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South Africa's parliament votes to downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel

While symbolic politically, the decision by the South African parliament to downgrade the Israeli mission in the country is not binding but gained support of 208 lawmakers.
An opening session of the South African parliament. ( RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

South Africa’s parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of a decision calling to downgrade the level of the Israeli mission to the country from embassy to a liaison office.

The decision was approved by 208 parliamentarians, while 94 rejected the motion for downgrading Israel-South Africa relations. While the parliament's vote is politically significant, it is not legislatively binding. In order for such a vote to become policy, the government in South Africa has to adopt the motion, and inform Israel. Only then an official downgrade would take effect. The government in Pretoria has not issued yet a reaction to the vote.

The motion for downgrading relations was tabled by Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam of the National Freedom Party (NFP), and received the support of the African National Congress (ANC) ruling party.

In a statement, the NFP said Nelson Mandela, the late South African leader who ended apartheid, would be proud of the vote. “This is a moment Madiba [Nelson Mandela] would be proud of. He always said our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians," it read. “This resolution demands accountability from Israel. … As South Africans, we refuse to stand by while Apartheid is being perpetrated again."

Israel’s Foreign Ministry condemned on Wednesday the parliament’s decision. “The symbolic resolution taken yesterday by the South African parliament calling for the downgrading of relations between South Africa and Israel is shameful and disgraceful. Even as a symbolic resolution, it does not contribute in the least to the promotion of any viable solution in the Middle East," its statement read.

“At a time when many African and Muslim countries are strengthening and deepening ties with the State of Israel for the benefit of everyone's common interests, it is unfortunate that South Africa continues to adhere to anachronism and the deterioration of relations, a move that will only harm South Africa itself and its standing," it continued.

Bilateral relations between Israel and South Africa have been complicated over Pretoria’s solidarity with Palestinians and ties with Palestinian groups, ever since the toppling of the apartheid regime in 1994. 

In 2018, following tensions on the Gaza border, South Africa decided to downgrade its mission in Israel. Pretoria did not recall its ambassador. Instead, the ambassador at the time continued to head the embassy in Tel Aviv until completing his mission in 2019. Since then, no new ambassador has been appointed, and the South African Embassy is headed by a charge d’affaires.

Israel, for its part, maintains a vibrant mission in Pretoria. Ambassador Eli Belotserkovsky, one of Israel's most senior and experienced diplomats, was appointed to his current position in Pretoria in June 2021.

In addition to Algeria, South Africa was one of the countries rejecting the 2021 acceptance of Israel as observer state to the African Union. Last month,  Israel's Foreign Ministry Africa Division Deputy Director Sharon Bar-li was removed by guards from the hall where the AU annual summit was taking place. Condemning the incident, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem summoned the South African charge d’affaires for a reprimand.  

An Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that the government in Pretoria does not support the parliament’s decision, and does not intend to follow up on it. As of Wednesday, the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria did not receive a notification on the issue.

The source said that on certain levels, bilateral relations with South Africa have actually improved in the past two years.

Another Israeli diplomatic source assessed that the parliament’s decision was driven by internal political considerations, with the ANC pushed into a corner at the expense of Israel. The source noted that the resolution stands in contrast to the general trend on the African continent of improving ties with Israel. In 2019, Israel renewed diplomatic relations with Chad. In 2020, Morocco and Sudan joined the Abraham Accords for normalizing ties with Israel. Sudan has yet to sign the accords.

Israel is currently engaged in efforts to normalize ties with other African countries such as Mauritania and Somalia.

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