In the 1970s Israel needed friends, and South Africa needed weapons. From a new book, the story of their secret alliance.
As defense cooperation between Israel and South Africa intensified, politicians in both countries began to come out of hiding. In 1976, Prime Ministers Balthazar Johannes Vorster and Yitzhak Rabin decided that it was time to make a public show of friendship, even if they continued to conceal the underlying reasons for their bond.
Vorster had long doubted that Israel would ever invite him to visit because of his World War II allegiances. However, as relations warmed after the Yom Kippur War, Vorster decided to test the water. It would be the first visit by a South African head of state since D. F. Malan’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1953. And unlike most high-profile diplomatic initiatives, the South African Foreign Ministry had virtually nothing to do with it. Vorster authorized Hendrik van den Bergh, Information Minister Connie Mulder, and Mulder’s deputy, Eschel Rhoodie, to bypass the Foreign Ministry and arrange a trip to Israel to meet with defense and intelligence officials.
Rhoodie was a master operator. Tall, handsome, cosmopolitan, and refined in his tastes, he could hold forth on the relative charms of the George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, wowing his less cultivated South African colleagues with his sophistication and puzzling them with his quirky habit of shunning alcohol and meat—staples of any self-respecting Afrikaner male’s diet. The son of a prison warden, Rhoodie went on to earn his doctorate from the University of Pretoria. After a brief stint as a star provincial rugby player, he pursued his true passion: selling South Africa to the world. Brash, confident, and quick to get things done, he was a hit with the Israelis.
The Holocaust survivor lashed out at Goldreich, telling him, “We will make agreements with the devil to save Jews from persecution and to secure the future of this state.”
While the official diplomats advocated treading cautiously, Rhoodie and van den Bergh made a strong alliance with Israel their priority. Rhoodie believed that “Israel and South Africa formed the two pillars supporting the Free World’s strategic interest in Africa and the Middle East.” He and van den Bergh firmly believed that both countries were surrounded by hostile, implacable enemies and sought to convince the rest of the world that if either government fell, the odds were good that black African countries and Arab states would gang up against the other, endangering vital oil supplies in the Middle East and strategically valuable mineral supplies in Southern Africa. They saw the partnership as a rare example of two isolated states joining hands and striking out on their own and concluded that an Israeli-South African alliance would therefore have “great historical significance.” Although the clandestine military alliance was already well established, Rhoodie and van den Bergh wanted to deliver a diplomatic victory for the embattled Vorster regime—a task that would require staging a public display of affection for South Africa.
Rhoodie laid the groundwork for Vorster’s visit while Peres was in Pretoria in 1974 and continued on a series of subsequent visits to Israel. Vorster’s secretly planned trip was news to the South African ambassador in Tel Aviv, Charles Fincham, as well as Foreign Minister Hilgard Muller and his secretary, Brand Fourie. Rhoodie’s shadow foreign ministry had arranged everything behind their backs. Even Ambassador Unna had surprisingly little to do with the arrangements, although he did join Vorster on the trip.
South African prime minister Vorster began his five day state visit by touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on April 9, 1976. The South African leader faced surprisingly little opposition while visiting Israel. Apart from a few mildly critical newspaper articles, Israelis seemed to collectively shrug their shoulders. The Jerusalem Post even praised Vorster for “recharting his country’s racial and foreign policy” and being a rare breed of leader “who has not flinched from the political perils of re-educating his people in that direction.” Arthur Goldreich was one of the few anti-Vorster protesters out in the streets. As the escaped fugitive plastered telephone poles with posters featuring Vorster’s name alongside swastikas, he was confronted by passersby, including one elderly man who spat on his poster. At first he thought the man might be a disgruntled South African immigrant who supported apartheid, then he got a closer look at the vandal. “He had an Auschwitz number on his arm,” Goldreich recalls, still shaken three decades later by the memory of the confrontation. The Holocaust survivor lashed out at Goldreich, telling him, “We will make agreements with the devil to save Jews from persecution and to secure the future of this state.” He was left speechless as the old man walked away. “That was the climate of the time,” Goldreich recalls with dismay.
The erstwhile Nazi sympathizer was treated to an opulent dinner hosted by Prime Minister Rabin, who toasted “the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence”
The old man’s diatribe represented the views of the young, security minded technocrats running the country as much as those of the older generation of fearful Holocaust survivors. There was an acute sense that Israel’s existence was threatened and that most of the world didn’t care—and that those who did had betrayed the Jewish state in its hour of need.
By the time Vorster set foot in Jerusalem, the idealism of Israel’s early years had been replaced by hardened self-interest. After his visit to Yad Vashem, the erstwhile Nazi sympathizer was treated to an opulent dinner hosted by Prime Minister Rabin, who toasted “the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence” during the banquet at the Knesset. A beaming Vorster told the press, “Relations between South Africa and Israel have never been better.” The visit gave South Africa a surge of confidence and helped relieve its feelings of growing isolation. In the South African press, the visit was billed as an event “of profound importance” and “one of the most successful diplomatic coups in [Vorster’s] ten years of office.” Newspapers praised the prime minister for signing agreements with Israel and delivering “a triumph for his country.” For the Jewish community in South Africa, it was “manna from heaven,” recalls Mervyn Smith, a longtime member of the Jewish Board of Deputies.
The Zionist Record, a mainstream Jewish paper that was usually far less vitriolic than the Revisionist Herald, launched into a bitter diatribe against “the moral degeneration of the U.N. and its virtual conversion into a tool of communism, terrorism, and moral nihilism [that] have had their inevitable consequences.” Tracing Israel’s new fondness for South Africa to its betrayal by other African states, the Record praised Jerusalem’s new diplomatic pragmatism.
While this reflected the mainstream view within the South African Jewish community, a minority of left-wing Jews opposed the Vorster visit. “Here was the guy who was the ultimate monster in South Africa, who had rammed through all of these appalling laws and then become prime minister, was grinding people into the ground,” recalled Benjamin Pogrund, then deputy editor of the liberal Rand Daily Mail. “And to see him at Yad Vashem as an honored guest, I just thought was beyond the pale.”
Much to the chagrin of Pogrund and other dissenters, leaders of the South African Jewish community invited Vorster to another banquet in his honor when he returned to South Africa. As news of the event spread, more opponents began to speak out. Dennis Diamond was executive director of the Board of Deputies at the time of Vorster’s trip to Israel. Diamond was a rarity in that he came not from Cape Town or Johannesburg but from rural Natal, spoke fluent Zulu, and published poetry in Afrikaans. He was also several decades younger than most members of the organization he would be leading. Diamond had risen to that prominent position at the age of twenty-eight with the encouragement of Mendel Kaplan, a steel magnate and prominent Jewish and Zionist leader sometimes referred to as the “King of the Jews” in South Africa.
Diamond, who now lives on a quiet, tree-lined street in Jerusalem, describes the Vorster visit as “a terrible and amazing thing.” Looking back, he remains torn. “We thought it was very good that relations had improved between the two. We hoped that would lead to better things, we hoped that the relationship with Israel would challenge South Africa generally to change its social structure.” But such hopes were unrealistic in 1976. The Israeli moralism of the nineteen sixties was a thing of the past: far from echoing Golda Meir’s denunciations of apartheid, Prime Minister Rabin was now toasting the two countries’ shared ideals and Peres was speaking of “their common hatred of injustice.”
On May 10, as a group of angry Jewish university students protested outside, Cape Town’s Heerengracht Hotel hosted a gala affair boasting a guest list that included the entire National Party cabinet. Inside the ornate, five-star hotel, Diamond recalls sitting beside colleagues and friends who opposed the banquet. Toward the end of the evening, board chairman David Mann—an old acquaintance of Vorster’s from their days as lawyers at the Johannesburg bar—rose to give a speech with the prime minister sitting directly in front of him.
He began by lauding the state’s tolerance and endorsing the government’s policy of separate development. “South Africa has long affirmed and lived by the political philosophy of cultural pluralism. It has jealously guarded the right of each group of the population to preserve its own traditions and to maintain its own way of life,” he affirmed. It was not until the very end that Mann confronted Vorster:
*“I believe that there is a wide consensus today that attitudes and practices, the heritage of the past, bearing upon the relations between our various racial groups are no longer acceptable [We] must move away as quickly and effectively as is practicable from discrimination based on race or colour, and that we must accord to every man and woman respect, and human dignity and the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.” *
Diamond was pleased. “Of course there would be those who’d say it could’ve been more. I think it was perfectly pitched It was a speech correct for its time.” Mendel Kaplan, King of South Africa’s Jews, agrees. “Who else stood up and said that?” he asks. “Not the leader of the Anglicans. Maybe we didn’t do enough. But the Board of Deputies was not elected to go in the streets and lead a street movement.” Others were not so placated. Dennis Davis, who is now a judge on Cape Town’s High Court and a well-known television personality, remembers protesting outside the banquet that night. “It was hardly a rebuke,” says Davis. “It was the minimum that could be done to show some sense of commitment to Jewish ethics,” and to acknowledge the “controversy that was brewing both outside the hotel and generally that Vorster the Nazi had been invited.” At the time, Davis was editor of the Jewish student newspaper, _Strike_, at the University of Cape Town. In its pages, he lashed out at the Jewish community’s leaders: “Mr. Vorster is leader of a political party whose policies, based so firmly on race, are the antithesis of the very body and soul of Jewish ethics,” he wrote.
“We cannot surely honour and pay homage to the leading proponent of such policies even if he has pulled off a diplomatic coup with Israel.” Davis saw Mann’s speech as pathetic. The board had heralded Vorster as a hero and then lightly rapped him on the knuckles. Board dissident Mervyn Smith was even more adamant: “Here he was standing before Der Führer, there were a hundred students or a thousand students saying apartheid is evil [outside] In Vorster’s life it was a total nonevent,” says Smith. “The crying shame was that the board hosted him.” The Vorster visit may have been hailed as a public relations coup in South Africa, but its primary purpose remained largely obscured. The media in both countries stressed that the agreements signed were limited to trade, investment, and peaceful scientific and industrial cooperation. Only the _Cape Times_ hinted briefly at the true reason for the visit, reporting Vorster’s stop at the headquarters of Israel Aircraft Industries, where he saw Kfir fighter jets on the assembly line.
Indeed, much of Vorster’s time in Israel was spent shopping for weapons. To facilitate this, Admiral Binyamin Telem—the commander of Israel’s navy during the Yom Kippur War—joined Ambassador Unna in showing the South African prime minister around Israel. Due in part to the $100 million ammunition contract signed the previous year, Israel’s defense industry now had excellent ties with South Africa and Vorster’s visit helped seal a much bigger deal, totaling more than $700 million, Telem recalls.
As Vorster casually visited Israeli arms manufacturers and journalists began to notice, pro-Israel organizations abroad sought to convince the public that nothing unseemly was happening. Moshe Decter of the American Jewish Congress insisted in a shrill New York Times column that “Israel’s small arms trade” with Pretoria was “dwarfed into insignificance by the South African arms traffic of other countries,” pointing fingers at France, Britain, and others. He decried the focus on Israel as evidence of “rank cynicism, rampant hypocrisy, and anti-Semitic prejudice.”
Soon after, in late 1976, Telem was sent to South Africa at the personal request of Defense Minister Shimon Peres. The navy was the only element of the IDF to emerge from the Yom Kippur War relatively unscathed, owing largely to the tremendous success of its Reshef missile boats, which, along with the ships smuggled out of Cherbourg, outperformed their Soviet-made counterparts. As the commander of the navy and because one of the first major sales to Pretoria was the 450-ton Reshef attack craft, Telem was a natural choice for the job. Peres even managed to convince Golda Meir, who had stubbornly resisted closer relations with South Africa for over a decade, that Telem’s posting to Pretoria was necessary. Meir, no longer at the country’s helm, was scarred by the Yom Kippur fiasco. “He went to Golda and she was not very happy with it,” recalls Telem. “I think she finally gave in once she realized we needed this relationship economically.”
Marais attempted to persuade him that Israel “should further apartheid as [South Africans] do in the name of the God of Israel.”
Telem had been dispatched to a country in flames. A few months before his arrival, black schoolchildren in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto had organized a demonstration against mandatory instruction in Afrikaans—a language most of them did not understand and many of their teachers could not even speak. Early in the morning, thousands of students in school uniforms poured into the streets, converging at a high school in the Orlando section of the township. The security forces were caught off guard and released police dogs into the crowd, followed by tear gas and live ammunition. Students reacted by pelting police with stones and officers fired on them as they fled, gunning down dozens. A single image—showing a weeping man fleeing the police with the bloody, limp, uniformed body of thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson in his arms alongside the dead boy’s screaming sister—was splashed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide and came to symbolize the brutality of the South African government. Urban unrest spread quickly, prompting further police violence throughout the country and the greatest outpouring of international outrage that Pretoria had ever seen. The riots lasted for months and the death toll exceeded five hundred, dwarfing the sixty-nine killed in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. As many Western countries began to formally distance themselves from the apartheid regime, Israel Shipyards signed a contract to build six Reshef missile boats for South Africa and a licensing agreement was concluded for the remainder to be built in Durban. It was a boon for both sides. “They were able to develop their own military industries by using our know-how and our expertise which we sold sometimes, I thought, too easily,” says Telem. “But we did because we were very much in need of this relationship.”
Naval officers and engineers began streaming back and forth between Israel and South Africa and Rabin gave the relationship “the highest priority,” insisting that it take place under the table in order to maintain deniability and prevent negative publicity. “Nothing was official,” recalls Telem. He therefore performed the duties of a military attaché but on paper held the title “counselor,” as his predecessor had, in order to avoid any attention and maintain the secrecy of the Defense Ministry’s mission in Pretoria.
At the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, Telem and Ambassador Unna got along well, maintaining an understanding to stay out of each other’s business. Following the model Peres established during the nineteen fifties in France, the Defense Ministry and its export office all but eclipsed career diplomats when it came to conducting foreign relations in South Africa, where arms sales were crucial.
Israel was not only building and modernizing weapons; it was also offering formal advice to the South African military. In 1976, the Israeli Defense Ministry sent Colonel Amos Baram as a special adviser to the chief of the SADF. Baram viewed the situation as one of friendly cooperation and was happy to advise the South Africans. His attitude was, “We have a common interest—security problems. Not just borders, internal problems too.” The challenge was not simply fighting communist troops in Angola, but helping South Africa maintain domestic security, according to Baram. “If you know how to defend yourself against an enemy outside the borders you know how to deal [with him] within your borders.” Baram’s first recommendation was to extend the term of military service in South Africa to a compulsory two years. He also attempted to shift the SADF’s doctrine away from the British system toward the Israeli one, incorporate a full year of training for new soldiers instead of three months, and to reform the staff command school. During Baram’s two years in South Africa, the period of compulsory service for white males—the only soldiers for whom conscription was required—did in fact increase to two years. More and more reservists were called up to serve under a new active-reserve duty requirement that lasted eight years, eventually leading to widespread protests against conscription. Baram and Telem were often invited to join the army chief, General Constand Viljoen, on trips to the front lines. Viljoen, a serious, intelligent farmer-turned-soldier, was the archetypal military man. He was born into an aristocratic rural Afrikaner family whose lineage went back to the seventeenth century and he had risen quickly through the ranks to become chief of the army, and eventually head of the SADF. His identical twin brother, Braam Viljoen, had gone in the opposite direction, studying theology. When his moral opposition to apartheid alienated him from the Dutch Reformed Church, he had joined forces with the black political and religious leaders that his brother’s men sought to silence and defeat. As Braam immersed himself in the liberation theology of the South African Council of Churches—considered a terrorist front by the government—his brother, Constand, was spearheading South Africa’s invasion of Angola and managing its aftermath.
Baram describes Israel’s Arab citizens as “a cancer” and advocates gerrymandering electoral districts to prevent any Arab majorities capable of electing Arab members to the Knesset.
In the wake of South Africa’s failed intervention, General Viljoen was eager to learn all he could from the Israelis. “We flew with his official plane a lot to Angola,” recalls Telem. “He used to take us along and ask our opinion on everything.” The two Israelis were also taken on a security-oriented helicopter tour of the Mozambican border and afterward treated to a stay, with their wives, in South Africa’s premier safari spot—the Kruger National Park.
Telem insists that he had no qualms about selling Israeli arms to South Africa, especially the Reshef boats, which he did not envision being used against South African blacks. But he was tremendously unsettled by the country’s racism. When Telem discovered that the German embassy paid its black workers ten times more than the Israeli embassy, he was shocked by the disparity and demanded authorization from his superiors to pay the same wages as the Germans—a salary that would put black workers on par with the Jewish South African and Israeli employees at the office. His superiors at the Defense Ministry—generally immune to moral arguments when it came to arms sales—agreed with Telem about workers’ rights, telling him that they refused to pay “apartheid wages.” Telem was able to give his chauffeur such a massive raise that the driver began building himself a new house, but draconian apartheid laws that controlled blacks’ movements and banned interracial relationships continued to grate on Telem’s conscience.
Nevertheless, he continued his job, which required him to interact continuously with leading SADF and Armscor officials.“We had an excellent understanding on the professional side, I would not say the same on the political side,” Telem recounts. “I had to go along with it, but the longer I stayed in South Africa, the more it became difficult for me to cooperate with them.”
The turning point came when the head of Armscor, Piet Marais, invited Telem and his wife to spend a long weekend at his farm in the countryside. Marais was a Boer to the bone. With a farmer’s rough hands and reeking of tobacco, he spoke English with a harsh Afrikaans accent. At his farm, this pipe-smoking proponent of white supremacy set out to convince Telem of apartheid’s virtues. “He tried to persuade me that our way of trying to solve the Israeli problem [with] Palestinians is the best way and we should carry on with it even though we were an occupying, we still are, an occupying entity,” says Telem. Marais attempted to persuade him that Israel “should further apartheid as [South Africans] do in the name of the God of Israel.” It was too much for Telem. Soon afterward, he asked to be transferred home.
By contrast, Telem’s good friend Colonel Baram had no such reservations. Baram never raised his voice against apartheid. “How could I? I was advising them on how to defend it,” he says bluntly. Those who don’t like it, says Baram, should “stay at home.” The dramatically different perspectives of Telem and Baram, who remain friends to this day, are closely related to their domestic politics in Israel now. While Telem speaks regretfully of the ongoing occupation, Baram describes Israel’s Arab citizens as “a cancer” and advocates gerrymandering electoral districts to prevent any Arab majorities capable of electing Arab members to the Knesset.
While most diplomats resist the impulse to criticize a host nation’s internal policies lest it damage relations, Unna took every opportunity to lambaste apartheid.
Unlike Telem, Ambassador Unna did not let moral qualms stop him from carrying on with his work. When he returned as full ambassador in 1974, Unna was already acquainted with many South African politicians from his first stint in the country as consul-general. He and the South African intelligence chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, had become even closer in the wake of a hostage crisis in downtown Johannesburg. On the morning of April 28, 1975, an employee of the Israeli consulate crept into the downtown Johannesburg building housing the consular offices and shot the mission’s chief security officer. The shooter took the entire office staff hostage, claiming it was a security exercise. Initially, the South African authorities thought they were dealing with terrorists. They soon discovered that the consulate had been seized by a mentally unstable Jewish South African named David Protter, who had once served in the Israeli army and had been hired as a security guard despite warnings from high-level officials about his psychological problems. Protter and his younger brother used the consulate’s formidable arsenal to fire at police and snipers through the windows, injuring more than forty people caught in the crossfire. It was Johannesburg’s first full-scale hostage crisis, and crowds of onlookers camped out overnight with blankets and picnic baskets to watch the spectacle unfold. Van den Bergh took control of the scene, commandeering the phones of a nearby shopkeeper to keep an emergency line open for instructions from Prime Minister Rabin in Jerusalem. Protter finally surrendered the next morning, descending in an elevator behind a human shield of hostages.
The Fox Street crisis cemented Unna’s friendship with van den Bergh and they began to see each other socially. At the time, Unna and his wife were living in the luxurious twin towers on the slope of Table Mountain in Cape Town—South Africa’s legislative capital during parliamentary sessions. They enjoyed a panoramic vista from their balcony, overlooking the city, the harbor, and the steep face of the mountain. Unna found van den Bergh surprisingly forthcoming with political gossip after he’d had a few drinks. And although his habit of leaning over the railing to enjoy the view while sipping vodka made Unna extremely nervous, van den Bergh’s visits proved to be an invaluable asset for the Israeli embassy.
Yet ironically, despite his close friendship with the man many regarded as the power behind Vorster’s throne, Unna was arguably the most outspoken critic of apartheid in the diplomatic community. Television had only reached South Africa in early 1976, and Unna was invited by the South African Broadcasting Corporation to be the first foreign guest interviewed live on screen. He conducted the interview in Afrikaans, explaining that Jews could not accept apartheid because it was humiliating and discriminatory. The next morning, Unna went to see Information Minister Connie Mulder, who congratulated him on his interview. Unna was shocked. He asked Mulder if he had not heard his criticism of apartheid. According to Unna’s account, Mulder told him, “‘If the ambassador of Israel appears on our T.V. and speaks in our language, Afrikaans, he can be as critical as he likes, we love to hear him.’”
This was not the only instance of Unna spitting in the face of his hosts. A few years later, he caused a stir by driving his diplomatic car into a black township during a police raid. “The Africans were being hunted like stray dogs, and the look in their faces as they were trying to hide was that of frightened and desperate fugitives,” Unna later wrote in his unpublished autobiography. He told the officer in charge that such raids were self-defeating because the “illegal Africans” found to be violating apartheid laws by living in the city without passes simply returned after being expelled to the bantustans. Later that day, he gave a lecture at Stellenbosch University, the Harvard of Afrikanerdom, and told an audience of prominent NP members that the township raid made him “sick”—an outburst that earned him praise from liberal English-language newspapers. Unna caused yet another uproar when he refused to attend a play about the life of Golda Meir because blacks were not allowed in the theater. The entire Pretoria diplomatic corps eventually joined him in boycotting it.
Unna’s criticism of apartheid and his closeness with the South African regime’s leading figures presents an intriguing paradox. Unlike other Israelis who hypocritically paid lip service to the anti-apartheid movement, Unna followed through with concrete actions. While most diplomats resist the impulse to criticize a host nation’s internal policies lest it damage relations, Unna took every opportunity to lambaste apartheid. Despite these outbursts, he was revered by the white minority government more than any other Israeli ambassador in history. Unna claims that “we could get away with anything even our criticism was accepted because it came from friends.” Proudly, he adds, “They regarded me personally as an architect of the good relations between Israel and South Africa.” This is not boasting; General Magnus Malan, who headed the SADF during Unna’s tenure, agrees.
Sipping coffee in the basement of a shopping mall outside Pretoria, the retired general brightened at the mention of Unna: “The relations between South Africa and Israel, I give him the credit for it. He was very good, a hell of a bright chap.” And Unna’s denunciations of apartheid did not bother him. “He even was prepared to defend that on the SABC and I thought that was fantastic,” Malan exclaims. “And he did it in Afrikaans!” The fact that Unna was not meeting with black political leaders made his personal crusade even less threatening. Unna’s trenchant moral criticisms were heartfelt and genuine but they did not reflect a change in state policy. Malan and other key South African leaders were savvy enough to realize that allowing Unna to criticize them served their interests so long as he didn’t seek to undermine the alliance. Condoning and even encouraging Unna’s televised outbursts against apartheid made South Africa seem more democratic and tolerant of dissent than it actually was, convinced Israelis of the dubious proposition that they could remain morally pure while selling arms to Pretoria, and permitted the alliance to proceed without a hitch. Only the straitlaced minister of foreign affairs, Brand Fourie, protested Unna’s boycott of the Golda Meir play, for which the ambassador refused to apologize.
While Unna abhorred apartheid, he remains unapologetic about his role in furthering ties between Israel and South Africa. He retired long ago and now lives with his wife and cats in a modest condominium in a small subdivision near Netanya built by South African immigrants to Israel. Many of his neighbors have South African ties. As he argues, “We were isolated and here was an important big country developing relations with Israel.” Turning down a far-reaching partnership with clear economic benefits—especially when Israel had few other options—would have been anathema to the new foreign policy thinking emanating from Jerusalem in the mid-nineteen seventies. Unna maintains that the relationship was “important from a strategic point of view and from a commercial point of view and from a Jewish point of view.” The latter, of course, was a less pressing concern. Unna admits, “We structured our whole relationship with South Africa through our trade and our defense relationship.” Unna had learned a valuable lesson in a United Nations bathroom twenty years earlier: vicious criticism of a government on the public stage need not impede close personal relationships with its representatives behind the scenes. It was another instance of the Janus face Israel presented to the world.
It was not an auspicious time for secret arms deals between international pariahs.
The years that Telem, Baram, and Unna spent in South Africa helped to cement the Israeli-South African alliance and bring leading military figures into regular, close contact affording one another an insider’s view of the security operations being carried out against Israel and South Africa’s enemies.
South Africa’s army chief, Constand Viljoen, visited Israel’s occupied territories in the spring of 1977, marveling at the Israeli checkpoint system and the searches of Arabs conducted by soldiers at each roadblock. “The thoroughness with which Israel conducts this examination is astonishing. At the quickest, it takes individual Arabs that come through there about one and a half hours. When the traffic is heavy, it takes from four to five hours,” he observed admiringly. In addition to studying how Israel controlled the movement of Palestinians, the SADF was also interested in Israel’s battlefield training methods and sent twenty-two members of the army to Israel to study the IDF’s combat school with the goal of establishing a replica in South Africa. Business was thriving, too. The Armscor subsidiary Naschem sent three representatives to Israel Military Industries to study the manufacturing of bombs, while the South African Air Force flew a team to Israel to work on plans for a new, heavily fortified base. Armscor and IMI signed two large contracts for bombs and ammunition and tested them together, paving the way for even closer cooperation between the two countries.
That same month, the South African government entered into final negotiations for yet another massive ammunition contract with IMI, known as Project Decor. After a visit to Israel in late July 1977, Armscor officials reported that they had bargained the contract down from $450 million to $370 million—an amount fifteen times greater than the published International Monetary Fund figure that defenders of Israel used to downplay the extent of Israeli exports to South Africa (the IMF data excluded arms sales). It was the biggest infusion of cash ever from South Africa and a major boost to the Israeli economy. During their visit, the Armscor representatives met Defense Ministry director-general Pinchas Zussman, a university professor turned weapons czar, who greatly impressed them. They reported proudly to Pretoria that “he views the contract as more than a transaction between IMI and Armscor; indeed, he views it as a transaction between two governments, with all that this entails.”
By now, the Ford administration, which had aided South Africa’s adventure in Angola until Congress shut it down, was out of office. Jimmy Carter had been president for six months when Zussman and the South Africans negotiated the ammunition contract and Washington’s foreign policy had lurched to the left, placing a new emphasis on human rights and nonproliferation. It wasn’t long before the White House began to show signs of a tougher stance toward both Israel and South Africa, canceling the sale of five hundred-pound concussion bombs to Israel and publicly denouncing apartheid soon after Carter entered office. It was not an auspicious time for secret arms deals between international pariahs, and the situation became even more perilous in November 1977, when the U.N. passed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. Reacting to news of the embargo, Moshe Dayan, who had become Israel’s foreign minister after his embarrassing fall from grace after the Yom Kippur War, misleadingly told Israeli Radio, “Firstly, whatever the Security Council decides, or has decided, Israel will act accordingly we have no hidden under-the-table relations with the South African government.” The South African ambassador in Tel Aviv worried that Dayan might actually honor his word, but privately hoped that Israel would go on “publicly professing to uphold the embargo and, at the same time continuing for as long as possible, covertly, to disregard it.”
At Armscor there was no such uncertainty. South African defense officials knew the alliance they had forged was impressive and unique. While covert arms sales occurred in many places during the nineteen seventies, contracts of this magnitude—negotiated at the ministerial level and approved at the highest levels of government at a time of intense international scrutiny—were exceptional. As Zussman had told them, “the size of the recent contract had made a big impression on the whole cabinet.” Indeed, by signing it, Israel took a huge political risk and reaped an even greater economic windfall. Three years after Peres and Botha had initiated the alliance, it elevated the Israeli-South African relationship to a whole new level.
The captains of South Africa’s arms industry were well aware that the nearly $400 million contract they had just signed would provide a major stimulus to Israel’s sagging economy and help the country “to become more independent of the United States through the extension of their own production capacity.” As General Tamir had told the visiting spy Dieter Gerhardt back in 1975, Israel needed another leg to stand on. Professor Zussman had found one.
Excerpted from The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Copyright © 2010 by Sasha Polakow-Suransky. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Available through online retailers and in bookstores May 25th.