At the recent 5th ANC Policy Conference, held on 30 June to 5 July 2017, South African-Israel relations were once again in the spotlight, resulting in the International Relations Commission at the ANC Policy Conference recommending the downgrading of the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, into a so-called Liaison Office.
At the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the question of land ownership and control, while the status of Jerusalem remains one of the most sensitive and complex issues of the feud. The proposal to downgrade will be among the items to be deliberated on during the upcoming ANC Elective Conference in December. This issue should by no means be taken lightly as there will be negative off-spins should the motion to downgrade go though. Among a plethora of concerns, South Africans with business interests in Israel will suffer immensely as the mission’s legal jurisdiction will be lessened; the result of this is that the current relative ease of doing business between the two countries will be lost as Israel could reciprocate by downgrading its diplomatic mission to South Africa. Trade with Israel makes a very small contribution to the Israeli economy, more directly, whereas Israeli input underpins a very large part of South Africa’s agricultural sector. Most South African imports of Israeli goods are for use by companies producing South African goods.
Israel manufactures more intellectual property than any other country in the world in relation to its size. The creation of a partnership between Israel’s inventive capability and South Africa’s need to resuscitate its manufacturing capability – new economic gains can be created. Israel hosts the major manufacturing site for microprocessor giant Intel, while major technology multinationals like Google, Microsoft and Apple produce a fair amount of their products and software in the country as well. To this effect, a superficial glance at (South) Africa’s reliance in this sector is China; but even China realises the importance of good trade relations with Israel. Israeli seedlings account for more than half of the South African tomato crop. The country’s major imports from Israel are insecticides and chemical fertilisers, as well as machinery for farming and irrigation. These made up about 50% of the R2.8 billion in imports from Israel last year. The balance includes medical electronic equipment, R160 million in non-woven textiles, about R260 million in plastic packaging materials and about R56 million in prepared foodstuffs ranging from sweets to pre-packaged sauces.
Given South Africa’s recent experience with the 2016 drought, and future preparation for potential phenomena given the changing climate, it is important to note that Israel is leading in water technology. In her article published in the Daily Maverick, Shauna Westcott points out that; world leaders in water technologies are the Israelis who have been working on overcoming water scarcity. Nearly 70 years of research, experiments and the steady implementation of multifaceted systems has achieved the seemingly impossible: arid Israel, 60% desert, now not only has water security but also supplies water to both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Stronger trade between the two countries could facilitate the skills transfer in high technologies from Israel.
Decision-makers in this discourse are at a crossroads where they must make a difficult decision – either to take an ideological position, or a practical one. Should South Africa elect to downgrade its Embassy to a liaison office, it will also be relinquishing its valuable and much-needed contribution towards peace talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict. South Africa, having experienced a painful history first-hand, is in a unique position guide the process and assist the warring parties in finding a solution for a lasting peace. This approach is not new; for instance in May 2013, President Xi Jinping hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a day later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a symbolic display of its willingness to contributing to lasting solutions to this problem, impartially, while safeguarding its economic interest. Perhaps South Africa can emulate China’s method by staying in the fray and remaining part of the noble pursuit for peace.