El Al to keep flying to South Africa, for now

National carrier announced it would cancel all flights to the country if its security staff were not provided with diplomatic passports by end of month.

January 28, 2010 22:41
3 minute read.
el al

el al plane 88. (photo credit: )


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Flights between Tel Aviv and Johannesburg on El Al Israel Airlines will continue for another month after the chief of state protocol in the South African Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Lucas Mahlasela Makhubela, extended the deadline for solving a crisis over the status of the carrier’s security personnel.

South African Jews were concerned that the only direct flights between Israel and South Africa would end by Sunday after El Al announced that it would cancel all flights to the country if its security staff were not provided with diplomatic passports by the end of the month.

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But effective lobbying by the local Jewish community resulted in the South African government allowing the El Al security staff to continue working normally until February 28, while the Israeli and South African governments work to solve the impasse. An El Al spokeswoman confirmed that flights would continue during the negotiations.

The heads of three South African Jewish organizations wrote Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a desperate letter last week urging him to intervene personally in the matter. The Prime Minister’s Office sent a letter back this week saying that Netanyahu had referred the issue to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who will join the Foreign Ministry and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein in trying to solve the issue.

“This is a sensitive diplomatic issue with several possible solutions that we are working on,” a source close to Katz said. “We know the matter is urgent, and we intend to end the crisis very soon.”

The national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Zev Krengel, said both governments have shown willingness to solve the problem, but that he was concerned, because the Israeli government had not gotten back to him since a high-level meeting Edelstein hosted in Jerusalem in November.

“The whole thing is nerve-wracking,” Krengel said. “The letter to the prime minister was a last resort. It really should be handled at a lower rank. Handling it at the highest level is like using a cannon to kill a chicken, but we felt we had no choice.”

It was still unclear on Thursday night whether President Shimon Peres would be meeting with his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which they are both attending. If they did meet, Peres was expected to raise the issue, which is considered especially important to Israelis because South Africa will host soccer’s World Cup in June and July.

The dispute arose in September after a disgruntled former El Al security guard accused the airline of racial profiling that is illegal in South Africa. The South African government responded two months later by revoking the diplomatic immunity of all El Al staff operating in the country.

A senior South African Foreign Affairs official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Media Line that the issue centered around diplomatic immunity.

“South Africa did not expel a diplomat or withdraw the diplomatic immunity of a diplomat,” the official told The Media Line. “We withdrew diplomatic immunity for someone who was not a diplomat.”

“We are following our obligations under international law,” the official said. “The Vienna convention is an agreement among states to regulate who is entitled to diplomatic immunity and who is not. Security officers working outside of embassies are not entitled to diplomatic immunity.

“Now the governments are trying to work out how they can best solve the problem in such a way that our adherence to international law is respected and our domestic legislation is respected,” the official added, referring to South African legislation governing where armed security personnel can operate.

Greer Fay Cashman and Benjamin Joffe-Walt of The Media Line contributed to this report.

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