Proposed downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel

The ANC has let it be known that a proposal to downgrade the SA Embassy in Israel will be discussed at their December Conference this year.

As yet, the details of such a downgrade are not known.  Will it be the removal of the Ambassador resulting in the Embassy becoming a Consulate; or will it be the closure of the Embassy and the relocation to South Africa of all the diplomatic staff?  That has not yet been clarified.

From a business point of view, such a move would be more damaging for South Africa than for Israel.  Persons wishing to visit the country may have to obtain their visas in other countries; trade links would be curtailed or compromised; South Africa would no longer be able to play any part in the peace process that is so desperately needed between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the words of Professor Milton Shain, Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies, UCT:

“Downgrading the SA Embassy in Tel Aviv is akin to a boycott.  It erodes practical advantages and measurable benefits for both South Africa and Israel, including trade and technical services.  Effective representation too is compromised.  A downgrade lays the foundations for conflict, rather than helping towards accommodation.”

But it is not only the Jewish community in South Africa which is concerned, and which may be considerably affected by such a move.  There is a deeply held belief within the Christian community that an even stronger relationship between South Africa and the Holy Land should be extended and cemented. Numerous Christian leaders and members of their congregations have visited Israel over the years not only for religious reasons but also to learn more about how Israel can solve many of South Africa’s problems, particularly in the areas of water management and agriculture.  Israel’s technological innovations rank amongst the finest in the world, and in many cases are leaders in their fields, particularly in the areas of water conservation and desalination.  It follows therefore that any such downgrade would affect South Africa more than Israel, and compromise South Africa’s development. It would also alienate the huge numbers of Christians here who greatly value their connection with the Holy Land.

Israeli technologies are critical enablers in various fields internationally, including in South Africa which uses Israeli hardware and software in the information, communications and technology sectors. Servicing this hardware by local technicians not completely au fait with the product could bring about its own complications.

And what about tourism?   A downgrade would have a negative effect on tourism both ways, from the perspective of where to obtain visas for travel, and a loss of income from Israeli tourists who, especially with the considerable devaluation of the rand (and it’s expected to fall even more in the coming weeks), enjoy visiting South Africa a favoured destination for many of them, and where they enjoy spending their shekels.

And then we must remember that South Africa’s BRIC partners maintain close strategic cooperative and diplomatic relationships with Israel. How would this impact upon South Africa’s position within BRICS? Should South Africa not mirror what her partners are doing vis-à-vis Israel?  And if not, would there be any impact within the group?

As a final point, if this action by the ANC is being taken on moral grounds, ie solidarity with the Palestinians, then according to the Tutwa Consulting Report, “such moral rectitude ought surely to be applied to other key bilateral relations such as Sudan and Myanmar, where South Africa is seen to have supported genocidal regimes.”

Politics is a dirty game whichever way one looks at it; and in this case politics is certainly one of the levers threatening this action.   There has been intensive lobbying of the ANC by interested parties but there is still no clarity on the issue; and one can do little more than wait for the Conference – if indeed it takes place – and the decisions taken there.

Rather than closing the doors on Israel, South Africa should use its experience to work towards developing better relationships between the Israelis and the Palestinians, given its success in having managed its own apparently intractable conflict so well.  Here’s hoping that the ANC will see the folly of such a move and decide to expunge it from the agenda.  That would be first prize for both countries.