The Israeli government has it in for Richard Goldstone. Ever since Goldstone, a Jewish South African judge, issued a report in September charging Israel (and Hamas) with war crimes during the January 2009 invasion of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attacked him — and his report — as a grave threat to Israel’s legitimacy.
On Thursday, leading Israeli government officials escalated their campaign against Goldstone, accusing him of sending 28 black South Africans to their deaths while serving as a judge during the apartheid years.
"The judge who sentenced black people to death … is a man of double standards," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin proclaimed. "Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists." Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon insisted, "This so-called respected judge is using this report in order to atone for his sins," likening Goldstone’s statement that he was forced to uphold the laws of an unjust regime to "explanations we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II."
And the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth declared breathlessly — with nods of approval from Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait — that "the man who authored the Goldstone report criticizing the IDF’s actions during Operation Cast Lead took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century."
So did Israel’s government.
Goldstone’s apartheid-era judicial rulings are undoubtedly a blot on his record, but his critics never mention the crucial part he played in shepherding South Africa through its democratic transition and warding off violent threats to a peaceful transfer of power — a role that led Nelson Mandela to embrace him and appoint him to the country’s highest court.
More importantly, Ayalon’s and Rivlin’s moralism conveniently ignores Israel’s history of arming the apartheid regime from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By serving as South Africa’s primary and most reliable arms supplier during a period of violent internal repression and external aggression, Israel’s government did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did.
The Israel-South Africa alliance began in earnest in April 1975 when then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres signed a secret security pact with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha. Within months, the two countries were doing a brisk trade, closing arms deals totaling almost $200 million; Peres even offered to sell Pretoria nuclear-capable Jericho missiles. By 1979, South Africa had become the Israeli defense industry’s single largest customer, accounting for 35 percent of military exports and dwarfing other clients such as Argentina, Chile, Singapore, and Zaire.
High-level exchanges of military personnel soon followed. South Africans joined the Israeli chief of staff in March 1979 for the top-secret test of a new missile system. During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli army took South African Defense Force chief Constand Viljoen and his colleagues to the front lines, and Viljoen routinely flew visiting Israeli military advisors and embassy attachés to the battlefield in Angola where his troops were battling Angolan and Cuban forces.
There was nuclear cooperation, too: South Africa provided Israel with yellowcake uranium while dozens of Israelis came to South Africa in 1984 with code names and cover stories to work on Pretoria’s nuclear missile program at South Africa’s secret Overberg testing range. By this time, South Africa’s alternative sources for arms had largely dried up because the United States and European countries had begun abiding by the U.N. arms embargo; Israel unapologetically continued to violate it.
The blatant hypocrisy of the latest attack on Goldstone is nothing new. In November 1986, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s U.N. ambassador, gave a stirring speech to the General Assembly denouncing apartheid and insisting that "Arab oil producers provide the umbilical cord that nourishes the apartheid regime." (Never mind that Israel remained absent from the 1980 U.N. vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa in deference to its friends in Pretoria.)
Netanyahu was right that Arab and Iranian oil was flowing through middlemen to the apartheid regime, but he categorically denied Israel’s extensive military and trade ties with South Africa, calling charges of lucrative arms sales "flat nonsense" and accusing his critics of trying "to defame Israel."
In fact, Israel was profiting handsomely from selling weapons to Pretoria at the time. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman estimated that the two countries did $400 mllion to $800 million of business in the arms sector in 1986. According to declassified South African documents, the figure was likely even greater: A single contract for modernization of South African fighter jets in the mid-1980s amounted to "approximately $2 billion," and arms sales in 1988 — one year after Israel imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime — exceeded $1.5 billion. As the former head of the South African Air Force Jan van Loggerenberg told me bluntly: "Israel was probably our only avenue in the 1980s."
Declassified South African arms-procurement figures (which exclude lucrative cooperative ventures and shared financing arrangements) reveal the full extent of Netanyahu’s lie. The "independent IMF figures" he cited (which excluded diamonds and arms) suggested trade was a minuscule $100 million annually. It was actually between five to 10 times that amount — depending on the year — making the apartheid regime Israel’s second- or third-largest trading partner after the United States. Not all of the weapons Israel sold were used in external wars, and there is no denying that Israeli arms helped prolong the rule of an immoral and racist regime.
Before casting stones from their glass house, Ayalon, Rivlin, and Israeli journalists would do well to examine — and acknowledge — their government’s own shameful history of collaboration with the apartheid regime.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs and author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.