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December 12, 2017 1:53 pm

African National Congress to Push for Shutdown of South African Embassy in Israel at Major Party Conference

avatar by Ben Cohen

A South African flag. Photo: Achim Raschka via Wikimedia Commons.

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) is pushing for a major downgrade of the country’s full diplomatic relations with Israel ahead of its key national conference later this week.

Delegates to the five-day meeting — which begins on Saturday in the province of Gauteng — will vote on a motion that could result in the complete severing of diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. The motion, which originated in a call from the ANC’s Western Cape branch in January 2017 to reduce relations with Israel, is said by local analysts to have picked up steam over the last week, following the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The week before the American announcement, Jessie Duarte — deputy general-secretary of the ANC — stated in an article for a local news outlet that as “the ANC … prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs (sic) in the balance and rightly so.”

“For over two decades, South Africa has pleaded with Israelis and worked with them, together with local groups, to ensure that injustices do not continue,” Duarte wrote on November 27. “Yet these have gone on unabated and Palestinians are continually denied the right to return and to declare a state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

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The ANC conference will be asked to choose between redesignating the embassy as a “representative office” or shutting it completely. The party — which has ruled South Africa since the country held its first democratic elections in 1994 following the demise of white-minority rule — claimed in a statement on Monday that there was “overwhelming” support for a “total shutdown” among South Africans. The ANC cited as evidence an online poll in which 75 percent for respondents voted for the embassy’s closure, while 11 percent opted for a downgrade in ties.

Reflecting the influence on the ANC of South Africa’s vocal boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the tone of the campaign to downgrade ties with Israel has been uncompromising, marked by frequent attacks on the “Israel lobby” and the insistence that the very creation of Israel in 1948 was an injustice visited upon the Palestinians.

In her November 27 article, the ANC’s Duarte described UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 — rejected by the Arab League because of its partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states — as “one of the many resolutions adopted by the United Nations but violated by the State of Israel.”

“Despite the resolve of the Israelis and their friends in the West and, sadly, East to ensure that the quest of Palestinians is drowned out by smokescreens such as the threat Iran poses, as South Africans we must use our international muscle and clout to guarantee that we will keep Palestine firmly on the international agenda,” Duarte wrote.

In an op-ed for South Africa’s Independent on Tuesday supporting the downgrade, Dudu Masango-Mahlangu — a leader of BDS South Africa — claimed that “Donald Trump, Israel and its lobby” were abusing the Christian religion to “confuse and complicate the issue of Israel and Palestine.”

“The Israeli lobby, if its friends are anything to go by, are morally bankrupt and their deliberate conflation of Biblical Israel with the Modern Apartheid State of Israel is a blasphemous attempt to win over support for the Israeli regime and its dastardly acts against the indigenous Palestinians,” Masango-Mahlangu claimed.

Many South African Jews see the term “Israel lobby” as code for their community — which retains strong connections with Israel in a deeply hostile political climate and is actively opposing, along with several Christian groups, the ANC proposal.

BDS activists have often employed antisemitic rhetoric and actions in their anti-Israel activism; during the Gaza war of 2014, one South African student groups’ protest went as far as placing a pigs head in the kosher products section of a supermarket.

The BDS movement has also been hailing the support of both the main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, for the severing of ties with Israel. On November 30, Nabil Shaath, chief political adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the proposal, saying that the Palestinians “feel any step South Africa takes to give notice to Israel that South Africa is with the Palestinians and their rights, like downgrading the embassy in Tel Aviv, is a political statement and should be supported as such.”

In an email to supporters, BDS South Africa highlighted the support of Hamas for an “immediate severing” of ties, along with a message of solidarity from Leila Khaled, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist who now resides in Jordan.

The main task of the delegates at this weekend’s conference will be to elect the next generation of ANC leaders, including the successor to current President Jacob Zuma, in advance of South Africa’s 2019 elections. The conference comes at a time of mounting public disillusionment with the ANC, which is increasingly regarded as remote and elitist. A poll from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) released ahead of the conference showed confidence in South African public institutions at its lowest since 2006, with fewer than half of respondents saying they had experienced “reconciliation” since the end of apartheid.

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