South Africa and Israel were closer than you think

A blast from the past, proving that America’s leading Zionist lobby sometimes criticises the Jewish state (hardly for human rights reasons but the fear of Israel being seen working with despots). How times have changed (and note the irony, considering Israel today behaves in ways reminiscent of South Africa during its darkest days):

In the late 1980s, the pro-Israel lobby faced a similar dilemma that jeopardized U.S. military aid to the Jewish state: Israel’s refusal to stop selling arms to South Africa’s racist apartheid regime. Then, unlike now, AIPAC did not blindly defend the government in Jerusalem and attack the U.S. administration. Rather, it pressured the Israeli government to back down from a myopic and destructive policy that damaged Israel’s image and threatened its warm ties with Washington.

In August 1986, as popular anti-apartheid legislation was making the rounds in the U.S. Senate, a paragraph with far-reaching consequences for Israel crept into the bill. It called for the president to document any arms sales to South Africa and “add the option of terminating U.S. military assistance to countries violating the embargo.” In Israel, the national-unity government of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir disregarded the bill, convinced that it would never pass.

In Washington, though, leading AIPAC officials believed that Israel’s ties with Pretoria were tarnishing the country’s image in Congress just as the push for anti-South African sanctions was gaining momentum on the Hill. And they began pressuring the Israeli government to act.

Some of AIPAC’s biggest donors were outraged, given that arms sales to South Africa were a major economic windfall for Israel. But unlike the donors, AIPAC’s Beltway insiders saw the bigger strategic picture. In their eyes, the ongoing and increasingly publicized military relationship with South Africa was alienating some of the Jewish state’s staunchest supporters in Congress, who were also committed to the anti-apartheid cause. Pro-Israel lobbyists believed that attempts by anti-Israel groups to paint the Jewish state as an ally of the racist South African regime would eventually sway the American public unless Israel ceased selling arms to South Africa.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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