For those with long memories, the seed of South Africa’s case against Israel—accusing it of genocidal acts in the Gaza Strip—might be traced to a spring day nearly 50 years ago. On Apr. 9, 1976, South Africa’s white supremacist prime minister, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, was welcomed with full red-carpet treatment to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
The moment, for those who knew the prime minister’s past, was incongruous. A former Nazi sympathizer who had proudly declared in 1942 that “we stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism” bowed his head, knelt, and laid a wreath in memory of Hitler’s victims before his diplomatic entourage whisked him away to more important meetings.
Vorster was not in town to make amends for his Nazi past. He was there to cement arms deals with the Israeli government, which had, since 1974, become one of the apartheid regime’s most significant suppliers of military technology. In the years that followed, as many other nations imposed sanctions and distanced themselves from Pretoria, Israel drew closer—supplying the regime with everything from bombs and artillery shells to aircraft components and military training while cooperating on the construction and testing of missile delivery systems and even exchanging materials that were vital to the nuclear weapons programs of both countries.
In the dying days of apartheid in the late 1980s, when U.S. sanctions had begun to bite and Pretoria faced a widespread internal uprising and a major war in neighboring Angola and soon-to-be independent Namibia, Israel was a lifeline; so were visits to the front lines from leading Israeli generals and military advisors and the rhetorical support of some of its leaders. Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon urged the West to sell arms to South Africa; former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Raful Eitan told a university audience in Tel Aviv that “[Blacks] want to gain control over the white minority just like the Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.” [Continue reading…]