By downgrading its embassy in Israel, South Africa would in all likelihood undermine the important trade, tourist and scientific-technological ties between the two countries while doing nothing to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood.
This was the message that came through clearly at a panel discussion held yesterday at Investec, Sandton. The discussion was hosted by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) as part of an initiative to bring to wider attention the negative implications of a downgrade.
Dr Peter Draper, MD of Tutwa Consulting, presented a report on the possible economic implications were the proposed downgrade to be adopted. Respondents Fani Titi, Chairman, Investec, and Marc Lubner, Chairman, SA – Israel Chamber of Commerce, reiterated the counter-productive nature of such a move. Prof Mzukisi Qobo, who moderated the discussion, placed emphasis on the need to sustain a positive dialogue and maintain open diplomatic channels.
Titi commented that given the space in which the country currently found itself, losing any level of foreign trade would be “a disaster”. He further believed it would be “morally irresponsible” for South Africa to effectively preclude itself from playing any meaningful diplomatic role in the Israel-Palestine debate. In the years following the transition to democracy, South Africa had been seen as a trusted interlocutor in helping to resolve sensitive international disputes, such as over Northern Ireland. Why, he asked, should it wish to undermine its potential to do so in the Middle East? Titi further pointed out the obvious contradiction between South Africa’s stated commitment to “critical engagement” with Israel and the proposed scaling down of the diplomatic relationship that would render such engagement impossible.
Panellists addressed the potential economic harm that might ensue were South Africa to downgrade or sever ties with Israel. It would, for a start, jeopardise the 8.5 billion Rand of trade between the two countries, a robust trade relationship, which for this year (January to September) alone had already accounted for 3.53 billion Rand of South Africa’s exports. The SA–Israel trade relationship was one of few where South Africa enjoyed a healthy trade surplus. Endangering the relationship further flew against the very notions of seeking economic growth, employment and business opportunities for the ailing South African economy, and would violate the business rights of many South African businesses and members of the business community who do trade with Israel.
Marc Lubner deplored how political obstacles were already preventing South Africa from properly taking advantage of the many opportunities that engagement with Israel offered. He considered these lost opportunities to be “an bigger blow than the simple loss of current trade that might result from an embassy downgrade”. The BRICS nations were deepening their bilateral relations with Israel, he said, even though they were in the main critical of the policies of the Israeli government. Bilateral trade between Israel and Brazil, for instance, now amounted to R16 billion.
South Africa, in common with many countries around the world, benefitted greatly from Israeli skills and specialised knowledge in the fields of Hi Tec, agriculture, water conservation and management, medical innovation and various other fields. Lubner warned that downscaling the diplomatic relationship could limit future access to this crucial resource. Instead, as had already happened in certain instances, Israeli expertise in such areas as water management and agriculture would have to be accessed via a third party, thereby adding significantly to the overall cost. He further pointed out that such technological advancements might assist unemployed Black youth leapfrog into the 1st World economy, rather than relying on government to simply create more menial jobs. As CEO of the Jewish-headed outreach organisation Afrika Tikkun, Lubner is himself extensively involved in social upliftment programmes in the black community.
A downgrade would also have serious implications for tourism. Israel, with an average of 2500 visitors a month, accounted for the highest number of tourists and business travellers from the Middle East. Large numbers of South Africans, from both the Jewish and Christian communities, likewise visited Israel on a regular basis. A break-down in the existing diplomatic relationship might well jeopardise these visits, for example through South Africans wishing to travel to Israel having to travel to another country to make the necessary visa arrangements.
Panellists were sceptical about portraying the downgrade as a means of bringing moral pressure to bear on Israel, observing that the moral argument fell by the wayside when it came to relationships with such obviously human rights-delinquent countries as Sudan, Myanmar, China and others. If moral arguments were to influence foreign policy, then these needed to be consistently applied.
A downgrade would deal a blow to South Africa's economic diplomacy, and could have potentially calamitous consequences for its diplomatic relations with not only Israel, but also countries that support Israel. It might further place existing and vital trade arrangements, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) or even the bilateral South Africa-US free trade agreement that will eventually replace AGOA, in serious jeopardy.
SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn observed that the discussions had confirmed her organisation’s position that a downgrade would neither be in South Africa’s interests nor of any practical benefit in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question.
“If South Africa wishes to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict, in which regard it has much to offer in terms of its own experience of conflict resolution, it cannot do so through the politics of boycott and disengagement. Rather, it should adopt an even-handed approach aimed at fostering dialogue between the disputing parties and to finding practical solutions” she said.