Politics & Policy

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).

South African wealth and Israeli expertise soon provided the foundation for another large collaboration — the arms trade. Israel launched a massive expansion of native arms production, with exports increasing from 79 million in 1973 to almost 1 billion in 1981, many of which were purchased by South Africa.

Fuller cooperation between the states’ defense ministries followed. Israel began to provide organizational and field advice to the South African military; South Africa, embroiled in a war in Angola, was particularly eager for combat advice from the comparatively seasoned Israeli military. Meetings between generals and intelligence officials of the two countries became regular. Israel modernized the South African fleet of French Mirage III jets in the early ’80s. The trade in nuclear materials and advice remained brisk; in a 1976 exchange South Africa shipped 100 tons of yellowcake to Israel in return for 30 grams of tritium, a substance that increases the explosive power of thermonuclear weapons.

Many of these contacts were cloaked in secrecy, but the visibility of South African–Israeli collaboration rose considerably with a visit by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to South Africa in 1975 and a visit by South African president Balthazar Vorster to Israel in 1976. Increased mission and embassy sizes were a source of pride in South Africa, and of some embarrassment in Israel. Israel ceased voting for most anti-apartheid resolutions at the U.N.

Beginning in the 1980s, these connections received increasing scrutiny, with Israel coming under considerable obloquy for its support for the South African regime. Israel was certainly not alone in providing this support; Benjamin Netanyahu, in a 1986 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, decried the special attention reserved for Israel while Arab states supplied most South African oil. The claim about oil sales was correct, Polakow-Suransky says, and yet the Israeli connection to South Africa was of a much more serious nature:

What Netanyahu conveniently neglected to mention was that the oil deals between Saudi Arabia and South Africa were not negotiated at the ministerial level, approved by the cabinet, or seen as financially vital to the Saudi kingdom’s economy. Moreover, because they were carried out by profiteering middlemen, South Africa’s oil deals with Saudi Arabia did not require the same degree of trust, high-level coordination, or ongoing government-to-government cooperation necessary in its arms deals with Israel.

Polakow-Suransky acknowledges that much of the criticism of Israel fell along predictable political lines; in the tawdry realm of 1980s geopolitics, there weren’t many righteous stances. Israel’s arms customers might have been ethically deficient, but then again, so were almost everyone else’s. Polakow-Suransky notes that Israel supplied weapons to the shah’s Iran and the Mobutu regime in Zaire; you could easily add Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, and an assortment of South American dictatorships to the list. But French receipts from the period are comparably sleazy; simply trade the business of South Africa for that of countless Arab dictatorships. The arms trade is not a business suited to the moral high ground.

Yet Polakow-Suransky drives at a gnawing truth that goes beyond these rather typical Cold War practices: Israel’s military connections to apartheid South Africa were materially much stronger than those of any other state. Many states established connections with South Africa — the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, for example, resisted total embargoes — and yet the Israeli arms supply continued unabated long after other states had ceased their sale of military materiel to South Africa. The 1986 U.S. Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act’s provision for a report on countries violating the arms embargo on South Africa was broadly perceived as a measure directed against Israel — and Israel did end up garnering the most attention in the report.

Israel’s nuclear aid to South Africa is another highly thorny question. Even if Israel did not offer South Africa completed warheads, there’s no doubt that Israeli support was instrumental to the South African nuclear program. Israel’s first priority was survival, and nuclear aid to South Africa might have been a necessary quid pro quo for the sake of its own program, yet Israeli nuclear cooperation with South Africa on a variety of fronts continued long after it was widely assumed that Israel had developed functioning nuclear weapons, and after other states had stopped supplying nuclear fuel to South Africa. Throughout the 1980s, when South Africa faced a near-total worldwide embargo, high-level consultation on weapons development continued between the two states. Some 200 South Africans worked on missile programs in Israel, and some 75 Israelis on programs in South Africa. Among their projects was a new intermediate-range warhead capable of carrying thermonuclear devices. A necessary compromise for Israel? Perhaps. An unjustified boost to a brutal racist state’s nuclear deterrent and chances for self-perpetuation? It’s a valid question.

What price had to be paid for Israel’s survival? The reader would be best served by sorting this question out on his own. A brief Web search for the title of the book confirms that most of the attention it has received has come from perennial critics of Israel — the colorfully named criminalstate.com, for one. Polokow-Suranksy’s epilogue echoes, in milder form, certain of Jimmy Carter’s criticisms in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and no doubt would appeal to that work’s readers. To this point, however, it should be replied that The Unspoken Alliance is a well-crafted work of history, not to be mistaken for another jeremiad. Those with interest in the overlooked interstices of the Cold War, statecraft, and national survival should conduct their own examination.

– Anthony Paletta is an editor for the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute.

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