The Secrets Behind Israel's Strategic Alliance With Apartheid South Africa

It’s too easy, and not entirely fair, to evaluate Jerusalem’s relations with Pretoria's oppressive apartheid regime by contemporary standards.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

“The Negro problem.” That's what Israeli Ambassador to Washington Yitzhak Rabin called it in a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in late May 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4 of that year, had touched off race riots in Washington as well as other U.S. cities.

“The Negro problem has worsened,” Rabin said. He went on to explain that as a result of the cutbacks in social spending necessitated by the costs of the Vietnam War, American officials were quick to blame the war for the "problem," although, he said, “it has existed for decades, if not centuries.” This was no slip of the tongue: Within a minute Rabin repeated “the Negro problem” three times.

It’s too easy, and not entirely fair, to evaluate Jerusalem’s relations with Pretoria's oppressive apartheid regime by contemporary standards. Barack Obama is in the White House. Born in 1961, his political consciousness was shaped by stories about King and the civil rights movement. Emmett J. Rice, the father of U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, served in World War II as an officer in the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black group of pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces that defended freedom abroad at a time of great discrimination at home.

It is crucially important to remember that Rabin the army chief of staff, ambassador and prime minister of the 1970s and defense minister of the 1980s was not Rabin the defense minister and prime minister of the 1990s — after the end of the Cold War, when South Africa was transitioning from minority to majority rule. This holds for Shimon Peres as well. Today, as Israel's president, he eulogizes Nelson Mandela, but in that distant time — the “past accounts” Peres so loathes — as defense minister after the Yom Kippur War he played a central role in Israel's clandestine relations with South Africa.

It was in this period, according to documentary evidence, that the Israel South Africa Agreement was established. Meetings were held in Zurich and in Lisbon, among senior officers and government officials from both countries. (Israel was represented by Defense Ministry Director General Yitzhak Ironi and his deputy, Yaakov Shapira).

The lessons of October 1973 were still fresh for Israel. The sense of existential distress and the dependence on the American military airlift led the government to seek regional alliances with states that had abundant resources and were eager for military cooperation. The main candidates were Iran and South Africa. These relationships were important for funding Israel's development of advanced military systems for the Israel Defense Forces and reducing per-unit costs through mass production, not to mention the crucial role in party politics played by the local defense industry.

Another hoped-for benefit was a greater variety of sources for defense aid, on an ongoing basis and in times of emergency. After the fall of the Shah of Iran and, later, South Africa’s apartheid regime, their successors made public their predecessors’ contacts with Israeli prime ministers and defense ministers. In some cases the details were remarkably similar for both states, down to the same weapons systems albeit under different names.

Principles, as a component of international relations, were dwarfed by a sense of necessity. When the Americans bought oil from or sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, they didn’t care that the kingdom's non-Muslim, "infidel" inhabitants, were subjected to apartheid. The main consideration was "My enemy's enemy is my friend." The Soviets and their Cuban collaborators intervened in Angola. South Africa, despised as it was, was in the opposite, Western camp.

Fifty percent of our combat soldiers are black, due to the cancellation of compulsory service, Henry Kissinger told John Vorster in 1976, in the first meeting between a U.S. secretary of state and a South African prime minister in 30 years. He was explaining why the United States could be expected to intervene military against Cuban forces but not in a civil war or other local conflict between African forces.

It was easy for the Israeli establishment to hold their noses and identify with the strategy. They saw Africa as a group of whites that was under attack. The few against the many there, the few against the Arabs here. Dozens of African states — states that even back in the day of Prime Minister Golda Meir had received much agricultural and industrial aid from Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation — betrayed Israel as they liberated themselves from the rule of England and France, Belgium and Portugal. They succumbed to the pressure of the petroleum countries and severed ties with Israel. In secret, contrary to the declarations of their leaders, many of these states preserved economic and other ties with South Africa.

Rabin and Peres were not alone in maintaining ties with Pretoria. When South Africa's official archives were opened, first to diligent researchers before publication in books and databases, they disclosed the web of clandestine contacts between every Israeli defense minister and chief of staff and their South African counterparts.

In that era of alliance between isolated states, relations were built on blood, race and money. Security was what mattered — and money, lots of money, at least for one side — and to hell with segregation. The Israelis did such a good job of teaching the South Africans the meaning of inequality that in the spring of 1983, when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was ousted and Moshe Arens replaced him, their South African opposite number, Magnus Malan, became tired of the pretense.

Israel wanted South Africa to purchase more military equipment. Pretoria agreed, but its local defense industry demanded reciprocity — partial, specific, not wholly balanced, but nevertheless recognition that after years of backwardness, South African factories had something to offer. For example, a telephone exchange. Malan explained to Arens that the defense deal in effect depended on South Africa's being awarded an Israeli government tender for a telephone exchange. Arens was evasive: There are standards, an irrevocable tender has already been awarded, more's the pity.

Malan tried very hard to stay polite. “We,” he said, “have bought more than a billion dollars of goods from you. You have purchased less than $10 million from us.”

South African interest whet Israel’s appetite. Peres suggested selling up to half the production of Merkava tanks, 10 a month, at $810,000 each for an order of at least 1,000 tanks. The South Africans were impressed by the performance of the tank, but wanted to wait until it began operating as a weapons system. At the height of the clandestine alliance there were plans to build a school “on the Haifa outskirts” for the children of the South Africans who were expected to come to work in a joint program in a nearby defense plant.

The South African documents, which are freely available on the website of the Wilson Center Digital Archive, record various aspects of the relations between the governments. The availability of uranium in South Africa is described, along with the construction of the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona and the transfer of knowledge and technology from Israel. There are hints, although no specifics, about Israeli partnership in South Africa’s nuclear program, which was suspended and eventually dismantled, with its six bombs, by President F.W. De Klerk toward the last decade of the 20th century.

The South African documents indicate that Israeli and South African defense officials frequently discussed intermediate range ground-to-ground missiles. According to the papers, these were Jericho missiles, or Chalet missiles, as the South Africans called them. For example, a report by South African Maj. Gen. Gleeson about his mission in Israel in February 1979. The subject of the visit: a ground-to-ground missile with a range of 185 to 510 kilometers. Gleeson followed the testing of the missile and reported its size: “diameter 0.8 meters, length 13 meters, weight 7 tons, payload 980 kilograms, circular error probable at the summit of the range 200 meters, maximum speed 5.7 Mach.

On a previous occasion, in 1975, Peres tried to convince his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha, to unfreeze negotiations on a joint defense program, presumably on the same matter. Botha refused and suggested that Peres should make a proposal. Peres came back with a suggestion that Botha consider contributing 10 percent to 15 percent of the funds already spent on developing a lightweight fighter plane (the successor to the Kfir and an early and less ambitious version of the Lavi) and other equipment. Botha said he would consider the offer but wasn't willing to commit himself to the entire program and that he insisted on being able to proceed in phases.

The South African summary of the discussion said that “Botha expressed interest in a certain number of Chalets, if the right payload was accessible, but we don’t have aggressive intentions and therefore the Burglar model for a range of 3,000 km. is superfluous. He was told that a range of thousands of kilometers was the idea of the South African government.”

In order to impress the South Africans, a meeting was arranged for them with the employees of one of the departments in Lakam, the Bureau of Scientific Relations in the Defense Ministry, headed by Lt. Col. Dudu Benaya, who boasted of the talents of his research officers — all of whom excelled in initiative, high intelligence, language proficiency and military experience in the field and at headquarters. All those talents did not prevent the office from later inflicting the Jonathan Pollard affair on Israel. After the conversation with Benaya the guests were taken to see war booty from the Yom Kippur War — tanks, cannons, other combat vehicles, Katyusha rockets and even Frug missiles, which according to the hosts could be armed with nuclear warheads.

After the Yom Kippur War senior Israeli officers were posted in South Africa, including Israel Navy Rear Admiral Bini Telem and brigadiers generals Yaakov Stern, Giora Zorea, Giora Lev, Amos Katz and Haggai Regev. A few of these postings were disguised; sometimes a senior officer was an “agricultural attaché.” There were conflicts between the defense and foreign ministries and within the defense establishment over this. “The wars among ourselves,” wrote Maj. Gen. (res.) Yona Efrat to Malan, a friend since 1962, when they studied together at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, “are harder than the wars against our enemies.”

Efrat and Malan, who quickly advanced to command the land forces, to become the chief of staff of the entire army and then defense minister, exchanged greetings and invitations, ostensibly personal. But in the South African archive every note was saved, including the budget for the gifts, the meals and the visit to Kruger Park.

Efrat was a member of the Kahan Commission appointed to investigate the Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1982. The panel recommended ousting then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and not extending the terms of then-IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan.

After the apartheid regime fell, Malan was tried and acquitted on charges of massacring civilians. By way of a souvenir, Malan received a letter from Eitan dated June 10, 1981, three days after Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Eitan gave the operation, in other words himself, a score of 100. “Well, we did the deed,” he rejoiced, “with iron determination not to allow these crazy Arabs to possess nuclear weapons. Anyone who tries to say that the nuclear reactor in Iraq was only for research purposes is wicked, cynical and oil, not human blood, flows in his veins. We are not perturbed by all the 'righteous souls' that all the crocodiles in South African rivers could not provide with enough tears to wipe out their hypocrisy.”

Inspecting the troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, from left: Yitzhak Rabin, Avner Shalev, David Elazar and Shlomo Inbar.Credit: Eytan Harris/GPO

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