A Secret Alliance Between Israel and South Africa
Sasha Polokow-Suransky's The Unspoken Alliance should not be mistaken for another anti-Israel jeremiad.


Those alarmed by the prevalent anti-Israeli bias might worry that a new volume, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, is yet another attempt to expose Israeli skullduggery. But while the title is politically charged, the book, by Sasha Polokow-Suransky, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, is a deft and fair study of the moral compromises that undergirded these two states’ close association.

The Unspoken Alliance generated pre-release controversy with its claim that Israel had offered South Africa completed nuclear devices. Evidence for this is suggestive but unclear. Otherwise, however, the connections between Israel and apartheid South Africa are far from conjectural, and it’s surprising the story hasn’t yet seen a popular history.

If this is the sort of association you’re likely to find iniquitous, you will find it so here. If it is the sort of thing you’re likely to find justified on grounds of national survival and power politics, you will find it so here. And any conclusions aside, the book’s subject is a fascinating one, a tale of clandestine missions, surreptitious shipments, and elaborate political theater between two states perched precariously on the margins of both their continents and the Cold War.

Nineteen forty-eight, the year that gave birth to both regimes, offered little prediction of their later affinity. Israel came into existence as a leftist darling in the same year that an Afrikaner government with substantial Nazi sympathies began the legal implementation of apartheid. Israel cultivated black African allies and voted against apartheid at the United Nations.

Circumstances soon began to change. With victory in the Six-Day War, Israel also won a perception of itself as an imperialist aggressor; sympathy from the international Left, the Soviet bloc, black African states, and European arms suppliers all went into precipitous decline. The United States, too, was soon seen as an unsteady bulwark, with delays in aid during the Yom Kippur War shattering the presumption of American reliability.

Israel and South Africa belonged to the new breed of, as Polakow-Suransky calls them, “pariah states” of the Cold War. Even as they were abandoned by the Eastern Bloc, these states were for one reason or another kept at arm’s distance by Western states. Some were genuinely unsavory, such as the shah’s Iran; others were more innocuous but isolated by diplomatic circumstances, such as Taiwan. In the 1970s, South Africa and Israel, caught in this void, turned increasingly to each other for support.

In difficult circumstances, a new set of Israeli leaders, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Moshe Dayan, began to look with sympathy to South Africa, a rich state also increasingly marginalized by the fortunes of international politics. South Africa, for its part, was delighted by any diplomatic recognition it could get.

The preceding years, despite officially harsh rhetoric, had not passed entirely without contact. South Africa had one resource that the rest of the world had not been willing to supply to Israel — its yellowcake uranium, which is believed to have been crucial to the Israeli nuclear program. At the same time, Israel had slowly become the leading center for the processing of diamonds from South Africa (Jimmy Carter recalls then-general Rabin’s discussing this trade in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid).