S. African Jewish Leaders Optimistic After Mbeki Vows Not to Meet Hamas

Following pressure from the community, South Africa’s president promised Jewish leaders that he would not meet with Hamas members. But Thabo Mbeki did not condemn comments by Iranian President Mahmoiud Ahmedinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies — the community’s umbrella body — discussed the matter at its annual meeting with Mbeki last week in Pretoria.

Mbeki had previously expressed his intention of meeting with Hamas. Before the meeting, Jewish leaders warned “that it would destroy his ability to act as a mediator in the Middle East crisis,” said Michael Bagraim, national chairman of the board.

At the meeting, Mbeki told the group that he had decided not to meet with Hamas members, but would meet with others in the Palestinian Authority and with Israeli officials.

The meeting, also attended by South Africa’s deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, was much more substantive than in previous years, Bagraim said.

“The last time we met President Mbeki, we put our concerns and comments, which he noted. In this one, he spent a lot of time talking — it wasn’t a photo shoot,” he said.

The group also discussed the government’s failure to condemn Ahmadinejad’s comments.

When the Iranian leader first came out with these statements, the board met with South Africa’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, who explained that there had been no government reaction because he had been out of the country at the time and the matter had “fallen between the cracks.”

When Ahmadinejad repeated himself, the board again approached Pahad, with no result.

It was then decided to bring the matter up at its annual meeting with Mbeki.

At the meeting, Mbeki confirmed the government’s policy that any call for the destruction of another state and any denial of the Holocaust would be condemned, and promised to “follow up on why the government hasn’t condemned both those statements,” Bagraim told JTA.

Bagraim said he had been feeling “a little bit down” beforehand, wondering if there was a Jewish future in this country. Afterward, he said he felt “very positive.” He noted that Mbeki has warm feelings for the Jewish community and told the group that he regards it as a “partner in the future of the country.”

“We specifically made the point that for the first time in South Africa’s history, we as a Jewish community feel very comfortable and very much part of society. We want to play our role in the society, and we have to be treated as such.”

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