The government has made it official that its policy is to discourage South Africans from visiting Israel.
The categorical statement by Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim yesterday drew immediate fire from Israel and the local Jewish community, which said it was a call on South Africans to boycott Israel.
However, Ebrahim denied that the policy he had just spelt out amounted to a boycott of Israel, stressing that SA still maintained diplomatic relations with the country.
“What we are saying as government is we discourage South Africans from visiting Israel,” Ebrahim said.
“We do not prevent them. We say we discourage them. The decision is left to the individual or the organisation that is invited to visit Israel.
“There has been a policy of discouraging because we believe Israel is an occupying power and is doing all sorts of things in the Palestine occupied territory which have been condemned by the entire international community.”
Ebrahim was also asked to clarify apparently contradictory government statements about a recent draft directive issued by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies calling for goods produced in the West Bank to be labelled as being made in occupied Palestinian territory rather than being made in Israel.
Davies has stressed that the purpose of the directive is simply to ensure correct labelling, but the other Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Marius Fransman, told the Muslim community in Cape Town last month that the directive was part of “a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel”.
Ebrahim seemed to support Davies’s stance, saying yesterday: “There is no policy on the part of the government of boycotting Israel… nor is there a policy of not having diplomatic relations.
“We are not saying that people should boycott these goods. We are saying that the consumer should have a right to know that these are goods produced in occupied territory.”
Israel’s ambassador to SA, Dov Segev-Steinberg, nevertheless responded yesterday by saying “the cat is out of the bag”.
He said the government had at first insisted that the correct labelling of products was necessary to protect SA consumers, but now it was clear that the intention was to boycott Israel.
“It is very regrettable that this is now the official South African stance towards Israel. Instead of using the South African way of dialogue to promote peace, this is completely the opposite. It enlarges the gap between the two sides and it’s not constructive.”
The SA Jewish community “deplored” Ebrahim’s statement. “Such a stance is grossly discriminatory, counterproductive and wholly inconsistent with how South Africa normally conducts its international relations, and contradicts its official policy of having full diplomatic ties with Israel,” the Sa Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation and the Office of the Chief Rabbi said in a joint statement.
The Jewish community said that in other conflict areas around the world, SA always emphasised the need for constant dialogue and engagement, but “when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian question, its current policy would seem to be to prevent the Israeli case from even being heard”.
Ebrahim said visits by South Africans to Israel “would somehow endorse the occupation of Palestinian territory, and we think a message should be sent to the Israelis that they have to end the occupation of Palestinian territory”.
He added that the exception to the government policy of discouraging visits to Israel would be anyone involved in the peace process. Ebrahim recalled that SA had previously tried to contribute to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by sharing its own negotiation experience with Israelis and Palestinians.
But this had failed and there seemed little chance SA could make a contribution now when the US and the Quartet (comprising the US, Russia, the UN and EU) had failed.
Ebrahim also said that discouraging visits to Israel had always been his government’s policy, even in the previous administration, and that he did not know of any other country which the government discouraged South Africans visiting.