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Ramaphosa flip-flops in pre-election dance over Israel

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As elections draw near, President Cyril Ramaphosa is caught between a rock and a hard place as far as downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel is concerned, and is pandering for approval depending on his audience, according to experts.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Mar 14, 2019

Last week, Ramaphosa was “put on the spot”, say political analysts, when Munzoor Shaik Emam from the National Freedom Party asked him whether any progress had been made regarding the controversial downgrade.

He found himself ping-ponging on the issue, especially since all eyes were on him during his response, including those of Mandla Mandela, grandson of the late Nelson Mandela, who is openly anti-Israel and hugely in favour of the downgrade.

Knowing that he can no longer pussyfoot around the hot issue, Ramaphosa appeared to be trying to keep all sides to this thorny issue happy. On the one hand, he said the government was moving ahead with plans to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv, in fulfilment of the resolution agreed to at the national conference of the African National Congress (ANC) more than a year ago.

On the other, he reiterated South Africa’s commitment to playing a constructive role in Middle East peace efforts.

He stressed the government’s continued support for the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbours, based on a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then he said “the government remains seized with the modalities” of downgrading the embassy, and would communicate once the Cabinet had finalised the matter.

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP and spokesperson on labour Michael Bagraim told the SA Jewish Report that Ramaphosa was trying to “keep everyone happy” and in the process was being “duplicitous” and “speaking with a forked tongue”.

“The president was put under pressure in parliament. He understands that if he is in some way disagreeing with the majority of the caucus, he will have real trouble. I could see this tension.

“I don’t believe the president wants to downgrade the embassy, but he doesn’t have the power to push the resolution aside. He is caught between what he wants to do, and what he has to do.”

He said Ramaphosa was stalling on the issue, which was good for the community, and he found this heartening.

“When he says the government is investigating the modalities, what exactly does this mean? This is a bullshit answer. He is bullshitting his own caucus. There’s no investigation – he’s merely kicking for touch, buying time. How then does he explain this? He says we might have a role to play in the peace process. So someone has given him an argument to enable him to buy time.

“On the one hand he says we are definitely closing it down, but we are working on the modalities. On the other hand he says we haven’t closed it yet, because we still have a role to play. I think it’s duplicitous. He is keeping his options open with both sides.”

Sara Gon, policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, said: “If the president is tailoring what he says depending on who he is talking to, he must think we’re stupid.”

She said there are contradictory and uncertain positions.

“The ANC supports the Palestinians over the Israelis, and it has resolved to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to show its disapproval of Israel. It will still play a role in achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict to achieve a two-state solution. Cyril is doing what the ANC requires him to do.

“The problem is although the Muslim population is very small, it has powerful representation in the ANC. This is magnified by a strong anti-Israel position taken traditionally by the Left.

“South Africa is nobody on the world scene. It has no role in negotiations, and certainly not given its very partisan stance.

“The president repeatedly tries to assure the tiny Jewish population that he cares about Israel, and that investment is a shared goal. The problem is that the Jewish community is not a voting block of any consequence. So, he can reassure Jews about one thing while he goes about doing another. If he is playing into election fever, I think it’s completely unnecessary. The number of voters who care or know about the Israel-Palestinian issue is irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies welcomed Ramaphosa’s assurances that South Africa remains committed to playing a constructive role in the Middle East, and applauded his support for the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbours, based on a negotiated two-state solution.

But the board said it is “disappointed and perplexed” by the president’s intention to give effect to the resolution to downgrade the embassy.

“This indeed contradicted Mr Ramaphosa’s own observation that in order for South Africa to see where it might be able to provide assistance, it needed to continue engaging with all parties to the conflict,” said national chairman, Shaun Zagnoev.

The SAJBD said the downgrade will “do nothing to further peace efforts in the region”, but instead will significantly “reduce this country’s ability to play any kind of role”. It urged the government to reconsider its intention, and to look instead for ways to re-engage with all parties.

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa was quick to latch on to Ramaphosa’s statement with an incessant flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, and a press statement welcoming his response. It said it welcomed the president’s confirmation in parliament that South Africa will not “turn back” on the downgrade.

The original tweet was placed above an old photograph of a smiling Ramaphosa standing alongside anti-Israel Palestinian teen activist Ahed Tamimi, making it appear as if it was taken more recently. It is not known when this photograph was taken by Sunday Times photographers, but it is an old file photograph.

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