Among discussions to take place at the ANC national conference this week, and for which there is lobbying from all sides, will be a proposal for the ANC to call for the South African embassy in Israel to be “downgraded”.
Despite the particular perspectives of the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli lobbies, this debate must be framed as a South African one with consideration of two critical issues:
• The practical implications for South Africa; and
• The balancing of our values and interests — which should always be considered in developing our foreign policy — and what it means for the South African nation, its character, benefits and future.
The debate follows a recommendation from the July ANC policy conference, which asks the national conference to choose between two options in order to “to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and continued human rights abuses against the people of Palestine”. The first option is to “downgrade” South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv (no explanation is given for what “downgrading” means) and the second is “a total shutdown of the embassy”. Both are very strong recommendations.
Good relations between (apartheid) South Africa and Israel began after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Both states were facing isolation for their policies, which were condemned by large sections of the world’s population.
Those relations included defence co-operation, the sale of military hardware to each other despite the United Nations arms embargo against South Africa, Israel’s sanctions-busting that included exporting weapons to South Africa and exporting South African goods to the rest of the world, intelligence co-operation and the sharing of nuclear weapons technology, resulting in both countries developing nuclear weapons. South Africa also supplied diamonds and other natural resources to Israel, trade that continued after 1994.
Values and interests
According to South Africa’s foreign affairs white paper of 2012: “The values that inspire and guide South Africa as a nation are deeply rooted in the long years of struggle for liberation. As a beneficiary of many acts of selfless solidarity in the past, South Africa believes strongly that what it wishes for its people is what it wishes for the citizens of the world.” The document lists equality, democracy, human rights, human dignity, freedom, justice, solidarity, nonracialism, nondiscrimination, liberty and peace among the values that should drive our foreign policy.
South Africa’s national interests, it states, “can be articulated as people-centred, including promoting the wellbeing, development and upliftment of its people; protecting the planet for future generations; and ensuring the prosperity of the country, its region and continent … informed by a desire for a just, humane and equitable world order or greater security, peace, dialogue and economic justice”. The interests it refers to include “stability of the republic and the constitutional order”, and “growth and development of the South African economy”.
I will return to the issue of balancing values and interests.
A discussion on the concrete implications of a downgrade will loom large at the ANC conference. Let’s be clear that the policy conference recommended only a diplomatic downgrade, not an economic or trade downgrade nor any other constraint in the relations between South Africa and Israel. Yet much of the response to the recommendation has been scaremongering based on speculation about how Israel and its supporters might respond rather than what the recommendation says.
There are three broad areas of possible implications: diplomatic, trade, and social or religious.
The most obvious likely repercussion will be Israel’s reciprocity; it will similarly downgrade its embassy in South Africa. It has been suggested that this will constrain the possibility of a South African role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process — a problematic argument for two reasons. First, there is no peace process to speak of and, second, South Africa has had no previous role whatsoever — not for lack of trying — and will have no role in the future.
Israel is immensely satisfied with the role of the United States — especially after President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, and its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and cares nothing for other players. This “warning” about South Africa’s “role” has repeatedly been used by Israeli lobbyists for more than a decade in an attempt to prevent criticism of Israel.
Some within the ANC are also concerned that Israel may force the closure of the South African mission in Ramallah, which could be negative for its engagement with the Palestinians. This fear is unwarranted. A look at other experiences, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia, is instructive.
After the 2008-2009 Israeli onslaught on Gaza, Venezuela expelled Israeli diplomats; Israel reciprocated. Bolivia also severed ties with Israel in January 2009, and President Evo Morales continues to use harsh rhetoric against Israel. Yet Venezuela opened a mission in Ramallah in April 2009, and both its and Bolivia’s missions have been upgraded to ambassadorial level. This suggests that a downgrade of South Africa-Israel relations will not affect South Africa’s Ramallah mission and will not impede ties with the Palestinians. Indeed, this will be South Africa’s opportunity to upgrade the Ramallah mission to an embassy.
Whether there are any trade implications from a downgrade will depend on how Israel responds. Even if Israel places obstacles to trade between the two countries, the effect will be insignificant. As many in the pro-Israel lobby acknowledge, trade volumes are not significant enough to be of great concern to South Africa.
The country might struggle initially to redirect its exports to other markets but that is not impossible. And Israeli imports can easily be replaced with substitutes from elsewhere or, as the Western Cape desalination project demonstrates, by locally developed technology. Israeli technology is not indispensable.
The notion that Israeli companies divesting from South Africa (which is unlikely) will have a significant negative effect on employment is also untrue. Israeli companies employ only small numbers of South Africans, and some use almost all Israeli employees. Even if Israel responds harshly, the effect on employment will be negligible.
Some of the fearmongering suggests a downgrade will negatively affect South African Jews and Christians and their ability to travel to Israel/Palestine. This is nonsensical. The ANC has no intention to take such steps, and this fear can only be realised if Israel denies entry to Jews and Christians.
Over the past few years, those prevented from entering Israel or are harassed, deported and banned are Muslims and others who oppose Israel’s apartheid, including two Cabinet ministers and Christian witnesses with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme. Jews have no difficulty, and only those critical of Israel might.
Again, Venezuela and Bolivia are useful examples. Their Jewish populations continue to enjoy normal ties with Israel, and the Chavez government even secured Jewish religious sites in 2009, protecting the country’s Jewish population from protests against Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza massacre, the kind of responsibility that the South African government should also adopt.
Although there is a desire to balance our values and interests, South Africa’s values are in our interest. Consider that the previous good status that South Africa enjoyed globally was due entirely to its moral standing, not the size of its trade figures or its military.
The degradation of its status is a result of its ethical and moral decay. Reasserting our position from a value-based perspective, emphasising justice, international law and solidarity, will enhance rather than deprecate its national interests.
Yes, there is a possibility of some negative implication for South Africa if it downgrades its diplomatic relationship with Israel. But a close examination indicates it is not enough to cause great concern.
Indeed, the price South Africa might pay will be worth it, for it will represent another front in the battle against this manifestation of apartheid and colonialism, and will allow the country to act with integrity and persuade other states to do the same. The moral capital alone will be worth more than any potential losses.
Na’eem Jeenah is executive director of the Johannesburg-based think-tank, the Afro-Middle East Centre, and Matshidiso Motsoeneng is a researcher at the centre