South African Official Angers Jews with Statements on Israeli Policies

South African Jews have expressed concern and anger over recent statements by Defense Minister Joe Modise that lashed out against Israel and compared Israeli policies toward Palestinians with the old apartheid regime.

Local media commentators suggested Modise’s remarks signaled an end to South Africa’s special relationship with Israel.

“Israel was the main partner of this country, the biggest buster of sanctions, including the arms embargo,” Modise said in a recent interview with Reuters.

He said that Israel had continued to supply the old South African regime with arms even after other countries like France and Italy had stopped doing so.

Comparing Israel to the old South Africa, Modise said, “Politically they were more or less in the same trench.”

“The things the Israelis did to the Palestinians were not very different from what South Africa did to its own inhabitants,” he said.

“The only difference between Israel and South Africa is that it was not in the law books of Israel like it was in this country.”

Jewish groups reacted swiftly to the remarks.

The comparison of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and the apartheid years in South Africa are “not only absolutely untrue, but also a deliberately hurtful comparison,” Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Abe Abrahamson, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, and Mervyn Smith, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said in a joint statement issued July 14.

“Moreover, the attack on Israeli-South African arms deals in the past was highly selective, particularly in the light of what is now becoming known regarding the purchase of oil from Iran and the sale of arms to Iraq, all in breach of sanctions and boycotts,” the statement added.

‘UNFAIR IN THE LIGHT OF CHANGES’

“An attack on Israel is a very sensitive matter to the South African Jewish community,” the statement said.

“This attack is, moreover, unfair in the light of changes that have and are taking place in the Middle East, especially the events of the past few weeks.

“There is now a new political climate in South Africa,” the statement observed.

“And the minister’s intemperate statements are all the more to be regretted as they are in sharp conflict with the spirit of reconciliation and national unity initiated by President Mandela,” the statement said.

In an interview, Harris noted that Mandela had recently called on Jewish professionals who had left to the country to return to South Africa.

“The damage caused by Modise’s statement will make it all the more difficult to realize this,” Harris said.

“It is regrettable for Modise to call up relationships between past governments of both Israel and South Africa at a time when the Israeli government is proceeding with peace.”

South Africa’s foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, said the country conducts its relations with the countries in the Middle East in the context of the “evenhanded approach.”

That approach, Nzo said, was revealed at the time of Mandela’s inauguration.

At that time, Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat met here at the specific request of both parties.

“This was an indication of the positive role which they expected President Mandela to play in the unfolding Middle East peace process,” Nzo said.

In a statement released to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel, Nzo said, “Modise made his remarks specifically with reference to matters relating to arms sales and arms contracts.”

In his interview, Modise also promised to act against Israel if proof were provided of police charges that the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, murdered two people here in an effort to halt the shipment of strategic chemicals to other Middle Eastern governments.

Liel strongly denied the allegations when reports of a Mossad connection to the murders surfaced earlier this month.

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