In 1972, Israel opened diplomatic missions in Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. Israel has previously maintained diplomatic relations through embassies in neighbouring countries, but it was time for a permanent office, soon to be upgraded into an embassy. Ahead of his posting, the Defence Ministry arranged a briefing with the new Chargé d’Affairs, Lt. Col. Pinchas Gonen, for C.B.H. Fincham, South African Consul-General in Israel, to discuss the Israel Defense Forces’ technical assistance programmes in Africa.
On September 1972, the South African Embassy on Idelson Street in Tel Aviv sent a dispatch to the South African foreign ministry in Pretoria. The document, labelled ‘SECRET’, was also circulated to South African missions in Malawi, Lebanon and Iran. The telegram offers a fascinating insight into diplomatic relations between Israel and South Africa, which also touched on more topics more innocuous than transfers of military hardware and uranium, which the media have recently focused on.
The Israeli army was running “technical aid programmes” in roughly half of the African states in which Israel had diplomatic representation at the time. This effort was part of Israel’s wider grand strategy of reaching out to peripheral countries, in order to break Arab encirclement and win diplomatic support from newly emerging states. Egypt, following the cue of Nasserist pan-Arabism, had positioned itself as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of Third World states, and Israel was trying to sweep the run from under its feet.
Consul-General Fincham noted that the purpose of the IDF missions was to communicate its expertise in “organising social-uplift programmes” for conscripts: Israel was to use its experience in keeping conscripts busy while they were not training or fighting, to help states with lacklustre labour markets “keep… young people constructively busy and out of mischief” and teach them skills! The plan was not without its hiccups: attempts to replicate the kibbutzim in Africa had to be abandoned because, as the Consul-General noted euphemistically, “the kibbutzim did not thrive in African tribal soil”. But by and large, South Africa was impressed that Israel had “hit upon the right formula” in meeting these countries’ needs.
Whether the policy was a diplomatic success, however, remained a matter of deep disagreement in the Israeli leadership: General Zur, assistant to Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, dismissed as a “washout” what he considered to be the pet project of Prime Minister Golda Meir (“in a minority of one in this respect”). Israel was “too small and had too many intractable problems of her own”, and these countries were too poor and dependent, for operational successes to be converted into enduring diplomatic leverage or commercial advantages. Political instability in developing countries, as a senior Foreign Ministry official conceded, meant that “goodwill vis-à-vis one leader… was not necessarily transferred to the successor regime”.
The telegram hinted obliquely at the “Amin story” as an example of developing countries’ “short memories”: Israel had thrown its weight behind supporting Uganda, and was then unceremoniously ejected (a couple of months before this telegram) when Idi Amin came to power, despite the fact that Amin, who had been to Israel for a paratroopers’ course, sustained cooperation with the Jewish state until Gaddafi bribed him to cut all ties. It was to be four years until Amin would facilitate the hostage crisis at Entebbe Airport, after Palestinian terrorist hijacked an Air France flight. Uganda was to Israel what Iran would become to the United States in only a few years: a vital ally that went AWOL without warning after a surprising change of regime.
The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, was somewhat more optimistic about Israel’s policy in Africa, if only because it did not have very high expectations to begin with. The policy had failed to induce African countries to vote in Israel’s favour at the United Nations, but Israel would probably not have been better off if it had had no dialogue or lines of communication with African states. As Fincham put it rather diplomatically, evidence of success was so thin that senior Foreign Ministry officials were “not sure that Israel’s policy of friendship with African countries had not paid off”.
Fincham explained the subtle differences between the evaluations of IDF and the Foreign Ministry in terms of the organisations’ different functions: the Army was “concerned with the over-riding question of survival in a world shared with 200 million Arabs”, so was sceptical of investment in “the hypothetical future goodwill” of developing states. For the Israeli army, cooperation with “a dependable ally (and it is clear that they regard South Africa in this light)” had “immediate and tangible value”.
Moreover, Fincham was intrigued by the dominance of the military establishment in the formulation of foreign policy, which he called “surprising and even a little disconcerting”. The Israeli military has always had an outsized influence in national security policy-making, which largely a function of its superior resources vis-à-vis the civilian government. Fincham was probably only slightly exaggerating when he said that the IDF could “propound [policy]… at the drop of a hat”.
Pretoria had spotted an opportunity, therefore, to exercise diplomatic leverage by capitalising on its dependability as an ally to a country that had failed so miserably in winning support elsewhere. “From our perspective, there is much to be gained from this situation,” the Consul-General concluded laconically.