JERUSALEM — Israel’s state archives has published a 50-year-old letter from the Mossad spy agency, claiming it unknowingly offered paramilitary training to a young Nelson Mandela, along with documents illustrating the Jewish state’s sympathy for the 1960s’ antiapartheid struggle.
The release of the documents on the archives’ website following Mandela’s death on Dec. 5 appear to be aimed at blunting criticism of the close alliance that Israel later developed with South Africa’s apartheid rulers.
Israeli relations with post-apartheid South Africa remain cool. The South African government is a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause, and the Palestinians frequently compare their campaign for independence to the black struggle that ended apartheid.
Early this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was conspicuously absent from the dozens of world leaders at Mandela’s funeral. In a widely criticized decision, Netanyahu cited the high cost of chartering a plane.
The newly published documents highlight Israeli officials’ voices against apartheid and their attempts to rally international pressure on the South African government to stop the 1964 Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela would be sentenced to life in prison.
But perhaps most startling is the memo from October of 1962, first revealed by the Haaretz daily over the weekend, claiming Mandela received paramilitary training from Israeli handlers in Ethiopia in mid-1962 — without them realizing who he was.
In the 1960s, Israel actively courted Africa’s postcolonial leaders in a search for allies. The memo suggests it was running a military training program for fighters and that Israeli trainers thought the man they later discovered was Mandela was from Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — where African nationalists were struggling against colonial rule.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation has questioned the account. Although confirming that Mandela toured Africa that year and received military training in Ethiopia, it said there was no evidence he had any contact with Israelis.