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June 18, 2018 12:34 pm

Trump Disapproval and Drop in Foreign Investment Among Fears Raised by South African Diplomats Over Potential Israel Embassy Downgrade

avatar by Ben Cohen

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (r) and ANC Deputy President David Mabuza wave to supporters at the ANC’s 106th anniversary celebrations. Photo: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko.

Senior diplomats in South Africa are reported to be at “loggerheads” with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) over plans to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel.

Fear of an angry reaction from US President Donald Trump, along with the belief that “a large part of the global economy” is controlled by Jews, are among the reasons cited for the clash.

The ANC voted at a special conference last December to downgrade the embassy in Tel Aviv to the status of a “liaison office” — a decision billed as a “practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine.” Representatives of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas attending the conference were given a VIP welcome in advance of the vote.

But a leading South African news outlet reported on Sunday that diplomats were strongly advising Lindiwe Sisulu, the international relations minister, against the downgrade.

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The Sunday Times said its reporters had been told by sources inside the ministry that “Sisulu was at loggerheads with senior officials in her department as she was intent on implementing the resolution ‘soon.'”

The paper highlighted that while “a formal process to implement the resolution has not yet started…diplomats and top management had advised Sisulu against the implementation of the resolution for fear of the economic implications and an impact on diplomatic relations with powerhouses like the US.”

Implementing the ANC resolution “would spell the end of political relations as it would mean South Africa does not recognize Israel as a sovereign state.”

According to a “senior official” quoted by the Sunday Times, Sisulu was resisting the advice. “The minister believes that resolution must be implemented, and very soon, so you can expect that to happen,” the source said.

Lindiwe Sisulu, 64, is the daughter of the legendary ANC leader Walter Sisulu, who was imprisoned on Robben Island by the former apartheid regime with his close friend, the late South African President Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela favorably recounted how Walter Sisulu was able to travel to Israel, Europe and China in 1953 without proper travel documents because he flew “on the only airline that would accept his affidavit: El Al,” Israel’s national carrier.

South African officials are said to have deployed several different arguments in the hope of persuading to Sisulu to change her mind. At the top of their list was the potential impact of downgrading the embassy on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambitious plans to attract over $73 billion in foreign investment.

“Trump in particular, you know how he is like,” the unnamed official quoted by the Sunday Times remarked. “He is very unpredictable, but on the question of Israel he is very consistent. Now you then have to ask: ‘What will be the consequences of taking this particular decision and how will the US react to it?'”

As evidence of a potentially harsh response, several diplomats have pointed out to Sisulu that South Africa’s hostility to Israel led the US to oppose the country’s recent bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

Moreover, according to the Sunday Times, diplomats are even falling back on classical antisemitic stereotypes to make their case against the embassy downgrade.

“Diplomats had argued that a large part of the global economy is in Jewish hands and the implementation of the [ANC] resolution might not bode well for South Africa’s bid to attract global investment,” the paper reported.

But one ANC official advocating for the immediate implementation of the resolution claimed not to have seen any warning about the possible economic consequences. Enoch Godongwana, chair of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, “said the party had not seen any report on possible economic implications, but South Africa had a right to take its own decision as a sovereign nation.”

A study by South Africa’s Business Day last November observed that despite the relatively small volume of trade between the two nations, Israel was an important destination for South African exports from cocoa and chocolate to industrial chemicals.

“It is likely that those exports support a considerable number of jobs and livelihoods, a critical consideration in an economy wracked by socioeconomic problems,” the paper cautioned.

“Similarly, coming in at $300m in 2016, South African exports to Israel provide much-needed foreign currency,” it added.

Jewish organizations in South Africa have continually stressed the economic benefits to South Africa — where 55 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line — of good relations with Israel.

“It’s clear that the Israel-South Africa relationship is very good for South Africans,” Benji Shulman — a board member of South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) — told The Algemeiner on Monday.

“Israel brings the most tourists from the Middle East to our shores and is one of the biggest export markets for South African goods in the region,” Shulman said.

“Israeli technology is also important for a number of South African sectors like agriculture and telecoms,” he added.

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