‘I’D BE TERRIFIED IN Gaza’
Israeli ambassador Arthur Lenk has been dodging verbal missiles in SA while trying to justify his country’s attacks on Gaza. He didn’t cower when Janet Heard fired off a few more
Q: But ...? City Press: How has your relationship with the SA government shifted since your arrival in August 2013?
Lenk: There has been no shift. I believed then and now that Israel and SA have lots to learn from each other. Recent events only make that point stronger. I am here to do a job. I am blessed to be able to do that job, to tell our story in a country like South Africa.
Q: Are you feeling the pressure?
A: I don’t know about pressure. The people who are under pressure are the Israeli citizens, who over the past months and years have been under threat of Hamas rockets. The people who are under pressure are the parents whose teenage sons and daughters go into the army to fight against Hamas to keep us safe.
Q: Are you receiving fewer social invites and feeling more isolated?
A: I know people and people know me. A real positive is that I think there is appreciation on both sides, an understanding. We don’t agree on every issue. There is room to learn from each other. I say this with a smile – and apologise if it is diplospeak – but it is true.
Q: How do you respond to recent calls within the ANC and others for a boycott of Israel and your expulsion?
A: The truth is I don’t think there is an increasing call. The reality is that SA is engaged with us. The President[ Jacob Zuma] has spoken repeatedly on the issue, the foreign minister has spoken on this issue, and others. Also, a delegation went to [the Middle East]. They met the Israeli deputy minister of foreign affairs and presented a letter from Jacob Zuma, and they had a dialogue. My understanding is that they are going to go back to continue their work.
A: I don’t think there is a but. South Africans and Israelis agree more than we disagree about the way forward for Palestinians and Israelis. They are promoting the idea of a cease-fire, which Israel has agreed to, and supporting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution. There is a small lobby that thinks SA policy needs to be different and that is fine, that is democracy. But the majority disagree with that position.
Q: How do you justify the attack on a UN school?
A: We are investigating and trying to get to the bottom of it. It is clear that schools and mosques and churches and homes have been badly abused by Hamas in an unprecedented way. That story needs to be told too.
Q: But how can Israel justify such an attack?
A: We are investigating. We are going to get to the truth.
Q: If your children were living in Gaza now, how would you feel?
A: I would be terrified, absolutely. I would demand, if I could, that Hamas get away from me and my children. Hamas uses schools to hide weapons and tells children to stay in homes when Israel tells them to clear out. Hamas is teaching kids their lives don’t matter, that the aims of Hamas are bigger. If I was a parent, I would be terrified of Israel too, I must be honest. But 10 years ago, as a parent with three small kids in Israel, when Palestinian terrorists were blowing up school buses and coffee shops and campuses, that was terrifying.
Q: What is your response to South Africans who lived through apartheid and say they identify with the Palestinian struggle?
A: I am okay with that. Palestinians need good friends. But real friends tell their friends the truth. This idea of nihilism within Hamas is not what the ANC is about. You can be pro-Palestinian, but don’t exclude the idea that South Africans can have a positive relationship with Israel too.
Q: Do you think Israelis as a minority have an affinity with Afrikaners?
A: Our story is different. At the risk of sounding like a sound bite, in SA you needed to get married; in the Middle East we need to get divorced, to be neighbours, to have two states, like what happened in Czechoslovakia. Divorce isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Q: Some have likened Israel’s policy to the Palestinians with apartheid. What is your response?
A: That would be a massive misunderstanding of Israel and insulting to the people who lived through the struggle in SA. In Israel, [separation] has been based on security. In SA, it was based on race and colour. I wish security measures were not needed. I would rather spend tax money on healthcare and education, but for now we have to keep our people safe. Palestinians and Israelis both deserve better.