ANC decides South Africa should downgrade ties with Israel

South Africa’s ruling party wants to sharply downgrade ties with Israel.

At its national policy conference on Tuesday, the African National Congress adopted a recommendation “to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office in a bid to reduce diplomatic ties,” the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported.

The policy will go to the ANC’s national conference for ratification in December.

“Our embassy has failed to achieve its necessary political objective over the past 22 years in moving Israel closer to a resolution on the Palestinian question,” Faiez Jacobs, an officer in the Western Cape provincial branch of the ANC which proposed the recommendation, told the newspaper.

The move is intended to send a “strong message” in protest of Israel’s continued military occupation and human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The policy does not call on the government to downgrade Israel’s embassy in Pretoria, but Jacobs anticipates that if South Africa reduces its representation in Tel Aviv, Israel might respond by doing the same.

In 2012, the year of its previous national policy conference, the ANC endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Ties with apartheid

Israel maintained extremely close ties with apartheid South Africa. Tel Aviv was the white supremacist regime’s main weapons supplier when Pretoria was under a tightening international embargo.

Relations cooled significantly after the ANC took power in democratic elections in 1994. Many grassroots activists and iconic leaders in South Africa’s liberation struggle, including the late Ahmed Kathrada, have been staunch supporters of the Palestinian struggle.

Recently, a number of government ministers, including South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, fasted in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike.

In 2015, Israel prevented the entry of South Africa’s higher education minister, who had planned to travel to the occupied West Bank to discuss cooperation with Palestinians.

The minister, Blade Nzimande, had observed – as many leading South Africans have – that “Israeli apartheid is worse than South African apartheid.”

Israel’s destructive record in Africa

While the South African government has offered consistent support for Palestinians – albeit within the framework of backing the so-called two-state solution – it has not spearheaded international efforts to isolate Israel despite a growing consensus that Israel is guilty of apartheid against Palestinians.

Such leadership could be particularly important as Israel launches a renewed diplomatic offensive to win over support from African governments.

Israel markets itself to African countries as a purveyor of development technologies such as drip-irrigation – assistance it withdrew from Senegal in revenge for that country’s December vote for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

But despite the end of its cozy relationship with South Africa, Israel has continued to fuel conflict and atrocities on the continent by supplying arms used in conflicts in South Sudan and Burundi and sending weapons to Rwanda before the 1994 genocide – a role Israel has sought to cover up.

South Africa has gone further than many countries by explicitly discouraging its citizens from traveling to present-day Israel because of the mistreatment of Palestinians.

The ANC policy conference decision indicates that the ruling party’s grassroots feel that the government could be doing much more to translate the strong sentiments of solidarity into effective action.