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Israel's decision in September of 1987 to join the rest of the world in imposing sanctions on South Africa left the apartheid regime totally dumbstruck, so much so that its leader at the time, president P.W. Botha (long known as the "Great Crocodile"), sent a secret letter to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir accusing him of stabbing him in the back.
"How could you do this to us, after so many years of friendship and alliance?" Botha railed.
Botha, who died Tuesday night aged 90, was a staunch friend of Israel and the architect of the Pretoria-Jerusalem alliance during the dark years of apartheid. He felt so personally hurt by the Israeli sanctions that he wrote directly to the prime minister.
Being a stickler for formalities, like many an Afrikaner gentleman, and also such a loyal friend of the Israelis, Botha didn't make his pain public, and would not release the "top secret" memo to the media. Israel's Foreign Ministry only heard about the letter years after the event.
"They were totally confounded, taken by surprise, and really, really hurt," said Alon Liel, head of the Foreign Ministry's South Africa desk from October 1986 until 1990, and ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1995.
"They never believed we would go that far and join the Europeans in their form of sanctions. They thought we would just make some public declaration and quietly let things go on as they were."
Botha, whom Liel called "the last of the apartheid dictators," died at his home in the Wilderness, in the Western Cape.
In 1987 Israel found itself alone among the nations in still maintaining strong, even strategic relations with apartheid South Africa. A year earlier, the European nations had bandied together to impose sanctions on Pretoria, and had managed to draw the United States into making the same move.
Feeling increasingly isolated by its ties to South Africa, and under a "pariah state" threat of its own, the Foreign Ministry established, in late 1986, a committee to review its policy towards its longtime ally.
Liel was on that committee. "We sat for about six months and deliberated about what we should do," he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
"In September of '87 our recommendations were approved in the cabinet by a 6-4 vote. In the end we sent them a letter saying that we were imposing "measures" - we didn't call them sanctions. These measures went pretty far, and they included sanctions on everything from trade, tourism, culture and sports."
What really got to the South Africans, however, was a clause in the "measures" package stating that effective immediately, only colored, Indian and black students would be allowed to attend leadership courses held in Israel.
Botha was furious.
"He felt betrayed, like he was stabbed in the back," Liel said. "He threatened Israel to the effect that if we went ahead and implemented this, then he would not allow South African Jews to take money out of the country. He wrote Shamir that what Israel was doing with these leadership courses was the real apartheid, the real racism, because they were excluding whites."
"'How could you do this to us after our alliance?'" Liel quoted from the top secret memo. "You must understand that South Africa under P.W. Botha was one of the closest friends Israel had. We had a military alliance with them. We helped them build and modernize their army, and they gave us tons of cash for that, as well as other benefits.
"He was a great friend of Israel, and he gave the Jews in South Africa a lot of freedom. So when we came out with the sanctions, he felt utterly betrayed."
Liel said South Africa's ambassador to Israel in 1987, Anton Loubscher, even told the Post at the time that the government's decision totally flew in the face of the Israeli public's wishes.
"We [the Foreign Ministry] gave him such hell for that, that he was recalled to Pretoria and went to serve in Scandinavia," he said.
Anti-apartheid activist and Jewish parliamentarian Helen Suzman told the Post Wednesday by telephone from Johannesburg that although their views differed radically, she thought Botha had made some important reforms during his term as president.
"We had a very bad relationship," she said. "I had a very poor relationship with him. He didn't like me because of my politics, but I don't imagine he was very fond of Jews. None of the National Party people at that time were very fond of Jews. We fought on political viewpoints."
Suzman was known for her strong public criticism of the governing National Party's policies of apartheid at a time when that was rare amongst whites. She found herself even more of an outsider by being an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men.
"He accused me of having arranged the assassination of H.F. Verwoerd in 1966," Suzman said. "He stood up in Parliament and said in Afrikaans that I and my fellow 'Liberals arranged this, it's all your fault.'" "He was made to apologize to me in private in the Speaker's office afterwards," she added.
Suzman called Botha a bully and characterized him as irritable, saying he "was not know as the Crocodile for nothing."
"And we all know his famous finger-wagging," she said. "He was not a good debater, and he didn't have a trained mind. Other National Party MPs you could talk to and debate with, but not him. B.J. Vorster [South African prime minister from 1966 to 1978] did have a trained mind, one could have a debate with him.
"He [Botha] was prime minister when some important changes took place in the country, partly because of the emerging African resistance and opposition from the outside world.
Some of his reforms were important, like the recognition of black trade unions and the abolition of jobs reserved for whites only. But he never crossed the Rubicon, he never made that speech. F.W. de Klerk made that speech abolishing restrictions and releasing Nelson Mandela," Suzman said.
According to Liel, Botha's reforms were mostly aimed at preserving the apartheid regime for as long as possible.
"They were cosmetic changes, not really aimed at change," he said. "Although he started the first reforms, he was never really interested in anything else except the survival of the regime."
"Botha never changed his mind, he never apologized and he never expressed any regret for his actions - never," Liel said.
In 1977, Botha, then foreign minister, visited Israel to discuss South African issues with prime minister Menachem Begin and foreign minister Moshe Dayan. According to foreign press reports, it is suspected that Botha signed a pact with Israel that included the transfer of military technology and the manufacture of at least six atom bombs.
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