South Africa was among the 33 states that voted in favour of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, recommending the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, and was one of only four Commonwealth nations to do so. On 24 May 1948, nine days after Israel's declaration of independence, the South African government of Jan Smuts, a long-time supporter of Zionism, granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel, just two days before his United Party was voted out of office and replaced by the pro-apartheid National Party. South Africa was the seventh nation to recognise the new Jewish state. On 14 May 1949, South Africa granted de jure recognition to the State of Israel.:109–111 The Israeli interest in South Africa sprang in part from the presence of about 110,000 Jews in South Africa, a figure which included more than 15,000 Israeli citizens.
|"For years, Israel's policy toward South Africa was one of deliberate ambiguity - publicly condemning apartheid, while privately maintaining a pragmatic and mutually beneficial array of commercial and military ties."|
|— The New York Times 1987|
Diplomatic relations between Israel and South Africa began in 1949, when Israel established a consulate-general in Pretoria,:110 which was raised to the status of a legation in November 1950. However, South Africa had no direct diplomatic representation in Israel (it being represented by the United Kingdom) until South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, whereupon it sent a consul-general to Tel Aviv. South African Prime Minister D.F. Malan first visited Israel in 1953.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel had prioritized building relations with the newly independent states of sub-Saharan Africa; this, in turn, led it to take a critical stance on the question of apartheid. Israel joined in condemning apartheid at the United Nations and voted to enforce sanctions against South Africa. On October 11, 1961, Israel voted for the General Assembly censure of Eric Louw's speech defending apartheid. Israel became one of a few nations to have strong relations with apartheid South Africa. However, in 1963, Israel informed the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid that it had taken steps to comply with the military boycott of apartheid South Africa and had recalled its ambassador to South Africa. Israeli leaders publicly condemned apartheid throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, although it maintained contact with South Africa through a low-level diplomatic mission in Pretoria and through France, a mutual ally. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies feared an anti-Semitic backlash if Israel did not maintain good terms with the present government. However, Israel continued to criticize apartheid and seek closer relations with black African nations, but an anti-Semitic backlash never occurred. Israel regularly voted against South Africa's apartheid policies at the United Nations. After Israel voted in favor of economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa, Israeli lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the vote at the Knesset by a vote of 63-11, with 13 abstentions.
Israel continued a policy of active friendship with black Africa throughout the 1960s and offered technical and economic aid. After 1967, Israel's attempted alliances with newly independent African states had, in most assessments, failed. As a final expression of this strategy, in 1971, Israel offered $2,850 in aid to the Organization of African Unity's fund for liberation movements, which was rejected, but not before reportedly irking the South African government.
Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the Sinai and West Bank alienated it diplomatically from much of the Third World and African states. Black nationalist movements then began to see it as a colonial state. At the same time, in South Africa, Israel became the object of widespread admiration, particularly among the country's political and military leadership. The editorial of Die Burger, then the mouthpiece of the South African Nationalist Party, declared: "Israel and South Africa are engaged in a struggle for existence... The anti-Western powers have driven Israel and South Africa into a community of interests which had better be utilized than denied." In 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) instituted an oil embargo against Western nations as way of punishing them for supporting Israel; in doing so, OPEC sought support from other international groups to strengthen its impact. Arab states and black African nations formed a working alliance at the United Nations that sought both to criticize the two countries with UN resolutions and establish that the two develop close relations. Due to this alliance with the Arab world, many African countries broke off relations with Israel and did not consider restoring them for decades.
Israel continued to denounce apartheid, but it privately began to cultivate relations with South Africa in secret. This approach was similar to many Western nations at the time. Israel's condemnation of apartheid was based on opposition to the racist nature of the practice, and its maintenance of mutually beneficial commercial and military ties was rooted in a concern for South African Jews and a realpolitik attitude that Israel was too isolated to be selective about partners in trade and arms deals. Within less than a decade, South Africa would be one of Israel's closest military and economic allies, whilst Israel would occupy the position of South Africa's closest military ally, and Israel had become the most important foreign arms supplier to the South African Defence Force:117–19 In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, to put additional diplomatic and military pressure on Israel, Arab oil-producing countries threatened to impose an oil embargo on countries with international relations with Israel. As a result, many African countries broke ties with Israel as well.
Most African states had fully broken ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel increased its cultivation of ties with the similarly isolated government in Pretoria. Israeli ties and trade with South Africa became more extensive. According to Ethan A. Nadelmann, the relationship developed because many African countries broke diplomatic ties with Israel during the 1970s following Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza during the Arab–Israeli wars, causing Israel to deepen relations with other isolated countries. In the 1970s Israel aided the FNLA (Angolan National Liberation Front) proxy forces organized and trained by South Africa and the CIA to forestall the formation of a government led by the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-now the ruling party of Angola). Israel sent a plane full of 120 mm shells sent via Zaire to the FNLA and Unita and a shipment of 50 SA-7 missiles. Israel remained officially opposed to the apartheid system, but it also opposed international embargoes. Israeli officials sought to coordinate ties with South Africa within a tripartite framework between Israel, the United States, and South Africa. There was anti-apartheid sentiment among the Jewish communities of both South Africa and Israel. However, on the Israeli side, many saw it necessary to cooperate with any country willing to be friendly with Israel and support its existence. For the South African government, there was a desire to expand its network of friendships.
South African Airways began operating flights between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv, but as it was banned from using the airspace of most African countries, it had to take a detour around West Africa, doubling the distance and flying time involved. However, El Al, the Israeli national carrier, was able to operate flights between the two cities via Nairobi.
Israel also developed ties with the nominally independent "homelands",:143–44 especially with Bophuthatswana. Its president, Lucas Mangope, visited Israel in 1985; it established a mission in Tel Aviv called "Bophuthatswana House", the only place outside South Africa to fly the homeland's flag, despite the objections of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By 1973, an economic and military alliance between Israel and South Africa was in the ascendancy. The military leadership of both countries was convinced that both nations faced a fundamentally similar predicament, fighting for their survival against the common enemy of the PLO and the ANC.
In 1975, the Israel–South Africa Agreement was signed, and increasing economic co-operation between Israel and South Africa was reported, including the construction of a major new railway in Israel, and the building of a desalination plant in South Africa. In April 1976 South African Prime Minister John Vorster was invited to make a state visit, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Later in 1976, the 5th Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, adopted a resolution calling for an oil embargo against France and Israel because of their arms sales to South Africa. In 1977, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha visited Israel to discuss South African issues with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.
Israeli and South African intelligence chiefs held regular conferences with each other to share information on enemy weapons and training. The co-ordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the South African Defense Force was unprecedented, with Israeli and South African generals giving each other unfettered access to each other's battlefields and military tactics, and Israel sharing with South Africa highly classified information about its missions, such as Operation Opera, which had previously only been reserved for the United States.
The South African government's yearbook of 1978 wrote: "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples."
In 1978, Israel's ambassador to South Africa, Yitzak Unna, announced he was boycotting Golda, a play about Golda Meir's life, because the producers (an American production company) had chosen to show the play at Breytenbach Theater, which barred blacks and coloreds. Following his announcement, at least 10 other Western ambassadors said they too would not attend, and Golda Meir herself said she fully supported Unna's decision.
From the mid-1970s, the two countries were allegedly involved in joint nuclear-weapons development and testing. According to Seymour Hersh, for example, the 1979 Vela Incident was the third joint Israeli–South African nuclear test in the Indian Ocean. Richard Rhodes concludes the incident was an Israeli nuclear test, conducted in cooperation with South Africa, and that the United States administration deliberately obscured this fact in order to avoid complicating relations with Israel.
Israel was one of the most important allies in South Africa’s weapons procurement during the years of PW Botha’s regime.
By 1980, a sizeable contingent of South African military and government officials were living permanently in Israel, to oversee the numerous joint projects between the countries, while their children attended local Israeli schools. Scientific collaboration also continued to increase, with many scientists working in each other's countries. Perhaps most sensitive was the large group of Israeli scientists working at South Africa's Pelindaba nuclear facility.
During Operation Protea in 1981, the South African Defence Force made military history, as arguably the first user of modern drone technology, when it operated the Israeli IAI Scout drones in combat in Angola. They would only be used in combat by the Israel Defense Forces a year later during the 1982 Lebanon War and Operation Mole Cricket 19.
The commanders of the South African Defense Force were present at the test-firings of Israel's Jericho ballistic missile system, where they stood alongside the IDF generals. Israel's ballistic missile system, the Jericho II missile, was subsequently licensed for production in South Africa as the RSA series of space launch vehicles and ballistic missiles. The RSA-3 was produced by the Houwteq (a discontinued division of Denel) company at Grabouw, 30 km east of Cape Town. Test launches were made from Overberg Test Range near Bredasdorp, 200 km east of Cape Town. Rooi Els was where the engine test facilities were located. Development continued even after South African renunciation of its nuclear weapons for use as a commercial satellite launcher.
By 1987, a minority of Israeli officials and a number of liberal intellectuals, led by Yossi Beilin, then political director general of the Foreign Ministry, wanted not only to reduce cultural, commercial, and military ties, but also for Israel to take part in the international condemnation of apartheid. However, the majority of government officials, led by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wanted to maintain the status quo with South Africa (or make a few token reductions) and make their relationship even more secretive. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres took a middle-ground view, saying "Israel is not going to lead a policy" against South Africa, but would follow the approach taken by the United States and Western Europe.
In 1987, Israel found itself the only developed nation in the world that still maintained strong, even strategic relations with South Africa, as the apartheid regime was entering its final throes. (Among African nations, only Malawi maintained diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout the Apartheid era.) Based on intelligence assessments that the present South African government was no longer sustainable, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in a speech before parliament the same year, announced that Israel would sign no more new military contracts with the South African government and would "gradually" allow those already in effect to expire. Peres accompanied his announcement with the statement: "There is no room for discrimination, whether it's called apartheid or any other name", Peres said. "We repeat that we express our denunciation of the system of apartheid. The Jewish outlook is that every man was born in the image of God and created equal." Israel reduced cultural and tourism ties including establishing educational programs in Israel to help black South Africans. However, several secret military treaties with South Africa remained in force, continuing joint research in missile development and nuclear technology.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi wrote in 1988 that the alliance between South Africa and Israel was one of the most underreported news stories of the past four decades and that Israel played a crucial role in the survival of the apartheid regime.:108–109 Israel's collaboration with Apartheid South Africa was mentioned and condemned by various international organisations such as the UN General assembly (several times since 1974).:114
On July 14, 1991, four days after the United States acted to end its economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa, Israel lifted its sanctions as well. The four years in which they were in effect saw Israel's trade deficit with South Africa swell to some $750 million. The sanctions did not apply to agreements signed before they were imposed in 1987. Although Israel had always condemned apartheid, it was long apprehensive about the punitive measures, stemming from Israel's own vulnerability to international embargoes by the United Nations and Third World–dominated bodies. The resuming of open relations no longer included military cooperation. When then-President F. W. de Klerk visited Israel in November 1991, he was involved in negotiations to end apartheid. The Israelis responded warmly to his declaration that "there will be a new constitution" in South Africa, "which we believe should be one which will prevent domination, in any form, by a minority, but also domination by a majority in the sense that no majority should be in a position to abuse its power." During de Klerk's state visit, he and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed to normalise relations.
South Africa provided much of the yellowcake uranium that Israel required to develop its nuclear weapons. South Africa built its own nuclear bombs, possibly with Israeli assistance. Some Resolutions of the UN General Assembly in the early 1980s which condemned the cooperation between Israel and Apartheid South Africa, also mentioned nuclear collaboration. U.S. Intelligence believed that Israel participated in South African nuclear research projects and supplied advanced non-nuclear weapons technology to South Africa during the 1970s, while South Africa was developing its own atomic bombs. According to David Albright, "Faced with sanctions, South Africa began to organize clandestine procurement networks in Europe and the United States, and it began a long, secret collaboration with Israel." He goes on to say "A common question is whether Israel provided South Africa with weapons design assistance, although available evidence argues against significant cooperation."
Chris McGreal has written that "Israel provided expertise and technology that was central to South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs". In 2000, Dieter Gerhardt, Soviet spy and former commander in the South African Navy, stated that Israel agreed in 1974 to arm eight Jericho II missiles with "special warheads" for South Africa.
According to journalist Seymour Hersh, the 1979 Vela incident, was the third joint Israeli-South African nuclear weapons test in the Indian Ocean, and the Israelis had sent two IDF ships and "a contingent of Israeli military men and nuclear experts" for the test. Author Richard Rhodes also concludes the incident was an Israeli nuclear test, conducted in cooperation with South Africa, and that the United States administration deliberately obscured this fact in order to avoid complicating relations.
In 2010, The Guardian reported that newly declassified South African documents uncovered by academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky showed details of a meeting on 31 March 1975 between the two countries' defence ministers, at the time South African P. W. Botha and Israeli Shimon Peres, in which Peres purportedly offered South Africa "three sizes." The report suggested that the "three sizes" referred to nuclear warheads, but the deal never materialised. Backed by former minister Yossi Beilin, Peres said the allegations were untrue and based on a selective interpretation of the minutes. Former apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha, as well as various Israeli insiders and experts, also said the allegations were highly improbable. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb, said, "Nothing in the documents suggests there was an actual offer by Israel to sell nuclear weapons to the regime in Pretoria."
Nelson Mandela first visited Israel as well as the Palestinian territories in 1999, after he had handed over the presidency of South Africa to Thabo Mbeki. He had not previously received an invitation from Israel. He met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, like Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat. He said: "To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I've made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities." Mandela reiterated his unwavering opposition to Israeli control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. And he noted that, upon his release from prison in 1990, he received invitations to visit "almost every country in the world, except Israel."
Some prominent South African figures, such as Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils, have criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, drawing parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, which represents 1.2 million South African workers, has also accused Israel of practicing apartheid and supported the boycott by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, as well as all Israeli products.
However, South African ambassador to Israel Major General Fumanekile Gqiba generally did not agree with the analogy, saying about his time in Israel:
before I came here. I regarded Jews as whites. Purely whites. But when I came here I discovered that, no, these guys are not purely whites. ...You've got Indian Jews, you've got African Jews, and you've got even Chinese Jews, right? I began to say to our comrades, No, Israel is not a white country... Perhaps we would say there are those who came from Poland, who happened to be white—i.e. Ashkenazi their culture still dominates. It's difficult to say Israel is racist, in a classic sense.
Annual trade between Israel and South Africa totaled $500 million as of 2003.
According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007, 86% of South Africans both in a rural and urban spread had an opinion on the Israel–Palestine conflict. One of the few relevant questions with data from South Africa asked "Now thinking about the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?" Of those asked; 28% said they sympathized more with Israel, 19% more with Palestine, 19% sympathized with both parties equally and 20% sympathized with neither. 14% didn't know or didn't answer.
Following the Gaza flotilla raid, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned the Israeli ambassador for a reprimand.
The movement for an Academic boycott of Israel, within the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, was established in South Africa following the 2001 Durban Conference on Racism. Following an academic petition supported by more than 250 academics, including Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani and Achille Mbembe. The Senate of the University of Johannesburg decided to end its ties with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in March 2011. The University denied that the decision amounted to an academic boycott of Israel. Others have claimed it as "a landmark moment in the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel campaign". Jewish and Israeli groups have criticised the decision. In April 2015, Israel refused permission for Pretoria Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, and three aides to visit their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah via Jordan. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation said “This is most regrettable.” Their statement noted: “We believe both countries should encourage greater interaction at all levels and lift restrictions in this regard, in the interests of relations between Israel and South Africa and the broader interests of peace and stability”, while also making the point that the process of shutting out individuals from the other country had been done by South Africa to Israelis in the past. In July 2017, news report said that the ANC had recommended that South Africa's embassy in Israel be downgraded to an "interests section" to show solidarity with Palestinians and distance Pretoria from Jerusalem, though this recommendation has yet to be ratified.
On 14 May 2018, South Africa withdrew its Ambassador to Israel indefinitely following the 2018 Gaza border protests. The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation said in an official statement "As we have stated on previous occasions, South Africa reiterates its view that the Israeli Defence Force must withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories."
As Israel's denunciations of South Africa grew louder, the South African Jewish community ... began to worry once again. ... As much as they resented Israel's increasingly harsh anti-apartheid rhetoric, the men in Pretoria were afraid to take action against Pretoria lest it endanger the flow of arms through France. ... During the mid-1960s, diplomatic contact between Israel and South Africa was minimal.
Israel continued to criticize apartheid, and the dread anti-Semitic backlash never materialized. ... After Goldreich settled in Israel, the Israeli government continued to speak out against apartheid and seek closer ties with black African nations while disregarding the grievances of South African Jews.
South Africa's importance as a source of uranium reinforced its status as a major military ally of Great Britain and a loyal member of the Western political camp. Primarily due to South Africa's security relationship and growing military cooperation with the United States, the country was viewed in most Western capitals as a loose appendage of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). ... Throughout the first several decades after World War II, South Africa's apartheid system was not a liability in dealing with Western leaders.
At that time, most Israeli government officials apartheid on moral grounds, but a minority worried that such opposition might endanger the South African Jewish community.