israel.
Calling Israel an "apartheid state," the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) demanded the recall of South Africa's ambassador from Tel Aviv, a boycott of Israeli products, and general sanctions against the Jewish state, in protest over Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank.
A trade boycott could have serious implications for South Africa, since Israel is the top destination for the country's exports. Israel's exports to South Africa totaled $239.9 million in 2004.
South Africa's ambassador in Israel, Maj. Fumanekile (Fumie) Gqiba, is currently out of the country and was unreachable for comment. However, the embassy's charg d'affaires, Sarel Kruger, said his government had no plans to sever diplomatic ties with Israel.
"The status quo remains the same, and there is no action being taken at the moment to change it."
Whether or not COSATU's suggestions are taken seriously by government leaders, the organization's statements are being viewed with dismay by the local Jewish community.
David Saks, the acting national director of South Africa's Board of Deputies, the Jewish community's governing body, said that his organization "views COSATU's statement with extreme concern. We believe it displays extreme double standards, ignoring altogether or playing down the countless acts of provocation from the Palestinian side, while one-sidedly depicting Israel as a militarist bully. The statement is provocative and unfair."
In addition, Saks strenuously objected to COSATU's use of the term "apartheid" in describing Israel, saying that the label is a "gross distortion of the historical fact and baseless slander against the Jewish state."
Israel's ambassador to South Africa, Ilan Baruch, said, "All our past attempts to open up a dialogue with COSATU showed us that they have no genuine interest in a dialogue with the embassy or with Israeli trade unions."
COSATU's own membership has expressed surprise over the organization's statement. Dr. T.K. Letlape, the head of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), one of COSATU's affiliates, said he had not known about the organization's statement regarding Israel and that "no issues regarding Israel have been brought to our attention."
Letlape said that he and SAMA have "a healthy working relationship with our Israeli colleagues" and that "government decisions should be guided by even-handedness."
He added, however, that any personal opinions that he or his colleagues had would have to be subject to the decisions of COSATU, which he called a "democracy."
South African deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad was unavailable for comment as of press time, and calls to COSATU leadership were not returned.