A political turnaround for two old friends

It is not a coincidence that both Israel and South Africa are now moving towards reform

By Margo Harvie | 1993-01-01 12:00:00

The first half of 1992 brought profound political change to South Africa and Israel. On March 17th, white South Africans voted 2-to-1 to end the apartheid system. In the June 24th election in Israel, the victory of Labour leader Yitzak Rabin marked the end of 15 years of right-wing government, and led to the freeze of political settlements in the occupied territories and a pledge to work to negotiate Palestinian autonomy within a year.

Israel and South Africa were as recently as 1988 described as "the world's two remaining political systems committed to separatist philosophies that exclude indigenous Third World majorities."(f.1) A review of the relations between them during the past two decades leads to the conclusion that it is more than coincidence that both these countries are now in the process of elemental political reorientation.

By an accident of history, both political systems came into being in 1948. That year saw the creation of the state of Israel, as well as the formal introduction of the apartheid system in South Africa. During the decades following World War II, when racial equality and anti-colonialism became important issues in international relations, these two countries who, as Benjamin Joseph puts it in Besieged Bedfellows: Israel and the Land of Apartheid, defined nationality in "monoracial and unicultural terms," began to find themselves in an ongoing battle with antagonistic majorities at the United Nations. In November 1975, the United Nations General Assembly issued a resolution calling Zionism a form of racism and reiterating previous U.N. condemnations of both Israel and South Africa. In 1976, these two countries who, again according to Joseph, shared "analogous backgrounds, political perceptions, and situations in contemporary history," formed a strong, if unofficial, alliance. Until it was cut short by Western pressure in 1987, the alliance had the direct result of strengthening the military positions of both countries within their respective spheres of influence.(f.2)

By 1975 when the United Nations issued their resolution equating Zionism with apartheid, Israel and South Africa began to seriously consider the benefits of joining forces against a hostile world. The National Party in South Africa made a clear statement to this effect: "Israel and South Africa have a common lot. Both are engaged in a struggle for existence and both are in constant clash with decisive majorities in the United Nations."(f.3)

South African leaders had determined that they were going to have to fight guerilla war both a home and in neighboring states and for this they would need to acquire weapons suitable for counter-insurgency, as well as the expertise to use these weapons effectively.(f.4) Since an international arms embargo kept the Western powers from providing them with overt assistance in their fight against Marxist expansion, South Africa determined that their best policy would be to seek to develop an alliance with other middle rank powers whose political philosophies were compatible with their own. The "pariah option" put Israel, with its fighting experience and weapons technology, at the top of the list of desirable allies.

In April 1976, the South African Prime Minister John Vorster visited Israel and was given a red carpet welcome. It was during this visit that specific economic and military agreements were worked out that would form the base for the strong ties between the two countries in the next decade.

Economic Ties

By the 1980s, when all trade between these two countries was taken into account-including the usually concealed figures on diamonds and military equipment-Israel began to look like South Africa's biggest trading partner.(f.5) South Africa used Israel as a "springboard" to distribute "triangular exports." Final assembly of South African products was done in Israel where they were stamped as made in Israel and thereby gained duty free access to Europe and the United States.(f.6) In addition, Israel has "invested millions of dollars in the homelands and its support has done much to underpin the homelands both economically and politically."(f.7)

Military Alliance

The 1976 Vorster visit to Israel formalized the advisory role that the Israeli Defense Forces would play in South Africa's future military strategy. By 1981 it was estimated that two hundred Israeli officers were teaching "anti-terrorist tactics" in South Africa.(f.8) In addition, several hundred South Africans were reported in Israel at any one time being trained in weapons systems, battle strategy and counter-insurgency warfare.(f.9)

Arms Trading And Joint Weapons Development

During the second half of the 1970s, Israel and South Africa established a complementary arms program that neatly dovetailed to suit the needs of both countries. Israel was the inventive partner while South Africa provided "spare cash and excess manufacturing capacity."(f.10)

One joint military venture was the purchase of three Israeli Reshef missile boats equipped with Gabriel missiles and the rights to manufacture nine more such boats in South Africa where the boats and missiles are referred to as Minister and Scorpion, respectively.(f.11)

James Adams in his book The Unnatural Alliance describes a secret three year effort on the part of the United States and Israel to provide South Africa with hardware and technology required to produce the "super gun" the 155mm howitzer developed by the infamous Dr. Gerald Bull. The fact that this 1976 arms deal was eventually successful in getting the required hardware and technology to South Africa shows that the international arms embargoes in place at the time were more of a public relations exercise than an effective sanction.

Nuclear Alliance

In 1968 when Ernst David Bergman, the "father of Israel's nuclear capability" visited South Africa, he suggested that the two countries should cooperate in the nuclear field because "Neither of us has neighbours to whom we can speak and to whom we are going to be able to speak in the near future."(f.12)

In September 1979, an United States Vella satellite registered a double light flash (indicating a nuclear explosion) as it passed over the Indian Ocean near the Prince Edward Islands. An investigation by the CIA came to the conclusion that a nuclear device had been exploded and that the undertaking was a joint effort of Israel and South Africa.(f.13)

Cultural Alliance

Specific examples of cooperation between the two countries reveal that Israel and South Africa developed an underlying sense of kinship and solidarity that went beyond standard political realism:

Manifestations such as red carpet receptions for South African officials, establishment by Knesset members of a friendship league with South Africa, or attendance by members at ceremonies for Bantustan leaders, twin city agreements and the like should call into question the belief that the relationship is only about vital transactions between partners indifferent to each other."(f.14)

Western Pressure To End The Alliance

The Western powers had traditionally considered South Africa to be an arena of East-West (i.e., cold war) tensions. The United States was willing to tolerate South Africa's "embarrassing racial posture" in order to obtain a "reliable defender of order and capitalism in southern Africa."(f.15)

By the mid-1980s, however, with the realization that the Soviet threat in southern Africa was no longer singificant, a concern arose in the West that a "too-close identification with an aggressive racist apartheid" would be costly in terms of Third World alienation.(f.16) In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Section 508 of this Act required that the President report to Congress by April of 1987 indicating which countries had violated the international arms embargo against South Africa with a view towards ending military assistance to the offenders. The message delivered by the U.S. Congress was clear. The United States was no longer willing to turn a blind eye to a high-profile alliance between Jerusalem and Pretoria(f.17).

In order to avoid jeopardizing its $1.8 billion a year in U.S. defence aid, Israel announced in March 1987 that it would not sign "additional contracts with South Africa 'in the sphere of defence' and that it would limit Israel's cultural, official, and tourist relations with that country."(f.18) Clearly, Israel's dependence on U.S. financial assistance far out-weighed the benefits and opportunities that could be obtained through relations with the apartheid regime.

Increase In Pressure As The Cold War Ends

In the five years since 1987, both South Africa and Israel have become increasingly vulnerable to the unsympathetic gaze of the Western world. "By 1990, the virtual collapse of the socialist bloc and the dramatic changes in East-West perspectives exacerbated pressures for a transfer of power in Pretoria," according to Kenneth Grundy in South Africa: Domestic Crisis and Global Challenge. The South African government could no longer treat the ANC as the agent of an international communist conspiracy, and international isolation in the form of sanctions "emphasized the internal costs of apartheid to the economy." By 1989, for example, the allocation for security expenses had grown to almost one quarter of the national budget-an increase over a period of three years of 30 times that of the economy and twice inflation. The unbanning of the ANC, the release of political prisoners, and the repeal of the major apartheid legislation were all acts of a governmentthat had finally recognized the need to end international isolation in order to revive a desperate economy.(f.19) The end of the Cold War has also had a substantial influence on political developments in Israel during the 1990s. In Jerusalem, observers say that there is a "pervasive feeling that since the fall of the Soviet empire and the resulting loss of Soviet influence in the Arab world, the United States has abandoned its role as Israel's global patron."(f.20) "Whatever value Israel might have had as a strategic asset during the Cold War, that value obviously ended when the Cold War itself came to a close."(f.21) In December 1991, the United Nations General Assembly rescinded its 1975 resolution which equated Zionism with racism, a move that can be seen less as Western support of Israel than as Western commitment to facilitate the ongoing U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks. This U.N. vote was "one more bit of evidence that the Cold War was over, with the balance of power shifted dramatically toward the United States."(f.22) By 1992, the United States began to push hard for Israeli concessions in order to move ahead with their priority of establishing some form of stability in the Middle East.

Israel In 1992

The Israeli election that took place on June 24th this year has been called a turning point in the country's history. Those who were surprised by Rabin's Labour Party victory were perhaps even more surprised when he quickly indicated his intention to accelerate the peace process and freeze political settlements in the occupied territories in order to secure the $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees. More recently, preliminary discussions between Syria and Israel on a "land-for-peace agreement" led Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to speak of "the best 10 days ever in the Israeli-Syrian relationship."(f.23)

Rabin's belief in territorial compromise has brought "considerable new vigor to the Middle East peace negotiations."(f.24) However, in terms of negotiations on Palestinian autonomy there remains a "wide gap between the Israeli proposal for an 'administrative' council and Palestinian demands for a 'legislative' body."(f.25) Realistically, the process of negotiating a settlement is likely to be long and difficult, given the bitter memories and profound suspicion on both sides as was demonstrated by the attitudes and conclusions of a group of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers who attended a two-week international Peace Camp held in Spain this past summer. Although the camp was based on the concept of "equal rights and a two-state solution," the young participants were unable to reach agreement on any major point and "found themselves bogged down in politics and ideology."(f.26)

The June election results, however, demonstrate that many Israelis are now willing to give up their long-standing obsession with security in order to repair ties with Washington and revive sagging economic growth. Clearly, the current Arab-Israeli negotiations offer the best chance in years for a lasting regional peace.

South Africa In 1992

The optimistic predictions of a peaceful end to apartheid that followed the Yes vote in the March 1992 referendum in South Africa gave way to gloom. CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) talks were deadlocked in May with Black leaders demanding that apartheid be replaced by majority rule and President de Klerk insisting on a system of power-sharing in the form of a white veto. The talks broke down completely in June after the massacre of 42 blacks in the township of Boipatong. In September, troops in the black homeland of Ciskei shot and killed people involved in an ANC march against the homeland's military government. It is interesting to note that the Ciskei army was trained and equipped by South Africa with the assistance of "a large contingent of Israelis."(f.27)

There is, however, growing domestic and international pressure on the government to take effective measures to end the violence. Nelson Mandela's proposition to offer the white minority an indefinite share of power in any new government indicated that the ANC is strongly motivated to push ahead with negotiations in spite of the continuing disclosures of clandestine operations against them by state security forces.(f.28)

The West, like many South Africans, maintains the attitude that there is no alternative to negotiations. However, the responsibility for ensuring a peaceful end to apartheid lies with the South African government. Their refusal, or inability, to reign in security forces and discourage violence could plunge South Africa into political and economic chaos. As Archbishop Tutu put it, "As long as blacks are allowed, even encouraged, to keep killing each other, neither world in South Africa has a bright future."(f.29)


The dissolution of the Soviet Union has brought, and will continue to bring, changes of global importance affecting the Middle East as every other part of the world.(f.30) During 1992, the West has made it clear that it will push for negotiated settlements to long-standing conflicts and problems in both South Africa and Israel. In this respect, a similarity of experience and connection still exist between the two countries. For a time, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, it appeared that an alliance between Israel and South Africa might allow both countries to continue as unrepentant pariahs and to help each other avoid the consequences of their behavior but as Cold War tensions faded, so did any form of Western support for political systems based on racial separateness. The recent changes and upheavals in Israel and South Africa provide dramatic proof that basic political reorientation is required in order for either country to survive in the post-Cold War era.


1. Joseph, Benjamin M., Besieged Bedfellows: Israel and the Land of Apartheid. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, pg. 131.
2. Adams, James. The Unnatural Alliance. Ondon: Quartet, 1984, pg. 201.
3. Joseph, p.12
4. Adams, p.74
5. Adams, p.19
6. Palestine Solidarity Association of Sweden. Collaboration South Africa-Israel: from an International Conference Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden. Uppsala, Sweden, 1988, p.20.
7. Adams, p.27
8. Joseph, p.47
9. Adams, p.80
10. Adams, p.113
11. Palestine, pg.86.
12. Adams, p.171
13. Adams, p.194
14. Joseph, p.90
15. Grundy, Kenneth W. South Africa: Domestic Crisis and Global Challenge. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991, p. 32.
16. Grundy, p.103
17. Joseph, p.3
18. Palestine, p.87
19. Manby, Bronwen. "South Africa: The Impact of Sanctions," Journal of International Affairs V46: Summer 1992, p.209.
20. Bilski, Andrew. "Israel's Slow Isolation," Macleans 30 September 1991, p.32.
21. Lewis, Bernard. "Rethinking the Middle East," Foreign Affairs v71: Fall 1992, p.110
22. Hossie, Linda. "U.N. Repeals Resolution on Zionism," Globe and Mail 17 December 1991, p.p.A1
23. "The Middle East's Great Survivor," Globe and Mail 19 September 1992, p.D6
24. Beyer, Lisa. "Hold thePublic Euphoria," Time 6 July 1992, p.19
25. "Can It Be? Progress inthe Peace Talks?" Time 7 September 1992, p.15
26. Sudilovsky, Judith. "Teen peace camp was no picnic," The Jerusalem Post 21 August 1992, p.8..
27. Keller, Bill. "Dictator fuels homeland's misery" Globe and Mail 11 September 1992, p. A14
28 New ANCstrategy offers white minority indeffininte share of power, Globe and Mail 20th November p. A17.
29. Macleod, Scott. "Days of Death and Deadlock," Time 6 July 1992.
30 Lewis, Bernard. "Rethinking the Middle East," Foreign Affairs v71 (Fall 1992), p.103.

Margo Harvie is a student of Peace Studies at University of Toronto's Erindale College.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993

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