South Africa should follow the course now being set by the Arab world and embrace Israel, Foreign Ministry Director- General Dore Gold said upon his return from a three-day trip to South Africa.
When he landed there on Thursday, he was the first director-general of Israel Foreign Ministry to visit South Africa in a decade. Gold had a pitch for the officials that he met.
“If the Arab world is opening up to Israel, why should South Africa stay on the sidelines?” Gold asked them during the visit that ended on Saturday night.
The two countries have full diplomatic ties, but an otherwise ambivalent and stressful relationship, particularly in light of South Africa’s strong sympathies for the Palestinian people and its stance against Israel’s hold on the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In addition, feelings still run deep in South Africa over Israel’s past support for the former apartheid regime.
Gold arrived in South Africa at a particularly stressful moment, in the midst of “Israel Apartheid Week,” an event that has the support of a small number of politicians from the governing party, some of whom called for sanctions against Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement first emerged in South Africa and remains strong there.
Gold met with his South African counterpart, ambassador Jerry Matjila on Thursday. The two men shook hands publicly and were photographed standing next to the flags of both their countries.
They also issued a joint statement of cooperation, which the BDS movement has since asked that the South African government to retract, but it has not done so.
The joint statement said that “officials from South Africa and Israel will work together on national priority issues such as water, agriculture, trade and science and technology. The sides also discussed the situation in the Middle East. The sides emphasized the importance of trade delegations in both directions.”
According to the statement, “The discussions were held in a positive atmosphere and a shared desire to deepen dialogue and friendly relations between South Africa and Israel.”
One of Israel’s new foreign policy objectives is to improve its ties with African countries, Gold told The Jerusalem Post.
“Israel is returning to Africa and Africa is returning to Israel,” Gold said.
On Monday in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Ghanaian minister of foreign affairs and regional integration Hanna Tetteh and spoke with her of the common values of democracy and rule of law that our countries share. They also discussed their joint battle against Islamic terrorism.
The Prime Minister said that our country’s relationship with Africa is very important and that most African countries wanted to improve those ties. Netanyahu also told Tetteh that Israel expected its allies to vote against anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.
Netanyahu is planning a major trip to Africa in July, where he is likely to visit Kenya and Uganda to mark the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid. He is not scheduled to visit South Africa.
Gold said that he has focused on the South African connection, particularly in response to initiatives from the South African government, including President Jacob Zuma, who sent envoys to meet with Gold. That was followed two months ago by an invitation from the South African Foreign Ministry to visit with its director-general.
“We built on that,” Gold said. “The dialogue went extremely well. One felt an openness and a willingness to try new things that have never been tried before,” he said.
The trip was also an opportunity for both sides to describe their national narrative to the other in an effort to promote better understanding, he said.
Gold was careful to visit sites that were important for post-apartheid South Africans, including Soweto – the Johannesburg township where mass protests occurred against apartheid and where former South African president Nelson Mandela lived when he was the leader of the anti-apartheid movement. His home is now a museum.
“I went to Mandela’s home and I met with students there,” said Gold.
In the guest book, he wrote that he had wanted to show his respect and that “Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.”
He also visited the Liliesleaf Farm, a national heritage site in northern Johannesburg, which was once a farm where members of the National African Congress plotted to overthrow the apartheid government.
A Jewish family named Goldreich moved there, pretending to be the owners of the farm, and Mandela – when hiding out there – played the part of their cook.
Gold said he met with children of some of the Jewish activists from the farm. He also spoke to Jewish and Christian students at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“We tried to send a message that it is time for Israel and South Africa to put aside their differences and to build a new relationship,” he said.
“It is important for Israel to show that we have a strong respect for the struggle for freedom that was waged there,” he said. “This initial visit represents an important start, but there is considerable work still to do,” Gold said.
Charisse Zeifert of the Jewish Board of Deputies welcomed Gold’s trip, particularly given that it was during “Israel Apartheid Week.”
“The Jewish community was very encouraged by his visit. It showed that greater cooperation between the two countries is possible,” she said.