Below is an interview Political Analysis South Africa’s Stephanie Naidoo had with Ambassador Lior Keinan, the recently appointed Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius, on South Africa-Israel relations under his leadership.
Interviewer: What are the priorities of the Embassy of Israel in South Africa under your leadership?
Ambassador Lior Keinan: My priorities are to engage as much as possible with all South African elements that are willing to do so, that means extending our knowledge in agriculture, in water, and in education and health, wherever necessary, in order also to bring people closer. Because, it is not only government-to-government, the role of an embassy is also to improve introductions between both peoples, and of each country that way, and also to increase tourism and trade. So, basically it is that; it is to engage in a dialogue with whichever elements are willing to do so, and the second thing, is to mold, as strong as possible, the relations between peoples – the South Africans and the Israelis.
What would you say is the status of South Africa-Israel relations?
We have many operations which people do not know, exist. We have, for example, direct flights between the countries, which is very important – that means that we have mutual tourism, that means that we have a nice balance of trade between both countries; we have delegations that arrive, from one country, to the another. For example, Israel has just had a very brief delegation of partners from our Parliament, arriving here just a month ago; Exchange of know-how and information between Parliament, here, and our our Parliamentary Group for example. South Africa, on the other hand, had a very impressive delegation come in, just two weeks ago, to (attend) a very big and important water event that we have in Israel every couple of years, called Watec; and they came both from the private sector, and from different municipalities, to get different impressions on how Israel is dealing with scarcity of water; with increasing the amount of water that we are able to use, with reducing the waste of water that we have already used, and, for example, just of the last month – different exchanges and different delegations coming here, and going there, to do exactly what I said before; to engage with whoever wants to engage with Israel, and learn from our experience, and that we learn from South African experience in different aspects and also improve peoples lives and people’s introduction to each other.
What do you hope the status of relations under your leadership to be? What are your aspirations for SA-Israel relations?
When I had presented my credence to President Jacob Zuma, I had a very brief conversation with him, and it is exactly what I told him: I told him that both countries should think about, how each could contribute to the other, because there is plenty, that both can do for each other. For example, I mentioned that South Africa finished a very long dispute in peaceful ways, and that should be an example for the nations of the Middle East when they are seeking a peaceful solution order to learn from the South African experience. Why not? And the other way around, I reminded and explained that Israel bears similarity to South Africa; with conditions like desert; we do not have much rain, like you (South Africa), and scarcity of water, and we solved it – for the first time in our history, we do not have any lack of water because we had different solutions for that; or the fact that we are second only to Silicone Valley, with our high-tech industry, which is an amazing solutions for different problems which exist here. So, that is where I want to take it, I want to take the relations to a place where each country is using it’s own experience to help the other country, and we are exchanging information and knowledge and vision, like it has already started a month ago, as per those two examples which I just gave you. And I, would like myself, also, to get out of Pretoria as well, and go to the different provinces, or to the municipalities, and just ask: “how can Israel help, here? What are the problems that we can address?”; this is also part of Israel policy to strengthen the relations between Israel and Africa, as a whole; as a continent, and South Africa, of course, is a very important country in Africa, and it is important for Israel to strengthen relations with them as well.
Realistically, what ought to be the role of the ANC and South Africa with respect to peace-building and, indeed, resolving the crisis in the Middle East?
As I said, when you see a very long, complicated conflict, like South Africa had, resolved in a peaceful way – that should teach you; you should go and look at the elements, and why it was resolved successfully, in order to implement the same elements, the next time. And also, South Africa participated in other peace negotiations or processes, like with Ireland, and I am not surprised; because, whenever you can, give from your own experiences, to others – that might help. So, my wish and request of the ANC, and of leaders, is that they should do everything in their power in order to assist the nations of the Middle East, as well. Why not? And this can be done, by the way, only through dialogue. I do not feel, I do not see, and I do not know, any other way that you can contribute from your experience, except from arriving, and having dialogue and engagement with all parties, because otherwise, some, or all, of the parties, will not want you as a mediator or contributor on the issue.
President Jacob Zuma has referred to you as umkhwenyana, which in Zulu means brother-in-law; does this, in a sense, mean that Israel has a friend in Jacob Zuma, or the Zuma administration?
Israel has never entered local politics, or preferences, on issues that affect South Africa. Israel looks to engage with whoever wants to engage with Israel, really. My conversation with the President, was frank and honest and even simple, and I was impressed from that short dialogue; but, it was just a short dialogue. I look forward to extending it further, and hope that I will have the opportunity, with the President, with Cabinet, and the Ministers, again, in the future. That is one of my goals, here.
Members of the ANC have recommended downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office. What is your response to this?
Of course, I hope that South Africa will not downgrade any relations; because, how will it contribute to everything I just said until now? How will it contribute to anyone? It will not contribute to the Israelis, of course. I would think that it (relations) would contribute to South Africa, because as I said, we still have a lot of engagement, and trade, and tourism, and we are dealing with water scarcity, with agriculture with health, in different projects that we have. So, how will losing trade worth millions and millions of dollars, assist the people of South Africa?
And, regarding, maybe internationally; if ANC members are suggesting or intending to maybe assist the Palestinians – how will it (the downgrade) assist the Palestinians; for example, the Palestinian call. I know that it is important for the ANC, but I do not see how downgrading the relations between Israel and South Africa will move, not even one inch, the relations between Israel and the Palestinians or the negotiations for peace. We are engaging with the Palestinians, and in dialogue with them, on different aspects, all the time. So, one should wonder – should South Africa be more Palestinian, than the Palestinians themselves? How reducing or eliminating any dialogue with Israel, will assist anyone, or the idea of peace, itself. So, I hope it will not be implemented and it will not be recommended, because again, I hope people will see that it benefits no one.
Is there anything that you would like to add on behalf of the Embassy, or yourself?
I just arrived; almost two months ago, but we have already started the two months, as I said, with delegations here, and delegations from here, to Israel; with presenting my credentials, and meeting the President; with a warm welcome from the important Jewish community that we have here, which is also important, so that they may be a bridge between both our peoples, because they know both Israel and South Africa. It was fascinating; it shows me the potential of the relations that we can achieve. So, I am looking forward to continue, and to work very hard in order to find and have that sound potential implemented, or to advance the relations between countries. It is a beautiful country, I know it, I am married to a South African – that is why the President called me his brother-in-law, because I am married to a South African; that is why I know a bit about South Africa. I look forward to travel, and to get to different places here; and to work hard.