JERUSALEM — The Israeli government announced Thursday that it will forgo new defense contracts with South Africa and take other measures to scale back its relations with the white-minority government in Pretoria.
The action was seen here as a preemptive one intended to appease the United States and prevent a new controversy that could put further pressure on relations already strained by the Iranian arms affair and the Jonathan Jay Pollard spy scandal.
While a senior Israeli official called the government's decision a "point of no return" in Jerusalem's complex and controversial ties with South Africa, it is not expected to have any immediate practical impact.
Time to Work Out Policy
It allows the leadership two additional months to work out specifics of the new policy--enough time to assess reaction to a U.S. State Department report, due April 1, outlining arms sales to Pretoria by other governments. Nations found to be selling military equipment to South Africa face a possible cutoff of U.S. military aid--which, in Israel's case, amounts to $1.8 billion annually.
A senior Western diplomat who has been following the situation closely described the Israeli action as "pretty minimalist," although U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman welcomed it as "a positive development."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the decision in principle to cut back ties with South Africa followed six months of internal discussions capped on Wednesday by a five-hour debate among the so-called "inner Cabinet" of 10 senior government ministers.
The formal announcement was postponed in order to allow Israel's ambassador to Pretoria to transmit the decision to the South African Foreign Ministry at a meeting Thursday morning, Peres said.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 12 that Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had agreed to phase out existing agreements on arms sales and the transfer of military technology to South Africa. It was that basic decision that was confirmed by the senior ministers Wednesday and publicly announced Thursday.
Peres told American Jewish leaders here Thursday that while Israel cannot lead world policy toward South Africa, "we are not going to remain outside a world policy as it is formulated by free countries."
In announcing the action later before the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, he said Israel deplores any sort of discrimination, "whether it is called apartheid or any other name."
Decides Upon 4 Actions
He said the inner Cabinet has decided to do four things: reiterate Israel's condemnation of apartheid; continue a phased reduction of Israel's economic, cultural and other civilian ties with South Africa; refuse "unequivocally" to sign new contracts "in the sphere of defense," and commission a "select team" to examine the situation and recommend within two months specific steps to implement the new policy.
The decision means that existing military contracts, some of which were apparently signed in violation of a 1977 U.N. embargo on arms sales to South Africa, will be honored.
Peres refused Thursday to disclose the value of those contracts, although they have been estimated to total at least $500 million. Most are scheduled to expire within the next three or four years, although "very few" extend into the early 1990s, according to government sources.
Some of the ongoing ties reportedly stem from a memorandum on scientific and technological cooperation dating from a 1976 exchange of high-level visits between then-Defense Minister Peres and former South African Prime Minister John Vorster.
The Israeli press has reported that the two countries exchange nuclear information and physicist study programs, and South Africa sells uranium to Israel. South Africa helps fund development of new Israeli weapons systems and in return receives production licenses and technology under other military cooperation programs.
Peres denounced as "baseless slanders" an accusation Thursday by Meir Vilner, a member of Parliament from the Communist Party, that Israel and South Africa are cooperating in the production of atomic weapons.
Israeli leaders are loathe to renege on existing military contracts because of both the economic effect and the possible adverse impact such a decision could have on South Africa's estimated 115,000 Jews. They are also concerned that Pretoria might reverse its policy of allowing South African Jews to transfer money out of the country for investment here.
Livelihood for Thousands
Altogether, the military contracts and South African investments are said to provide the economic support for thousands of Israelis.