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Special Report Envoy Says Israeli Relations with S. Africa Overblown by Detractors

June 27, 1984
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Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Lankin, in an interview, brushed aside a suggestion that Israel is sensitive to its relations with South Africa. But he pointed out that these ties are exploited by critics. Lankin’s chief assistant, Meir Padan, noted that anti-Israel detractors embroider the Israeli-South African link so as to defame Israel whenever possible.

Both Lankin and Padan said that too much is made of Israel’s relations with South Africa.

Trade, which is worth approximately $200 million annually, is overblown. According to the International Monetary Fund, Israel –which has been criticized in the United Nations for its commercial links with South Africa — accounts for 0.4% of South Africa’s imports and 0.7% of its exports.

Apart from manufactured goods, fish, corn and processed foods, Israel buys steel and coal from South Africa. From Israel, South Africa purchases chemicals, agricultural products and fertilizers. Israel’s largest export items, being classified as electronic equipment and metal products and machinery, fuel speculation that Israel contravenes the United Nations embargo by selling arms to South Africa.


Recently, U.S. Presidential contenders Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson said that Israel was shipping weaponry to South Africa. Jackson went as far as to accuse Israel of acquiescing in the oppression of Blacks in South Africa.

Two months ago, the Sunday Times of London reported that Israel and South Africa have close military ties. The Times claimed that around 300 Israeli advisors are in South Africa helping to train soldiers, sailors and pilots, and that Pretoria and Jerusalem cooperate in the nuclear field on the basis of South African uranium being exchanged for Israeli technology.

Lankin said he doesn’t know “anything” about such links.

South Africa, he declared, can manufacture its own arms. Lankin acknowledged that, many years ago, South Africa bought Israeli patrol boats and Uzi sub-machine guns. “I read about it in the newspapers,” he said.

He described as “sheer nonsense” the notion that Israeli advisors are attached to the South African armed forces. “South Africa is not Syria, and Israel is not Soviet Russia. South Africa has a very well-equipped and trained army. The South Africans can take very good care of themselves, although we have more experience than they do.”

A South African strategist offered a slightly different view of the situation.

“Officially, South Africa has no formal military ties with Israel. But there is military cooperation, which is a classified matter.”

The strategist, who is associated with a university, said South Africa and Israel share information on missile development and counter-insurgency. (Like Israel, South Africa has carried out retaliatory raids against its neighbors, principally Angola and Mozambique, for aiding African National Congress guerrillas — which have had relations with the PLO.)

He said he doubted whether the two are working together in nuclear research.

Lankin, who was an Irgun Zvit Leumi fighter against the British in pre-state Israel, debunked the myth that Israel supports apartheid.

Moral questions, such as apartheid, should not be the foundation upon which nations base their relations, Lankin said. However, Israel’s view on apartheid is clear.

“We can’t condone it,” the 69-year-old diplomat said. “We, as Jews, cannot accept it as a conception. It is against Jewish convictions.”

Why, then does Israel reject United Nations resolutions on apartheid? Because, Lankin said, they equate apartheid with Zionism. Israel, he noted, would vote for an anti-apartheid resolution on its own merits. “We are against discrimination of human beings because of their race, status and nationality.”

Lankin, too, derided suggestions that Israel backs the South African Black homelands of Ciskei, Transkei, Bophuthatswana and Venda, none of which has been accorded recognition.

There have been reports that Israeli businessmen–notably Yoram Aridor, the former finance minister–have been deeply involved in the homelands. Last month, the Sunday Times of Johannesburg reported on its front page that Israeli had landed contracts in “the dirt-poor” republic of Ciskei to build an airport and a harbor. Last November, The Jerusalem Post disclosed that 18 Ciskeians were in Israel for a 1-year pilot training course.


Scuttling any idea that the Israeli government is behind these schemes, Lankin said Israel hews to its policy of non-recognition of the homelands (which have been described by critics as mere Bantustans completely subservient to South Africa.)

“We feel bound by United Nations resolutions not to recognize the homelands. We have enough troubles with the United Nations without recognizing these homelands. We are too small a nation to start breaking resolutions which do not affect us directly.”

Lankin, personally, is in favor of a pro-homeland policy by Israel, for international recognition of the homelands would render them more independent of South Africa, he argued.

Padan, in addressing himself to the issue, said South Africa has never pressured Israel to recognize the homelands. And he emphasized that Israel does not encourage Israeli entrepreneurs to do business there.

Observers do not feel that Israel’s negative view of South Africa’s Black homeland policy affects Pretoria’s positive outlook toward Israel.

South Africa has a long history of philo-Zionism, and the Afrikaner elite identifies with the Israelis as an embattled, Biblical people. Jan Smuts, a revered figure in South African history, was an ardent Zionist and one of the authors of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Smuts admired the tenacity of the Jews and said they reminded him of his fellow Afrikaners — a blend of Dutch, French, German and Portuguese settlers.

In the 21/2 years he has been ambassador, Lankin has had nothing but friendly contacts with Afrikaners. “They have a certain admiration for Israel and I have felt it in every contact with them. They say the Old Testament is their guide, and they respect the courage of the Israelis.”

Carter Ebraim, a colored politician, agrees with Lankin. “Israel has an epic impact upon the people of this country, although non-whites, especially blacl tend to sympathize with the Palestinians.”

A senior official in the South African foreign ministry, a relatively young man who has served in the U.S., said: “The Afrikaners here identify very strongly with Israel’s struggle, and there has always been a desire on our part to enter into a close relationship with Israel.”

The general sympathy exhibited for Israel by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party — which has been in power since 1948 — expresses itself on a practical level.

Before South Africa was suspended from the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, the South African delegate usually cast pro-Israeli votes. Although South Africa hewed to a policy of “strict neutrality” when the Six Day War broke out, the government waived its ban on the transfer of charitable funds to Israel on the second day of that conflict.

In 1971, after Israel’s ill-fated offer of 10,000 Israeli pounds to the Organization of African Unity, South Africa temporarily suspended fund transfers pending “clarification” from Israel. Following a series of diplomatic exchanges, the ban was lifted. Indeed, during the Yom Kippur War, South Africa adjusted its foreign currency regulations so as to permit the transfer of greater private donations to Israel.

Today, South Africa has no public policy toward the Arab-Israeli dispute. But the South Africans are clearly in Israel’s corner. As one South African diplomat put it: “We would go along with any policy that recognizes Israel’s right to secure borders.”

To cynics, South Africa can afford to be totally behind Israel: Pretoria has no real relations to speak of with the Arab or Islamic world — except for Iranian and Lebanese interests sections in the Swiss and French embassies in South Africa.

Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, severed ties with South Africa in the late 1950s, ostensibly over apartheid. Iran, formerly a significant oil supplier, cut relations with South Africa — and Israel — in 1979, the year of the Khomeini revolution.


Despite the fact that Israel is the only Middle Eastern country with which South Africa maintains full, normal relations, Pretoria has unofficial trade relations with the nations of Islam. “We’re interested in expanding our relationship with the Islamic world,” a foreign ministry official said. “There is tremendous economic potential there.”

South Africa, which reportedly purchases oil on the international spot market, is not likely to downgrade its multi-faceted friendship with Israel even if it succeeds in further penetrating Islamic markets, or normalizing its relations with Moslem nations.

Theo Aronson, the only Jewish member of parliament representing the National Party, told this reporter that South Africa wants “to intensify” its already thriving political, commercial and cultural relations with Israel. “It’s a wonderful relationship and there’s no chance it’ll sour if Israel re-establishes ties with Black Africa.” (Since 1983, Israel has reestablished relations with Zaire and Liberia, and its trade with Africa has increased.)

Meanwhile, no one at the South African Foreign Ministry will be surprised if the Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, visits Israel in the near future.

There had been speculation that Botha would stop in Israel upon the completion of his recent European tour, but the possibility was not really considered, said a South African official.

“A trip to Israel is not out of the question,” he went on to say. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister turned up in Israel one of these days.”

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