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South Africa ANC backs minister on Israel embassy stance

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu gives a joint press conference with French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, following the 8th Session of the South Africa-France Forum for Political Dialogue (FPD) at OR Tambo Building on 28 February 2019 in Pretoria. [PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images]
South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu gives a joint press conference with French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, following the 8th Session of the South Africa-France Forum for Political Dialogue (FPD) at OR Tambo Building on 28 February 2019 in Pretoria. [PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images]

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has backed the country’s Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, who has come under attack for her role in downgrading South Africa’s embassy to Israel.

Sisulu has been attacked from a number of fronts, including by South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). Vice-president of the SAJBD, Zev Krengel, last week accused Sisulu of being “the single biggest enemy” of South Africa’s Jewish community, claiming she is “obsessed with criticising the Jewish state [Israel]”.

Krengel’s attack continued: “Either the minister [Sisulu] was electioneering and trying to cosy up to the BDS-SA [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa] movement and other radical elements within the Muslim community, or she was adding to internal ANC struggles, and trying to embarrass the president [Cyril Ramaphosa].”

South Africa last week held its general election, during which President Ramaphosa and his ANC party were re-elected, but with a reduced majority of 58 per cent.

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Despite Krengel’s accusations that Sisulu was trying to weaken the ANC with her policies vis a vis Israel, the party yesterday publicly backed its minister. According to local news outlet Independent Online (IOL), the ANC expressed its regret and disappointment with the “destructive utterances attributed to Zev Krengel in the Jewish Report [newspaper] directed at minister of international relations Lindiwe Sisulu”.

The ANC continued: “Minister Sisulu’s integrity is beyond reproach […] The ANC is satisfied that minister Sisulu has recalibrated South Africa’s foreign policy so that it reflects the people of South Africa’s profound opposition to gross human rights abuses and colonial occupation of Palestine.”

Meanwhile the ANC’s Secretary General, Ace Magashule, also expressed his support for Sisulu, saying: “We congratulate you, because you are moving with the collective […] Stay resolute because you are implementing the decisions of the highest decision-making body of the ANC national conference.”

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Sisulu has been at the forefront of South Africa’s downgrading of relations with Israel since 2017, when the ANC decided to implement a resolution directing the government to “immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office”. The ANC called the resolution “a practical expression of support [for] the oppressed people of Palestine” and a means of pressuring Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories (oPt).

Last month South Africa implemented the first phase of this decision, downgrading its formerly full-service embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office – a diplomatic mission with limited functionality. Sisulu explained in a statement at the time that this office “will have no political mandate, no trade mandate and no development-cooperation mandate,” adding that it would focus only on “consular [assistance] and the facilitation of people-to-people relations”.

South Africa’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv, Sisa Ngombane, was also permanently recalled as part of the downgrade.

This comes as part of a broader diplomatic spat between Israel and South Africa, which has been ongoing for over a year. In May 2018, Ngombane was recalled from Israel in protest against Israel’s killing of Palestinian protesters during the Great March of Return in the besieged Gaza Strip. Despite vowing he would not be returned until “headway” was made with resolving the situation in the oPt, Ngombane returned to Tel Aviv after just four months.

Israeli-South African relations have also been soured by the latter’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has seen churches and universities throughout South Africa back a cultural, economic and academic boycott of Israel.

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