JERUSALEM -- Israel's policy-making inner cabinet voted last week for a series of measures to constrict its ties with South Africa -- but, almost as quickly, that move unraveled, illustrating a painful dilemma for this country.
On Wednesday the inner cabinet voted to adopt 10 measures restricting economic and cultural ties with South Africa -- but refused to disclose what the measures were. The next day, the senior civil servant of the Ministry of Trade and Commerce renounced the new steps anyway, saying they could damage Israel's economy and pointing out that South Africa exported over $220 million in goods to Israel last year, including 70 percent of the country's coal needs.
On Friday, South African Airways placed ads in local newspapers announcing it was adding a second weekly flight to Johannesburg for the months of September and October. The additional flight had the approval of the ministries of Transportation and Tourism -- despite the fact that the measures adopted Wednesday are supposed to curtail travel between the two countries.
When it comes to Israel and South Africa, breaking up is hard to do. Officials here face conflicting imperatives: their desire to get in line with the West, which has adopted a policy of mild but symbolic sanctions, versus Israel's longstanding friendship with the Pretoria government, a relationship that has been important for strategic, economic and, at times, sentimental reasons.
"The new measures may only be symbolic but you shouldn't underestimate their importance," said an official of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which pushed hard for their adoption. "This was an extremely difficult struggle to win."
The ministry has slowly distanced Israel diplomatically from Pretoria since the Cabinet first decided last March, under intense American pressure, to reduce its relations. Diplomatic contacts between the two old friends have lost their warmth and become, at best, correct. Official visits were curtailed even before Wednesday's decision.
Some businesses have been pressed by public exposure into pledging an end to major commercial dealings with the South Africans. Kibbutz Beit Alfa agreed to stop selling to the South African police the water cannons that it manufactures for riot control, a device that made its debut in Cape Town last year but whose origins had remained hidden.
And the Histadrut, Israel's giant trade union federation, pledged to let lapse its $25 million-per-year steel and iron contract with Iskoor, a company owned jointly by the federation-controlled Koor Industries and South Africa's state-run steel corporation. The pledge came after left-wing Knesset member Ran Cohen disclosed the contract and claimed that the federation had set up a dummy Swiss corporation to conceal its role in the sales.
Officials here say Israeli government agencies have begun phasing out military contracts with Pretoria, as promised last March, by not renewing those that lapse. The officials concede that the process will take several years because many of the pacts extend into the 1990s.
It is not possible to verify the claim independently because the contracts are state secrets, but officials contend that the phase-out is one factor in the layoffs this year of more than 5,000 defense industry workers. Published estimates of the annual defense trade between South Africa -- conducted in defiance of a U.N. arms embargo that Israel has always claimed to honor -- range from $125 million to $400 million.
But perhaps most symbolic was an incident last month when the South African Embassy here tried to enlist Israeli help in convincing the foreign ministers of West Germany and Denmark to withdraw invitations to host talks between white South Africans and the African National Congress, the outlawed black resistance movement. Israel, the embassy reasoned, would be sympathetic because of its own long struggle against the Palestine Liberation Organization.
South African Ambassador Edward Anton Loubser took the request directly to the office of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. But a Peres' aide, Yosef Beilin, who has led the official campaign to reduce relations, intercepted the message and rejected it. Then he went one step further, disclosing the matter to the Israeli press. "We are no longer a public relations service for the South Africans," Beilin told reporters.
The embassy will not comment on the incident, but Loubser, with the aid of Israeli and South African industrialists, has waged what political insiders here say is a highly effective campaign to limit the new sanctions.
"Israel and South Africa both drew very close to each other over the years and understand that our relations aren't something superficial," said Loubser in an interview last week. "I am very, very determined to ensure that nothing should happen to disturb this."
He has much help inside Israel. Unlike in the United States, there is little domestic pressure here for sanctions against South Africa. That is because of the long friendship between Pretoria and Jerusalem, rooted in the early support of South African leaders for an independent Jewish state. The links grew in the 1970s, a time when Israel was shut out of most of black Africa and desperate for economic and strategic allies.
Officials say several trade and military agreements remain from a 1976 visit by South African Prime Minister John Vorster. The cement that has helped hold these agreements in place is the support of the 110,000 Jews of South Africa, most of whom support their government's campaign against sanctions.
"Those in the West who are pressuring us about South Africa should always remember that we must take into account the future of our Jewish brothers there," said Yossi Achimeir, spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "No similar considerations exist for these other nations."
When a special committee recommended to the Cabinet last June new restrictions against South Africa, the panel was soon deluged with angry letters from Jews both here and in South Africa opposing them. Cabinet ministers were intensely lobbied and eventually postponed a decision indefinitely. "They argued that things were quiet, that the world was reexamining its sanctions policy, so why jump on South Africa now," said a senior official involved in the debate.
The measures were only revived last week after an equally intense lobbying effort by American Jewish organizations and by a delegation of 22 black American community leaders who warned that Israel might face a challenge in the U.S. Congress to its $3 billion in annual aid if it did not follow through on its March commitment to reduce relations further. The resulting steps were simply pragmatic, according to Beilin. "I don't believe someone can say relations with South Africa are vital, especially if you compare them with the danger we could have brought upon ourselves of a problem with the American Congress over those ties," he said.