If South Africa downgrades its embassy in Israel, the important trade, tourism, scientific and technological ties between the two countries would most likely be undermined while doing nothing to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood, according to a panel discussion held on the subject on Thursday in Johannesburg.
The discussion followed calls in July by South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, for the downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel to a “liaison office,” saying it was “concerned by the lack of commitment from Israel to finding a resolution to the Palestinian question.”
The issue will be discussed and decided upon at the party’s National Policy Conference next month.
The discussion in Johannesburg was hosted by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) as part of an initiative to widen awareness of the negative implications of a possible downgrade.
Dr. Peter Draper, manager of Tutwa Consulting, presented a report on the possible economic implications of such a downgrade.
Investec chairman Fani Titi and Marc Lubner, SA-Israel Chamber of Commerce chairman, reiterated the counterproductive nature of such a move.
Prof. Mzukisi Qobo, who moderated the discussion, placed emphasis on the need to sustain a positive dialogue and maintain open diplomatic channels.
Titi explained that given South Africa’s current situation, losing any level of foreign trade would be “a disaster.”
“I believed it would be morally irresponsible for South Africa to effectively preclude itself from playing any meaningful diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine debate,” Titi said.
“In the years following the transition to democracy, South Africa had been seen as a trusted interlocutor in helping to resolve sensitive international disputes, such as over Northern Ireland.”
“Why,” he asked, “should it wish to undermine its potential to do so in the Middle East?” Titi further highlighted the obvious contradiction between South Africa’s commitment to “critical engagement” with Israel and the proposed scaling down of their diplomatic relationship: “It would render such engagement impossible,” he said.
Panelists addressed the potential economic harm that might ensue were South Africa to downgrade or sever ties with Israel. For starters, it would jeopardize the NIS 2.1 billion of trade between the two countries, a robust trade relationship, which this year alone has already accounted for over NIS 951 million of South Africa’s exports.
The SA-Israel trade relationship is one of few where South Africa enjoys a healthy trade surplus. “Endangering the relationship further flew against the very notions of seeking economic growth, employment and business opportunities for the ailing South African economy, and would violate the business rights of many South African businesses and members of the business community who do trade with Israel,” Lubner said.
He pointed out that political obstacles were already preventing South Africa from properly taking advantage of the many opportunities that engagement with Israel offered. He considered these lost opportunities to be “a bigger blow than the simple loss of current trade that might result from an embassy downgrade.”
South Africa is the most recent addition to the BRICS nations - an association of five major emerging national economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. “The BRICS nations are deepening their bilateral relations with Israel, even though they were in the main critical of the policies of the Israeli government,” Lubner said, “Bilateral trade between Israel and Brazil, for instance, now amounts to NIS 4.2 billion.”
“South Africa, [like] many countries around the world, has benefited greatly from Israeli skills and specialized knowledge in the fields of hi-tech, agriculture, water conservation and management, medical innovation and various other fields,” Lubner continued.
He warned that downscaling the diplomatic relationship could limit future access to this crucial resource.
This would also have serious implications for tourism. Many South Africans from both the Jewish and Christian communities visit Israel on a regular basis. “A breakdown in the existing diplomatic relationship might well jeopardize these visits,” he said.
The panelists were skeptical that the downgrade would put moral pressure on Israel, explaining that the moral argument “fell by the wayside” when it came to relationships with “obviously human rights-delinquent countries” such as Sudan, Myanmar, China and others. “If moral arguments were to influence foreign policy, then these need to be consistently applied.”
A downgrade would deal a blow to South Africa’s economic diplomacy, and could have potentially calamitous consequences for its diplomatic relations not only with Israel but also with countries that support Israel,” the panel said. “It might further place existing and vital trade arrangements – such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act or even the bilateral South Africa-US free-trade agreement that will eventually replace AGOA – in serious jeopardy,” the group added.
SAJBD national director Wendy Kahn observed that the discussions had confirmed her organization’s position: “A downgrade would neither be in South Africa’s interests nor of any practical benefit in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question,” she said. “If South Africa wishes to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict, in which regard it has much to offer in terms of its own experience of conflict resolution, it cannot do so through the politics of boycott and disengagement.
Rather, it should adopt an even-handed approach aimed at fostering dialogue between the disputing parties and to finding practical solutions.”