JOHANNESBURG — SOUTH Africa's special relationship with Israel - which focused on military collaboration forged in an era of international pariah status for both countries - erupted into a diplomatic row last week that required some skillful damage control in both Pretoria and Jerusalem.
The row, sparked by media reports of alleged links between the Israeli Mossad (intelligence agency) and several gruesome murders here, has also led to further details emerging on past military collaboration between the two countries.
The episode does not appear to have inflicted lasting damage on the relationship, but it has highlighted the dilemma faced by the African National Congress (ANC)-led government in dealing with allies of the former white minority regime while maintaining its own network of international allies.
Similar tensions have surfaced in the government's efforts to resist pressure from Beijing to cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The ANC's close links with pariah states, such as Libya and Cuba, have also surfaced as a possible irritant in South Africa's relations with the United States.
``The new government of national unity is still learning to anticipate the consequences of emotional statements about allies of the former government,'' says a Western diplomat.
The Israeli-South Africa diplomatic row was sparked by a politically loaded statement last Wednesday by Defense Minister Joe Modise, who hinted at breaking off the special relationship if the allegations regarding Mossad were proved to be true. He also equated the former South African government's treatment of blacks with Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The row cooled only after conciliatory remarks by President Nelson Mandela and statements by South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo the next day. Mr. Nzo reaffirmed the sound relationship between the two countries and referred to a meeting in May between Mr. Mandela and Israeli President Ezer Weizman.
Alon Liel, Israel's ambassador to South Africa who has carefully cultivated relations with the ANC during his two-year term, welcomed Nzo's statement but was shaken by Mr. Modise's earlier remarks.
The controversy has strongly focused attention on links between Israel and South Africa that began during the height of the apartheid years and continued even after Israel finally adopted limited sanctions against South Africa in 1987.
Tielman de Waal, managing director of the state armaments agency, Armscor, told the Monitor July 13 that Israel and South Africa had collaborated on ``aircraft'' prior to 1987, and that certain projects had continued after that date.
But he denied that there had been any collaboration between the two countries in the development of nuclear warheads.
``There has been no collaboration whatsoever between the [South African] government and Israel on any nuclear warhead or nuclear device,'' Mr. de Waal said.
De Waals's denial comes despite convictions by industry insiders that South Africa provided Israel with enriched uranium and allowed Israel to conduct nuclear tests in South African territorial waters in return for vital missile technology.
Following De Waal's statement, Modise told Radio Israel that the two countries had collaborated on missile technology.
But he added he was not in a position to contest De Waal's denial of nuclear collaboration ``because I don't have evidence.... Neither did the head of Armscor [De Waal] come to discuss that question with me.''
Armscor, which has recently lifted strict secrecy over its current transactions, developed into a major export industry despite stringent embargoes. Today the arms industry is one of the country's major employers and the biggest earner of foreign revenue after gold.
Regarding other allegations against Mossad, a series of investigative reports in the Weekend Star of Johannesburg, which have been given front-page treatment over the past four weeks, quotes a South African police colonel as linking the Israeli agency to two murders in 1991 and 1993.
The newspaper reports suggest that the men were murdered by Mossad agents because they were involved in supplying chemicals used in the nuclear industry to unnamed Middle Eastern countries. But little published evidence exists to support the claims.
Safety and Security Minister Sydney Mufamadi said this week the investigations in the case had reached a ``very sensitive'' stage:``As soon as investigations allow, ... information of public interest will be made available.''
But diplomats doubted whether the allegations could ever be made to stick. ``The allegations are very murky and - even if they were clarified - the chances of them ever being proved seem to be almost nil,'' the diplomat says.