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Reflections on S. Africa-israel Ties: Israel’s Outgoing Ambassador Speaks

For Tova Herzl, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to South Africa, the line between diplomatic incident and personal tragedy is very thin.

Halfway through her three-year stint as ambassador, Herzl’s niece Michal was killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

In a country where the majority ruling party, the African National Congress, had links to the PLO during the apartheid era, when the ANC was a black liberation movement, sympathies did not automatically lie with the Israeli ambassador.

Shortly before she returned to Israel at the end of December — her successor has not been appointed — Herzl spoke with JTA about that event and the complex relations between Israel and South Africa, and about South Africa’s Jews.

Herzl said the response of South Africans to her personal trauma was influenced by the politics of the apartheid era.

Herzl was at a gala dinner in Johannesburg on the day her niece was one of seven people killed in a June 2002 bombing in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. She said expected to get a phone call from a relative saying everything was OK, as usually happened after attacks.

When nobody called, Herzl phoned Jerusalem and was told that her 22-year-old niece was in the vicinity of the incident and was not answering her cell phone. The tragic news came soon thereafter.

Herzl jumped on the next flight out to Israel.

When she returned to the country after mourning for her niece, she said she was met with “tremendous warmth from the Jewish community, friends in the press, editors and journalists I knew.”

But she got a cooler reception from South African government officials.

“I expected South African diplomats and officials I had worked with to reach out. But I heard almost nothing,” she said. “Soon after, I was at a restaurant. At the next table. the Palestinian ambassador, Salman El-Herfi, sat with South African government officials. The ambassador came across to express condolences, but the South Africans did not. I was deeply hurt. Afterwards, I had to continue to interact with them. It was difficult personally and professionally.”

Herzl says the episode was emblematic of South Africa’s attitude to Israel — politically correct but cool.

The ambassador’s term coincided with the intifada, which had special resonance with black South Africans.

The former archbishop of Cape Town and chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Desmond Tutu, wrote in London’s Guardian newspaper in 2002, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

Herzl said, “The South Africa-Israel relationship is hostage to the Middle East peace process. But it is important to acknowledge that the official position does mention two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in security. Personally, I would like them to talk about a ‘Jewish state’ rather than just Israel, but they do accept Israel’s right to exist.”

“Lately, there has been less public criticism of Israel,” she said. “The South African government now appears committed to improving the relationship.”

At the opening of a new Israeli institution in Pretoria on Dec. 2, Anil Sooklal, deputy head of the Middle East desk of the Foreign Affairs Department, praised South Africa’s healthy trading ties with Israel, the strongest South Africa has with any Middle Eastern country. South Africa, he said, intended on establishing bilateral agreements with Israel in 2004 in the fields of arts, culture, science and technology.

Herzl talked angrily about the “Durban” phenomenon, in which a U.N. anti-racism conference in the South African city in 2001 became riddled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric.

“It was traumatic — an amazing manifestation of hypocrisy, a wake up call that anti-Semitism is alive and well,” she said. “The comparison of Israel to an apartheid state was very damaging. The South African government is only now beginning to realize just how damaging this event was.”

Herzl tried to help this process of realization along.

“Part of my job was to expand dialogue beyond politics into culture and technical cooperation. For many South Africans, the only Israelis they have seen are soldiers on TV with guns,” she said. “Among other things, we started an agricultural project using Israeli technology in an impoverished rural area, giving a different face to Israel. We raised local funds for a full-time agricultural expert to replicate it. It can potentially provide food for many thousands of people. We also organized cultural events with Israeli artists, which expanded the dialogue.”

Prior to Herzl’s South Africa posting, she was Israel’s first ambassador to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Before that, she was a congressional liaison in Washington.

“In Washington, the Jewish community is highly organized, with open channels to the U.S. government. But in South Africa and Lithuania basic bridge-building still needs to be done to establish the connections,” she said.

Herzl said her three years in South Africa have not been easy, largely because of her niece’s killing and the political overtones that arose from the episode.

Back in Israel, Herzl, 51, plans on taking early retirement from the Foreign Service. She said she’ll decide how to use her experience and skills in other ways.

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