Netanyahu and Peres Didn’t Go to Mandela Farewell in South Africa — Could Have Atoned for Past Connections with Apartheid Regime

[Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, wrote this opinion piece for — the website of the 24-hour TV news channel that is based in Israel and broadcasts in English, French, and Arabic.]

It is regrettable that President Shimon Peres could not make it to Nelson Mandela’s huge memorial in the Soweto soccer stadium (December 10th). It is noteworthy that Peres and Mandela were both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela Did Visit Peres in Israel in 1999

Mandela Did Visit Peres in Israel in 1999

Attending the impressive ceremony, alongside hundreds of world leaders and other dignitaries, could have served for Israel and particularly for Peres as poetic justice, providing him with the opportunity to atone for past sins.

It was Peres more than any other Israeli politician who was responsible for the “unholy” alliance between the white-ruled apartheid regime of South Africa and the Jewish state.

Peres, who in 1974 served as defense minister in the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin, secretly visited Pretoria and a year later signed a comprehensive agreement for security and nuclear cooperation between the two governments.

Over the next two decades, until the downfall of the apartheid system, Israel sold South Africa weapons, know-how and production licenses valued at $4 billion that included missile boats, fighter planes, missiles, artillery guns and assorted intelligence equipment.

The clandestine collaboration also deepened into the sensitive nuclear field. Israel purchased uranium from South Africa for its nuclear reactor in Dimona and in return shared its know-how and sold materials essential for making nuclear bombs such as tritium. The cooperation reached a peak in 1979, when, according to international experts, the two countries jointly tested a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.

It was an immoral and shameful alliance, but Israel was not alone in supplying weapons and thus strengthening apartheid. France, the UK, Saudi Arabia and many other nations did the same. But one would have expected Israel to be more sensitive and act differently.

The apartheid regime was based on race division and a belief in the white man’s supremacy. Many of its leaders sympathized during the Second World War with the Nazis of Germany.

So how could Israel ignore its past and historic obligation as a homeland of the Jewish people, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and victims of the Nazi race doctrine? Can a need to enhance its national security and economic interests justify cooperation with a racist regime?

Though the South African-Israeli connection was unique in its scope, the pattern in which Israeli cooperated with morally repugnant regimes was, unfortunatley, not exceptional. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel embarked on a policy in which it lost its moral brakes and worshiped a supreme deity: selling Israeli “battle proven” military equipment to almost any customer, no matter its intended use.

The policy was designed, dictated and led by the Ministry of Defense, which to a certain degree even nowadays functions as a “state within a state.” The Defense Ministry with its near-sighted vision had the upper hand over the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and all other public bodies, in almost every battle in which moral values stood in the way of security, economic and political considerations.

Thus, Israel sold weapons in the early 80’s to Iran, while U.S. diplomats were held as hostage by the newly established Islamic Republic. Israel sold weapons, technologies and expertise to the worst dictators in Africa and in South and Central America, who used the knowledge and equipment to abuse human rights.

Three examples are sufficient to illustrate this policy: the military junta in Argentina in the 70’s, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile in the 70’s and 80’s, and General Efrain Rioss Montt of Guatemala in the early 80’s.

Israel has been trapped for the last four decades in a vicious cycle. The embattled young state built a military-industrial complex in order to support and supply its armed forces and to be self-reliant — especially in preparation for the “rainy day” when foreign powers might embargo the sales of weapons to Israel.

Such embargoes took place from time to time: once,in 1967, when France refused to hand over fighter planes and boats which Israel had already paid for; and on a smaller scale, when various U.S. administrations decide to punish Israel for its policies by suspending arms deliveries.

But like a monster which has to be fed, Israeli defense contractors needed to export their products in order to support their economic growth, expand manpower and generate bigger revenues.

The urge to expand and find new markets — at almost any cost — pushed aside even the slightest notion that foreign policy must also consider moral, ethical and historical considerations.

Nevertheless in the last decade, perhaps to remedy Israel’s tarnished image, the policy has been revisited. The Foreign Ministry managed to have a bigger say in the decision-making process regarding arms sales. Defense Ministry officials have also become more attentive and ready to take into account wider considerations, including moral aspects, in their effort to market Israeli security and military equipment.

Above all, in its desire to be part of the civilized world, Israel is more ready than ever to adhere to international norms and United Nations decisions — especially when it comes to arms embargoes and sanctions on rogue regimes.

What’s needed is closer oversight of arms deals, to make sure that our country’s prized innovations no longer end up in the hands of the world’s most ruthless regimes.

December 14, 2013

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