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Behind the Headlines: De Klerk Visit Means Relations with South Africa Again ‘kosher’

November 12, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When South African President F.W. De Klerk and his wife, Marike, arrived here Sunday night on a state visit, Israeli politicians and dignitaries from the political center to the far right lined up in the presidential residence here to shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

President Chaim Herzog presided, and beaming alongside him was Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The reception was lavish, and a sumptuous dinner followed.

Israel had not received a president of South Africa since 1975. Now it was once again “kosher” to do so.

The economic and cultural sanctions that U.S. pressure forced Israel in 1987 to impose against the Pretoria government, for its racist apartheid policies, were lifted July 14, four days after Washington acted to end them.

The four years in which they were in effect saw Israel’s trade deficit with South Africa swell to some $750 million because it could not export to that country.

But apart from the trade loss, and aside from the fact that Israel has always condemned apartheid, Israel was never comfortable with the punitive measures.

There has, in fact, been a natural affinity between the two countries reflecting their similar experiences. Both have been isolated and cast into the pariah role by much of the global community, and both consider their treatment unjust.

In South Africa, a white minority of European stock governs and dominates a vast black nation. But De Klerk, elected two years ago, has gone far in dismantling the apartheid system.

Jews are the majority in Israel. But they rule over a large, restive Palestinian minority and are officially in a state of war with all but one of the neighboring Arab states.


The Israelis responded sympathetically to De Klerk’s declaration that “there will be a new constitution” in South Africa, “which we believe should be one which will prevent domination, in any form, by a minority, but also domination by a majority in the sense that no majority should be in a position to abuse its power.”

Both host and guest seemed pleased that it is now legitimate for their two countries to openly resume their old friendship.

The official purpose of De Klerk’s visit was to sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel on economic cooperation.

Israel is anxious to resume normal trade relations. Last year, it imported $221 million worth of goods from South Africa but sold it only $96 million. That trade is explained by the fact that the sanctions did not apply to agreements signed before they were imposed in 1987.

Shamir and De Klerk agreed to normalize relations at their talks here Monday.

Hovering in the background of De Klerk’s visit was the long-simmering issue of the African National Congress, headed by Nelson Mandela, headed by Nelson Mandela, which has continued to support the Palestine Liberation Organization.

When the 55-year-old De Klerk was elected leader of South Africa’s National Party, he defied strong opposition from the white minority and released Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 28 years. Since then he has held talks with the ANC on the future of South Africa.


Tight relations between Israel and Pretoria have always cast a shadow on Israel’s image with the black majority in South Africa and with many black African nations. Some Israeli policy-makers think the time has come to make amends.

Zvi Gov-Ari, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, said in a radio interview that he thought Israel should consider inviting Mandela to Israel.

Foreign Minister David Levy was more circumspect. He said blacks should realize they do not achieve anything by making statements against Israel.

But according to Gov-Ari, Mandela is showing greater tolerance toward Israel, though he remains a friend of Yasir Arafat’s.

Another issue that came up during De Klerk’s visit was security cooperation between Israel and South Africa.

According to foreign periodicals, Israel has supplied South Africa with missile boats, pilotless reconnaissance planes, aerial refueling planes and technical know-how in the manufacture of jet fighter planes. In exchange, Israel reportedly has received South African uranium and steel to manufacture its Merkava tanks.

The result of such dealings has been the black majority’s total identification of Israel with the apartheid regime.

A government spokesman here stressed on the eve of De Klerk’s arrival that no new arms deals would be on the agenda.

De Klerk’s entourage includes 14 leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community, visibly excited by the normalization of relations. They suspected all along that Israel was less than enthusiastic over the sanctions and were only too grateful that the difficult period is over.

On Monday they watched De Klerk enter the Western Wall plaza conspicuously wearing a black skullcap. South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha let himself become engulfed in a Yemenite Bar Mitzvah ceremony. He joined the family in their parade with the Torah scroll.

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