Jerusalem — When a CBS correspondent formerly based in Israel reported from Rome that this country had detonated an atomic bomb in a joint nuclear project with South Africa, his Israeli press credentials were revoked and he found it expedient to go elsewhere.
When overseas publications told of Israeli missile boats being manufactured for, sold to, and used by the South African Navy, officials here refused to confirm or deny and the whole subject was made off-limits to newsmen.
So sensitive was Israel's political establishment to the subject of its dealings with Pretoria.
Undoubtedly, there were qualms about the Jewish state, whose midwife in a sense was racial genocide committed by Nazi Germany, dealing with a white supremacist regime in which "apartheid" segregates people by skin color and apportions social and economic privilege accordingly.
Now, may of these considerations seem to have fallen by the wayside. The magnitude and scope of the economic links between Israel and South Africa have expanded beyond the limits of artificial discretion.
This was demonstrated unequivocally in the latest round of talks between the finance ministers of the two countries: Yigal Hurvits and Owen Horwood.
It resulted in three major financial deals in Israel's favor:
* $200 million in credits for the import of South African products and raw materials during the next three years.
* A maximum $45 million for South African investments in "approved" projects here, including rental housing, tourist hotels, and beach facilities.
* Permission for the Israeli bond organization to sell its securities in South Africa, constituting an exemption from Pretoria's strict controls on the export of its rands.
The political theory behind all this, outlined by Israel's former ambassador to South Africa, Yitzhak Unna, is a belief in the Jewish state's strategic importance for South African defense against Soviet inroads into the African continent.
"They admit they could not help us militarily during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and that they cannot render military aid now," Unna went on, "but they think that economic assistance can compensate and achieve the same purpose -- at least in part.'
Unna went as far as to speculate that were Israel to go under as a result of military pressure from Soviet-armed Arab states, the land route to Africa would be wide open and that South Africa would have to revise its entire military deployment and strategy.
Political hyperbole aside, there is a certain logic behind the rapid development of South African-Israeli ties. The story is a bilateral one, though , without the oft-mentioned but elusive third party, Taiwan. Talk of a Pretoria-Jerusalem-Taipeh "axis" (Israelis shudder at the very word) was dismissed as "utter nonsense" by a senior official close to Foreign Mister Yitzhak Shamir.
It began in 1974, when Israel and South Africa upgraded their diplomatic relations to the ambassador level. By 1978, they concluded their first comprehensive trade pact. And in 1980, they expanded its dimensions in financial as well as material terms.
All this has been taking place against the background of a political vacuum in the once-cordial contacts between Israel and black Africa. Of all the Israeli embassies that used to dot the continent south of the Sahara, only those in Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland are left.
True, trade volume with the states that severed was never higher and Israeli firms are operating in Kenya and Nigeria, just to name two lands, but black Africa votes with the Arab states in the United States and other world forums.
That is why practical politics has taken precedence over idealism or principles -- especially since the belief has taken hold officially at least that "apartheid" is breaking down and that South Africa is gradually moving away from ugly racism.
Besides, the Israeli exponents of friendship with South Africa argue, France is Pretoria's biggest arms supplier and the British, West Germans, and Italians are active trading partners, not to mention balck African states like Mozambique , Zambia, Zimbabwe, and ivory Coast.
So why should we be different, the Israeli ask?
A footnote: The South Afircans are reli ably known to be no lo nger dependent on Israel's missile boat expertise.