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By announcing this week that it is officially discouraging South Africans from visiting Israel, the government implicitly created a precedent. Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim said discouraging visits would send a message to Israel that it must end the occupation of Palestinian territory.
He denied this was a boycott because it was up to individuals and organisations to decide if they wanted to visit. He also denied that the government’s recent directive that goods made on the West Bank should be labelled as made in Palestine occupied territory, rather than in Israel, amounted to a boycott.
It was merely intended to give consumers accurate information so they could decide for themselves.
But his fellow deputy minister, Marius Fransman, seemed to let the cat out of the bag last month when he said the labelling move was a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel.
So clearly SA has now moved from critical rhetoric against Israel to action, a form of sanctions.
No doubt the proliferation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is undermining efforts to peacefully negotiate the two-state solution which SA officially supports. It is quite perverse of Israel to offer the Palestinians just a fraction of the territory they originally claimed – and then settle Jews in it.
This behaviour arguably justifies the policy Ebrahim enunciated. But it contradicts the broader strategy which the SA government has consistently followed in other conflicts, which is to talk and keep talking to all sides to try to negotiate a peaceful solution and not to resort to pressure tactics.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is bombing civilians with heavy artillery and aircraft. Yet SA steadfastly refuses to condone any pressure against him. It has certainly not discouraged South Africans from visiting Syria (if any were foolish enough to contemplate doing so). And Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been stalling reforms for years, while killing and persecuting his opponents, without as much as a murmur of public rebuke from Pretoria.
If the government wishes to isolate Israel, let it do the same for all offenders. Otherwise it must rescind Ebrahim’s policy and keep the channels of communication open to all countries.