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Special Report Israel-south Africa Relations Based on Pragmatic Self-interest

June 26, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

South Africa and Israel, two of the world’s most isolated and condemned states, are developing close ties on the basis of pragmatic self-interest.

In the lexicon of international relations, South Africa and Israel are pariah countries. South Africa, probably the richest nation on the African continent, is excoriated for practicing apartheid, or a policy of racial separate development. Israel, the pre-eminent military power in the Middle East, is attacked for merely existing, or because its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians or the occupied territories are found to be objectionable.

As late as 13 years ago, South Africa’s relationship with Israel was cool and even distant, no doubt due to the fact that Israel had substantial political interests in Black Africa and was content to play its “African card.”

At the United Nations, Israeli representatives angered South Africa by joining the anti-apartheld crusade. South Africa, home to the biggest Jewish community in Africa, struck back by prohibiting Jews to send charitable donations to Israel.


The 1970’s ushered in a new era in South African-Israeli relations. In 1971, South Africa established a consulate-general in Tel Aviv, which signalled a dramatic improvement in the two nations’ ties. Observers believe that the move was prompted by South Africa’s respect for Israel’s smashing victory in the Six Day War, and by Israel’s gradual realization that South Africa was an important factor in the African equation.

Analysts unanimously agree that 1972 and 1973 were crucial years for the entente cordiale that was to develop between Israel and South Africa — which voted for the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan.

In two short years, Black African states, succumbing to Arab pressure and the promise of bountiful aid and cheap oil, broke relations with Israel.

Only Malawai, Swaziland and Lesotho refused to join the African exodus from Israel.

The African betrayal, which occurred prior to and in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, came as a shock to an Israeli government which could not always see the handwriting on the wall. Only two years earlier, the Organization of African Unity’s liberation committee rebuffed a symbolic cash donation from Israel.

Under the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel consolidated relations with South Africa. In 1976, Johannes Balthazar Vorster, the South African leader, visited Israel in a “private” capacity. Daniel Malan, one of his predecessors, had gone to Israel in 1952 on a pilgrimage, thereby becoming the first foreign head of state to visit Israel.

By 1976, Israel and South Africa had established diplomatic relations on the ambassadorial level. By 1977, just before the United Nations arms embargo against South Africa was universally imposed, Israel had sold Pretoria military equipment, particularly patrol boats supplied with Gabriel sea-to-sea missiles.

Simcha Ehrlich, Israel’s Finance Minister, went to South Africa in 1978 and signed a series of economic protocols that provided for the creation of joint ministerial committees that would meet every two years. Owen Horwood, Ehrlich’s South African counterpart, headed a high-powered delegation to Israel in 1980.


In the past four years, the South African-Israeli connection has grown, nurtured by the community of nations’ unrelenting hostility to Jerusalem and Pretoria, As a South African foreign ministry official put it: “Israel and South Africa are struggling against the world and that puts us on the defensive.”

Louis Pienaar, a Cape Town lawyer who served as South Africa’s ambassador to France, was equally forth-right. “We have common interests,” he said, “and we’ll develop them, sometimes openly, and sometimes discreetly.”

Considering the flak that each drews, South Africa and Israel do not exactly advertise the relationship– the object of much criticism at the United Nations and in progressive Jewish circles in Israel and the diaspora.

A South African diplomat, in reply to a direct question, conceded that Pretoria does indeed play down its relations with Israel. “Yes, to save Israel embarrassment,” he said.

Ronald Miller, a representative of the moderate New Republic Party in parliament, is blunter. “Israel has no great love for South Africa,” he said, referring to the ruling National Party’s policy of apartheid. “But the existence of a large Jewish community here determines Israel’s attitude to South Africa.”

(Part II Tomorrow)

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