Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO News
Johannesburg -  Cosatu has accused the Jewish Board of Deputies of attempting to divide the ruling party and the South African government in its decision to downgrade relations with Israel by trying to isolate Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

"This is the decision of the ANC and we do not believe there have been any contradictions between the President and the Minister in this regard; we condemn this attempt to confuse everyone. South Africa is not a confused state," Cosatu has said.

Following Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu’s announcement last week that South Africa would not be replacing its ambassador in Tel Aviv, and that the South African mission would remain at the level of a liaison office with no political, trade, or development mandate, the SAJBD accused Sisulu of contradicting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statements on the matter. 

The ANC has hit back at the SAJBD’s statement saying, “The ANC lauds the decision by the Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu to downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel. The ANC resolved to downgrade its embassy, and these conference resolutions are binding on all of its members including those deployed to Cabinet. Both the President and Minister are ANC deployees who are bound by the decisions of its highest organ which is the conference.” 

The Chair of the ANC’s NEC Sub-committee on International Relations Lindiwe Zulu has welcomed the implementation of the resolution to downgrade South Africa’s diplomatic presence, on behalf of the entire ANC NEC. 

Special Advisor to the Minister for International Relations Zane Dangor has responded to the SAJBD allegations saying, “The SAJBD statement erroneously seeks to suggest that there are different approaches within government to downgrading South Africa’s diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. Both President Ramaphosa and Minister Sisulu are committed to implementing a resolution pertaining to this issue that was passed unanimously by the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).” 

Dangor has referred to the President’s response to a question posed to him in the National Assembly on March 7th on progress in implementing the ANC resolution to downgrade relations with Israel. 

“Government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy in Israel. Our approach is informed by our concern at the ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the refusal of the government of Israel to enter into meaningful negotiations to find a just and peaceful resolution to this conflict,” Ramaphosa said, “The South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel.” 

Dangor maintains that the essence of the ANC’s resolution was that South Africa was to downgrade diplomatic relations with the Government of Israel until it complies with international law.  

“Since the passing of the resolution in December 2017, instead of seeking to comply with international law, the Government of Israel has continued to act contrary to international human rights law and various UN Resolutions including UN Security Council resolutions. This includes disregarding international injunctions against increased settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, contravening the responsibilities of an occupying power in relation to humanitarian services in the territories under its occupation, and illegal use of force in the occupied Palestinian territories,” Dangor has said. 

The ANC’s alliance partners and numerous civil society formations have voiced their support for the actions to downgrade South Africa’s diplomatic presence in Israel. On Monday the SACP issued a statement saying, “The SACP Salutes the South African Government for downgrading the status of the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office. The decision was officially communicated during #IsraelApartheidWeek. Although the decision was long overdue, we appreciate the message sent by our ANC-led government to the rest of the world that South Africa cannot have normal relations with an apartheid state.” 

The SACP went further saying it strongly condemns the statement of intent made a few days ago by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if re-elected he will annex the whole of the West Bank and never recognise the state of Palestine. 

The SAJBD has responded robustly to the recent developments calling on the South African Government to “reject politically biased and discriminatory calls to break off ties with Israel and instead find ways to re-engage in the region through maintaining open channels of communication with all parties.”

"The SAJBD remains strongly of the view that an embassy downgrade would not achieve anything in terms of advancing Middle East peace prospects, but would run counter to South Africa's own objective interests, particularly in terms of stimulating Foreign Investment," the SAJBD has said.

Cosatu has shot back saying, "We cannot be held at ransom in the name of investment and trade, this is a matter of principle, and South Africa must no longer be complacent on the matter."

While there has been no official Israeli reaction, following Sisulu’s statement that plans to downgrade the South African embassy had already started, according to the Middle East Monitor Israeli radio reported that Israel is planning to withdraw its ambassador to South Africa. Israeli radio also allegedly reported that the Israeli embassy in South Africa will be downgraded to a representative office which would deal with consulate issues.

Civil society has upped the pressure on Israel to adhere to international law with over 700 British artists from the worlds of literature, film, stage and music, having pledged to boycott Israel "as long as the state continues to deny basic Palestinian rights." Former British PEN President and writer Gillian Slovo have said, "As a South African I witnessed the way the cultural boycott of South Africa helped apply pressure on the apartheid government and its supporters. This Artists Pledge for Palestine has drawn lessons from that boycott to produce an even more nuanced, non-violent way for us to call for change and justice for all."

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has welcomed the downgrading of relations with Tel Aviv. "We applaud this significant move to break relations with Israel, an arrogant and racist colonial state that denies equal rights to all citizens through apartheid laws. The measures announced by Minister Sisulu demonstrate that our government can take practical actions in line with political and moral imperatives that will put us on the right side of history." 

The PSC has also pointed to a UN Human Rights Commission report published last month which found that Israel’s use of lethal force against protesters warrants criminal investigation and prosecution and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.