A new book details the military and nuclear partnership between Israel and apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.
To say that Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s new book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa comes at a particularly inconvenient time for the Netanyahu government would be an understatement. Israel is resisting calls for an independent investigation of the May 31 flotilla attack — in which Israeli naval commandos killed nine activists aboard a Turkish vessel attempting to break the Gaza blockade — while it continues to deal with the fallout from a previous United Nations investigation of its conduct during the 2009 Gaza War.
Those opposed to the Gaza investigation have even gone so far as to attempt to smear the author, Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who oversaw the report for the U.N. Human Rights Council. The report asserted evidence of possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas and has been a source of serious concern for Israeli officials. In early May, the popular Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot published a “special investigation” of Goldstone.
Titled “Judge Goldstone’s Dark Past,” the Yediot article details Goldstone’s career as a judge under South Africa’s system of apartheid, during which he apparently sentenced some 28 black South Africans to death for various crimes. Though it contained little new information, the article was enthusiastically seized upon by Goldstone’s critics. American law professor (and ubiquitous Israel defender) Alan Dershowitz dismissed Goldstone’s excuse that he was bound by the (admittedly racist) laws of the time, telling Yediot, “That was what everybody said in Nazi Germany.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also reportedly ordered the story to be distributed to Israel’s diplomats around the world to help in the country’s public-relations efforts. The irony of a racist ultranationalist like Lieberman — who has advocated forcing Israel’s Palestinian citizens to sign loyalty oaths to the Jewish state or face expulsion — attacking Goldstone is overwhelming.
It’s against this background that Polakow-Suransky presents his thoroughly researched account of the military and nuclear partnership between Israel and apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Polakow-Suransky’s book makes clear that Israel itself played an essential role in buttressing South Africa at a time when the apartheid state was earning its isolation and condemnation from the rest of the world.
Polakow-Suransky’s book is the result of an extraordinary amount of research, carried out over six years and including a number of personal interviews with aging Israeli and South African sources. The author was also able to make use of newly available South African archives, many of which were declassified over the objections of the Israeli government. As Polakow-Suransky notes, the current government in Johannesburg was unsurprisingly not interested in covering up Israel’s past support for apartheid.
Polakow-Suransky writes with a good deal of sympathy for Israel’s international predicament in the 1970s, as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was alienating supporters on the left, and the near-debacle of the Yom Kippur War had Israel feeling internationally isolated and vulnerable. A relationship with South Africa would both deliver a desperately needed ally, as well as boost the Israeli economy — by the end of the 1970s, South Africa was Israel’s single biggest buyer of small arms.
On the one hand, one shouldn’t be too shocked that a modern state like Israel would seek allies wherever it could find them. Cynical alliances of convenience are as old as, well, alliances. On the other hand, though, there is something uniquely askew in Israel, a state conceived as a shelter from bigotry and oppression, courting and dealing arms to a state like apartheid South Africa, explicitly committed to bigotry and oppression.
Polakow-Suransky notes that the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin “did not share the ethnic nationalist ideology of South Africa’s rulers, but Israel’s war-battered industries desperately needed export markets and the possibility of lucrative trade with South Africa was hard for Defense Minister Shimon Peres to resist.” For the Menachem Begin-led Likud, however, which swept into power in 1977, there was greater identity of interest and ideology with South Africa, and under Begin the relationship intensified. The ethnic nationalist ideology of Likud, writes Polakow-Suransky, “allowed Begin and other Likud leaders to stomach racist apartheid policies because these were part of a larger nationalist project designed to protect a minority group that believed its survival was threatened.”
In one passage recounting a 1985 conversation between South African foreign-affairs director J.J. Becker and journalist Aharon Shamir — like Begin, a former member of the terrorist group Irgun, which evolved into Likud — Shamir explains how to finesse international opinion on the question of rights for nonwhites:
Shamir, with a knack for political spin, asked, “Why do you not seem to be giving those rights by not really giving them?” Becker was perplexed and asked how. “Take Israel,” said Shamir. “I am ready to give the Arabs equal rights but not now, not today. But we can say that after ten or twenty years, once we have allowed the Arabs to try out their rights, they might be ready for full and equal rights with the Jews in Israel.” The old Irgun fighter went on to suggest: “Give the blacks the vote very slowly. See how it works. Bit by bit. Explain your course of action, stress that it has never been done before. If you see that your bit by bit approach is not working, change it. But make the world believe you are sincere. You have to be hypocritical to survive.”
This hypocrisy was put on display the following year by rising Likud star Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly: “For the Jewish people, apartheid is the ultimate abomination. It is an expression of the cruelest inhumanity. Israel will do everything possible to eliminate this odious system.” This at a time when Israel was one of South Africa’s primary trading partners, providing it with the very tools to enforce apartheid as well as the technology necessary for South Africa’s nuclear arsenal.
Such hypocrisy is still very much in evidence today in Netanyahu’s declarations of commitment to a two-state peace, even as his government continues to support the construction of Jewish settlements that make such a peace impossible. And it is evident in his government’s attempts to slander a man, Goldstone, for having served a system that Netanyahu’s own country did as much to bolster as any in the world.