Take him on or ignore him?

A government minister has upset former South Africans living in Israel.

kasrils 88 (photo credit: )
kasrils 88
(photo credit: )
He is nothing more than a nuisance seeking attention. Taking him on will only whet his appetite for more public exposure. Ignore him!" For the most part, this advice has been heeded by the Jewish community in South Africa regarding that country's Jewish Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who for some years has been on an anti-Israel crusade. Former South Africans in Israel, meanwhile, have been little more than distant, idle observers. Last week they began to take a keener interest, following the highly publicized visit of Kasrils to Gaza in early May and his invitation to the PA's Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, to visit South Africa. This would, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, "give legitimacy and recognition to an unreformed Hamas leadership and reinforce its extremist positions." While the US, the UK and the EU are trying to rip the rug from under the Hamas leadership, South Africa is laying out a red carpet. This has so incensed the South African community in Israel which, according to Maish Isaacson, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed), "remain proud of their former country's achievements and retain strong ties to its Jewish community there." Isaacson told Metro last week that he personally called the South African ambassador in Tel Aviv "to express the community's displeasure." Adv. Steven Slom, chairman of the Israel/South Africa Chamber of Commerce, whose aim is to foster trade between the two countries, was scathing of Kasrils. "Shortsighted! The minister has no understanding of the situation here. On the one hand, I understand that South Africa wants to display a visibly balanced approach; but Kasrils has gone out of his way to interpret that approach to fit in with his personal agenda. His meddling is dangerous and could be counter-productive to the genuine efforts of his own government to foster dialogue and reconciliation based on their unique experience," said Slom. Slom alluded to the question that many South Africans are asking: Is Kasrils a maverick acting independently of his government or does the answer lie ominously elsewhere? "I think he's acting on behalf of the South African government," asserts former South African Annette Milliner of Ramat Aviv. "The man is not a minor backbencher but the minister of intelligence who recently visited Iran, praised [President] Ahmadinejad and lauded Iran's nuclear program. Did his government take him to task over that? No! Three weeks later he is in Gaza, fraternizing with an organization that has been labeled by the US, UK and EU as a terrorist organization; and then he concludes his five-day visit by a publicly inviting Haniyeh to visit South Africa. Does the South African government refute any of this? What we hear is a deafening silence! How are we to read this? By its reticence, the South African government must be seen to be supportive of its minister's actions and declarations. Not satisfied with only his Intelligence Ministry, Kasrils seems to have hijacked the foreign affairs portfolio. This is a very sad day for a country that could once trade proudly on its moral authority," laments Milliner. "The legacy of Mandela is being carelessly wasted." Telfed vice chairman Dave Bloom of Kohav Yair, who hails from Zimbabwe, agrees. "Just look at the company this man keeps. Check out his itinerary. Two weeks preceding his visit with Haniyeh in Gaza, he was in Teheran embracing Ahmadinejad. Last year in Cape Town he signed an agreement to strengthen defense and intelligence ties with Zimbabwe." At the press conference following the signing ceremony referred to by Bloom, Kasrils proudly proclaimed, "Our two countries share a common world view and would march shoulder to shoulder." "So if Kasrils chooses to rub shoulders with the likes of Mugabe, Ahmadinejad and now Haniyeh, he clearly has a preference for embracing renegade and rogue regimes. What credibility can this man have? We don't see him visiting other capitals." Bloom, too, questions why the South African government has not taken him to task. "If they genuinely wanted to help, how do they believe they can influence an organization like Hamas that has on its agenda to wipe out Israel? If they failed abysmally with their so-called quiet diplomacy with Zimbabwe, what chance would they have with Hamas?" "To be perfectly honest," says Meera Jacobson of Netanya, another immigrant from South Africa, "I don't like the guy. For one thing, he should devote some time to studying a little Jewish history. Not that I suspect it would change his mind." Many of the former South Africans whom Metro spoke to insinuated that there may be some psychological explanation for Kasrils's evolving into "a self-hating Jew," an appellation used by many of the interviewees. For Gordon Mandelzweig of Rishon Lezion, "The South African government can do what it wants. What upsets me is that the man leading his country's close association with the murderers of Jewish woman and children is a Jew. I consider him a traitor to Judaism and judge all his actions in this light." For Dov Randel of Tel Aviv, "The current attitude of the South African government is very disturbing, particularly in light of the Kassam missiles raining on Sderot from Gaza. Hamas has openly claimed responsibility. This makes a mockery of Kasrils's statement (reported in The Jerusalem Post, May 13) that Hamas has renounced violence. Who's he trying to kid? Tell that to the residents of Sderot." Randel is the coordinator for MEDACORD, a nonprofit, non-political organization dedicated to serving the people of the Mediterranean Basin. Its primary focus in this region is to initiate joint programs - commercial, environmental and educational -- between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. "I'm hoping early next year to take a group of Israeli and Palestinian mayors and trade unionists to South Africa to meet there with their counterparts. We try to avoid politics and inflammatory rhetoric, and we strive through constructive programs to reach reconciliation. People like Kasrils, however, undermine these efforts, and he should be taken to task by his superiors." Randel wants to give the South African government the benefit of the doubt and hopes "that they do not share their minister's perspectives nor support his initiatives, such as inviting terrorists. President Mbeki should set the record straight." Maybe Randel is somewhat optimistic. Returning to South Africa after his visit to Gaza, an unrepentant Kasrils relished in publicly renewing his invitation to PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, adding "with the approval of my government." Kasrils was clearly sending a message to those who doubted that his invitation enjoyed the support of his government. The South African Board of Deputies (SAJBOD) could not remain silent. It condemned Kasrils, releasing a statement that read: "Expressing support for an organization whose very founding charter describes the Jewish people as evil enemies of humanity and calls for their total annihilation, fundamentally contradicts both the ideals of South Africa and of the ruling ANC itself." The board's rebuke is hardly likely to bother Kasrils. In an interview last year in a local South African paper, Kasrils derided SAJBOD: "We know the confined nature, narrow point of view and bigotry of the established leadership of Jewish people in South Africa." For David Hersch, vice chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, currently in Israel on a visit, "South Africa today is delusional and arrogant." He feels that they "are interfering in areas that they know little about. They are irrelevant and have no role to play in the Middle East. What do they understand of the issues here?" Hersch stresses that if South Africa failed with its neighbor on its doorstep - Zimbabwe - what positive impact would it have on a region a continent away? Supporting this perspective, a collaborative article by Greg Miles and Prof. Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, appeared in the South African Business Day newspaper. They assert that the problem with South Africa is that "It views the Palestinian conflict - and the solution - from its own vantage of a one-size-fits-all, inclusive solution. This illustrates an analytical incapacity to understand the role and power of ethnic nationalism in the Middle East." A further complication, the writers maintain, is South Africa's position on the Holocaust - it recently abstained on a Holocaust denial resolution in the UN General Assembly - and its support for Iran, which "erodes its moral authority in the eyes of Israel. If SA prevaricates on issues such as Holocaust denial or threats of genocide made by Iran against Israel, its moral authority evaporates for Israelis, who will not be able to accept such a South Africa as an impartial umpire. And what is SA in world affairs without its moral authority?" It is difficult to discern the precise role of the South African government in this evolving drama. Hersch feels "it is playing a Machiavellian game. No doubt South Africa is improving its relations with Israel on numerous levels. I heard the other day that they may be sending a military attach to Tel Aviv. This is important and will be appreciated here; but on the other hand, South Africa lets Kasrils loose to visit Iran and publicly support its nuclear program, when it knows that Ahmadinejad champions the cause to wipe Israel off the map. It's a schizophrenic policy, possibly designed to confuse." Hersch articulates a further insight shared by many insiders into South Africa's political establishment. "There is also the possibility that Kasrils's behavior is a product of his sagging popularity. Whether he is an embarrassment to his government or not, he no longer enjoys the support he once had in the ANC and may be using the Israeli-Palestinian issue to keep his name in the news. Jews and Israel are easy targets. That much of Jewish history he knows. South Africa has a relatively small Muslim population, so Israel should hardly be an issue. Kasrils makes it one. We have no shortage of our own problems, which Kasrils ignores - Zimbabwe's trampling of human rights, the AIDS epidemic, rampant crime - so he deflects attention elsewhere. My guess is that after the nextelection, he will be out."