The Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem’s Old City as seen from the Tower of David. Picture: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Johannesburg - The decision by the African National Congress' (ANC) to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel was questioned and strongly condemned by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) on Wednesday.

"We question the motives behind this discriminatory decision that would effectively prevent South Africa from playing any mediatory role in bringing about peace or dialogue between Israel and Palestine. This downgrade will do nothing for the Palestinian people, and have a detrimental effect on South Africans," they said in a statement.  

"We further question the motives of organisations and individuals who have managed to "capture" the ANC's international relations agenda including the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement]. It appears to us that the ANC's foreign policy formulation process was hijacked by forces that have a limited interest in promoting South Africa's and key South African communities' well-being and are rather obsessed with undermining the viability of Israel and harming the local Jewish community."

The statement said that the broad presence of Hamas - a terrorist organisation which actively calls for the destruction of Israel - at the Elective Conference and its extensive lobbying efforts supported the view.

Earlier on Wednesday, the ANC resolved to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office.

"We reaffirm our solidarity with the people of Western Sahara, Palestine, and Cuba. Delegates endorsed the proposal that we must give practical support to the oppressed people of Palestine and resolved on an immediate and unconditional downgrade of the SA embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office," the resolution read earlier on Wednesday said.

The SAJBD and the SAZF said that those calling for the downgrade were consistent in their desire to "demonise Israel, while real human rights abuses like those occurring in Libya, Myanmar and Syria, among others, are ignored".  

"They are pushing their radical anti-Israel agenda to the detriment of fellow South Africans, and against the interests of the country as a whole."

They said that the downgrade would negatively affect the South African economy by "jeopardising trade, tourism, access to hi-tech water technology". South Africans would also be spiritually and culturally poorer as the downgrade would unfairly impact on the ability of Jews and Christians to practice and identify with their religious and cultural heritage, they said. Furthermore, access to education and cultural resources will be curtailed.

"South Africa will be politically poorer:  with a downgrade, South Africa will forfeit a meaningful role to play as a peace broker. We believe that the only way in which the peace in the Middle East will be achieved, is through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," the joint statement read.

"South Africa, with its close relationship with the Palestinians and with its experience of negotiations, has a unique position to facilitate engagements to peace. South African Jewry feel betrayed by the liberation movement of the ANC structures and are deeply disappointed that they were persuaded by those with obsession to vilify the Jewish state."

Meanwhile, Palestine solidarity organisation Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in South Africa (BDS SA) welcomed the decision.

"This is a huge step in the right direction and a massive gain for the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement," the organisation said. 

"The ANC, Africa's oldest liberation movement, which benefited from boycotts and sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, has provided direction and we look forward to others following suit."

In July, the ANC called for the downgrading of the South African Embassy in Israel due to the ongoing conflict with Palestine, saying that it was concerned by the lack of commitment from Israel on Palestinian issues.

Recently, there has been widespread criticism in various quarters in South Africa of a decision by US President Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

African News Agency/ANA