By Raphael Ahren
Hopes are high that President Shimon Peres will meet with his South African counterpart next week to discuss the future of the only direct flight between Israel and South Africa.
Many fear El Al’s Johannesburg-Tel Aviv line will be canceled at the end of January because Pretoria refuses to provide Israeli security personnel with diplomatic passports.
A well-informed source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the issue’s sensitive nature, told Anglo File yesterday he expects Peres to attempt to solve the crisis during a meeting with President Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum in Davos next week.
"We hope and expect that Peres will meet with Zuma. Hopefully he'll be able to sort out the problem," he said. A foreign ministry spokesman told Anglo File Wednesday that no meeting between Peres and Zuma had been scheduled yet, but that "it could eventually take place." Zuma's spokesperson did not respond to Anglo File's requests for comment before press time. The potential cancellation of the route has some local South Africans worried about the future of already strained bilateral relations, saying it would send a "terrible signal." Others are convinced a compromise will be found. They point to South Africa's shaky reputation on security matters and say this summer's soccer World Cup hosts can ill afford to be seen as lax on security issues. "We are dismayed about the possible cancellation of El Al's South Africa flights," said Maish Isaacson, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation's Israel branch. "There's an emotional connection between Jews in South Africa and El Al … It would be a de-facto downgrading of relations between the two countries." A discontinuation of the route could "precipitate a possible decrease in aliyah from South Africa," he added. The current crisis arose this summer when a disgruntled former El Al security guard, Jonathan Garb, approached Carte Blanche, a South African investigative TV program. He accused El Al of racial profiling and other procedures he deemed improper. A public outcry ensued and South Africa expelled an Israeli security officer in November. Pretoria has since refused to grant diplomatic passports to the staff of the Shin Bet security service, the source told Anglo File. Israel, unlike other countries, provides its own security in foreign airports. This is done by the Shin Bet, which requires passports granting security team leaders diplomatic immunity to ensure they can operate without fearing legal prosecution. All countries with air links to Israel have granted such passports or signed other agreements acceptable to Israel. If no solution is found, an El Al spokesperson said, his company "will have difficulty fulfilling the Shin Bet's directives to that destination, and the significance of that is clear." Elizabeth Smith of South African Embassy in Israel told Anglo File bilateral discussions are "ongoing in Pretoria." Speculating about the root of the crisis, Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry and ambassador to South Africa, pointed to currently tense relations between the two nations. It is possible that Pretoria wants to make a political point by "trying to embarrass Israel," he told Anglo File. Ahead of the World Cup, many international airlines are worried about security and giving in to Israel's demands might set a precedent South Africa is trying to avoid, he added. Tamar Golan, a former ambassador and a leading Africa scholar, told Anglo File Pretoria "is currently not particularly interested" in making gestures toward Israel. "South Africa always had a difficult relationship with Israel, and now, after Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone report it got even worse. Don't forget that for South Africans, [Judge Richard] Goldstone is an almost mythical personality," she said. "The route is really in danger – they couldn't care less about El Al," Golan asserted. David Hersch, the former chairman of Western Province Zionist Council in South Africa, speculated deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim could be behind Pretoria's tough stance. "He is … more anti-Israel than his predecessor." The final decision about El Al, however, lies in Zuma's hand, said Hersch. "He is approachable and maybe through this channel things will be quieted down."
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