Ebrahim’s U-turn on Israel

2012-08-18 15:48

Deputy minister’s age blamed for umpteenth diplomatic faux pas

Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim was forced to backtrack this week on his statement “discouraging” South Africans from travelling to Israel.

On Friday, Ebrahim said: “It’s the democratic right of every South African to visit any country of their choice and have freedom of movement and association.

“However, we have expressed concern about high- profile and government institutions’ visits to Israel as it gives legitimacy to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land,” he said in a statement.

In an interview with City Press last week, Ebrahim said: “We discourage people from going there except if it has to do with the peace process.”

He also asked that business relations should be “scaled down” between South Africa and Israel.

These statements caused a furore in the Jewish community in South Africa, while buoying pro-Palestine lobby groups who congratulated Ebrahim, who is also the ANC’s head of international relations.

The Jewish community deplored Ebrahim’s call to South Africans.

“The result of such a policy is that South Africa, instead of lending its weight to international efforts to bring about a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, will be seen to be supporting those who wish to promote a complete boycott of Israel and, to that end, seek to shut down any initiatives aimed at meaningful dialogue,” the community said in a statement released through the office of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

“Effectively, honest debate is being shut down, the Israeli viewpoint censored and people denied the opportunity of making their own informed decisions through actions amounting to controlling access to information on the part of a government department,” the statement continued.

Ebrahim’s words also did not go down well with the international relations department, City Press has learnt.

Although the South African government supports a Palestinian push for statehood, it does not support the weakening of ties with the Jewish state.

Ebrahim was asked by the department to issue the new statement on Friday.

“It’s not what he said, because it is not a change in policy. But it’s the nuance, the manner of emphasis, that is problematic,” a departmental source told City Press.

“We tried to be even-handed on the issue. As much as the ANC has been supportive of Palestine, we have diplomatic relations with Israel which we also want to protect,” the source said.

This is not the first time Ebrahim has made a diplomatic faux pas. Earlier this year, he said at a press conference that South Africa has cut off its oil imports from Iran, which turned out to be a mistake.

In April, he told an audience in Cape Town that MTN was scaling down its operations in Iran to avoid sanctions by the United States.

MTN was outraged because the company board had not taken such a decision at the time.

His departmental colleagues blame his penchant for speaking out of turn on his age.

“He has a habit of getting off-message easily, probably because of his age. We know there’s a problem, it’s happening on many issues,” said a senior colleague in the department.

Ebrahim is 75 years old.

“We can’t do anything about it because the decision lies with the leadership, and it is about looking after your comrades and giving them responsibility,” the source added.

Ebrahim has been a close confidant of President Jacob Zuma since they were on Robben Island together.

Ebrahim was Zuma’s adviser when he was deputy president of the country and left office with him when Zuma was fired by Thabo Mbeki.

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