WASHINGTON — Israeli arms merchants, almost certainly with the approval of their government, regularly violated the U.N. embargo on arms sales to South Africa for almost a decade before the government called a halt to the traffic last month, the State Department reported Thursday.
The department also said that companies in France, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Britain sporadically sold weapons to South Africa or helped to maintain and modernize arms already in the white-led minority government's inventory in defiance of the U.N. Security Council's 1977 embargo.
The department report was ordered under legislation passed last year over a veto by President Reagan. The measure imposed economic sanctions against South Africa to punish the Pretoria regime for its policy of apartheid.
Under the terms of the act, U.S. military aid may be suspended to any nation found to violate the embargo. However, Administration officials called it extremely unlikely that Israel would lose any of its $1.8 billion in military assistance, by far the largest U.S. program for any nation. None of the other nations named in the report receives U.S. military aid.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that ending aid "is not automatic and would require a joint resolution of Congress."
The Israeli government announced March 18 that it would not sign new military contracts or extend existing ones with South Africa. The action was widely interpreted at the time as an effort to forestall any move to cut off its aid.
The State Department made public a three-page summary of a classified report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the intelligence committees of both chambers. According to unnamed sources quoted by United Press International, the classified version of the report also said that Israel helped to train the South African army in conventional military tactics and anti-terrorism procedures.
In the unclassified report, the State Department conceded that information about South African arms purchases was difficult to obtain because the Pretoria government and the arms sellers tried to keep their transactions secret.
"Given what we do know, we believe that South Africa obtains weapons and subsystems from a wide variety of sources worldwide," the report said.
"Israel appears to have sold military systems and subsystems and provided technical assistance on a regular basis," it said. "We believe that the Israeli government was fully aware of most or all of the trade."
The report added that there is no evidence that Israel transferred U.S.-made weapons to South Africa, although it said that Jerusalem may have sold Israeli-made arms based on U.S. technology or design.
"We believe companies in France, Italy and Israel have continued to be involved in the maintenance and upgrade of major systems provided before the 1977 embargo," the report said.
In addition, it said, "companies in (West) Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland have on occasion exported articles covered by the embargo without government permission or have engaged in sales to South Africa in the gray area between civilian and military applications."
French Premier Jacques Chirac, speaking at a Washington press conference Wednesday, denied that France has sold arms to South Africa in the last 10 years.