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Sat, 24 Jul 2010 23:54:48 -0400
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Pariahs Can't Be Choosers
Bernard Porter
London Review of Books
June 24, 2010

[reposted with permission of the author]

    * The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret
      Relationship with Apartheid South Africa 
      by Sasha Polakow-Suransky 
      Pantheon, 324 pp, $27.95, 
      May 2010, ISBN 978 0 375 42546 2

This book attracted a lot of attention when it first
appeared in the US in May because it apparently showed
Israel offering to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid
South Africa. That happened some time ago, but it is
bound to be an embarrassment to present-day Israel,
especially on the eve of high-level non-proliferation
negotiations focusing on the Middle East. (It is less
embarrassing, of course, to the new South Africa.) Hence
Shimon Peres's immediate denial of the allegation, and
he should know: if there was such an offer, he - as
Israel's defence minister at the time, and the architect
of the nuclear weapons programme at Dimona - would have
been involved.

The charge centres on some ambiguous statements in a
minute of a meeting between the two countries' top
defence officials on 31 March 1975. Sasha Polakow-
Suransky argues that it is their very ambiguity which
indicates that something fishy was going on. This is
backed up by a memo from the South African Defence
Force's chief of staff, of exactly the same date,
`enthusiastically' welcoming the prospect of South
Africa's acquiring nuclear weapons. At the very least
this seems to show that the South Africans believed
Israel was offering them the bomb. In the end the
`offer' came to nothing: P.W. Botha thought it would be
too expensive. But there are further indications of
nuclear weapons co-operation between the two countries
later: some tritium that Israel supplied to South Africa
in 1977-78; a `double flash' over the South Atlantic in
September 1979, which is apparently the tell-tale
signature of a nuclear explosion, and if so was most
likely to have been an Israeli test launched from near
the South African coast; secret exchange visits by
nuclear scientists; and so on. And one way or another
South Africa did eventually acquire nuclear warheads.
All this is, I agree, suspicious, though I'm not an
expert. Nor do I feel I can necessarily trust Israeli
denials in this area. We have known for some time that
Israel consistently dissembled, in the 1970s and 1980s,
about its wider alliance with South Africa: this is the
far more interesting puzzle that Polakow-Suransky's
well-researched, readable and (I think) balanced book
sets out to unravel.

It's puzzling, of course, because of the deep political
gulf that surely ought to have separated a nation born
of Nazi persecution from a regime of (largely) ex-Nazi
sympathisers. By the 1950s the South African
Nationalists had dropped their explicit anti-semitism:
Jews were allowed to join the party in 1951 and
qualified as `whites' under the apartheid legislation
introduced thereafter, though they never felt quite
secure about that, which explains the South African
Jewish Board of Deputies' craven, even `panicky',
efforts to dissociate themselves from the anti-apartheid
stand Israel took in her early years. Still, one would
have thought that racism of any sort should be anathema
to Jews, more than to anyone. For many Israelis -
probably most of them - it was; `the antithesis of the
very body and soul of Jewish ethics', as a student
newspaper in Cape Town put it at the time of the South
African premier (and ex-Nazi sympathiser) B.J. Vorster's
visit to Jerusalem in April 1976, which cemented the
political rapport between the countries. `A Jew who
accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew.' That was Shimon
Peres, and probably explains why he is so keen to deny
reports of a nuclear accord today. In the 1970s and
early 1980s many Jews refused to believe in the
possibility of any Israeli-South African military ties
for this reason; indeed, any talk of them, the American
Jewish Committee claimed in 1985, was simply a tactic by
their enemies to `delegitimise' the Israeli state.
(Where have we heard that before?) But of course it was
true; something that even pro-Israeli Americans could no
longer dispute, when their own Congress issued a report
detailing the collaboration two years later.

So it had to be defended, especially by the Israelis;
less so, it seems to me, by the South Africans, who had
less moral baggage holding them back. The most obvious
defence was in terms of realpolitik. Both governments
were internationally unpopular, and became more so as
time went on. In South Africa's case this unpopularity
was there from the start of its Nationalist phase, in
1948; when, coincidentally, the state of Israel was
finally established, with rather better auguries at
first, at least in Europe and America. Israel's fall
from grace started at the time of the Six-Day War of
1967, when its massive territorial expansion at the cost
of its Arab neighbours suddenly transformed it from
`socialist beacon' into `imperialist aggressor' in many
people's eyes. Subsequent events in both countries -
Soweto, Yom Kippur, Lebanon - together with the rise of
a sometimes very crude and simplistic anti-imperialist
discourse in the Second and Third Worlds and on the
Western political left (Polakow-Suransky highlights
American black activists here), undermined both
countries' international credit even more. The result
was that each found erstwhile allies and trading
partners dropping away - Israel even lost US support for
a while in the 1970s - except South Africa in the case
of Israel, and vice versa. `When it comes to choosing
our friends,' the president of the Israeli-South Africa
Chamber of Commerce said in 1983, `we haven't got too
many friends we can afford to antagonise.' Pariahs can't
be choosers. That seems to have been the fundamental
basis of the relationship between them.

Both countries certainly needed friends. Settler
colonies - which both these were, Israel no less than
South Africa - invariably do. Usually their biggest
friends are the colonial powers that planted them in the
first place, on whom they depend, more sometimes than
they realise; especially in places overwhelmingly
populated by `others', and even more especially when
those `others' have been crudely dispossessed. (This
could be said to be one of the two great original sins
that gave rise to the state of Israel - the other of
course being Hitler's greater one.) Left to their own
resources, such colonies are bound to be terribly
vulnerable, with most historical examples - white-ruled
Kenya, Rhodesia, Algeria - being destroyed as a result.
This was the fate that loomed over post-1948 South
Africa and Israel: that they would be swamped by the
huge majorities of Africans and Arabs around them, and
swept - as the picture usually had it - into their
respective seas. Those for whom both this and any type
of compromise was unthinkable needed help from
somewhere. And because their predicament was not as
internationally sympathetic as that of oppressed
Africans and Palestinian Arabs, such help was bound to
be hard to find except from countries whose dilemma was

Trade was also a binding factor. As it became more of a
struggle for both parties - in South Africa's case
because of international sanctions - they came to depend
on each other commercially more and more. Their needs,
as it turned out, were almost perfectly complementary.
Israel had weapons to sell, including missiles and
possibly nuclear warheads, and indeed a vital need to
sell them, in order to repair an economy continuously
ravaged by its wars. South Africa had money to pay for
these, and minerals that were vital to Israel, including
coal, chromium and yellowcake (a uranium compound) - 500
tons of which it released for Israel to make its nuclear
bombs with in 1976. Because of their isolation neither
government bothered much about international sanctions:
general ones against South Africa, for example, which
Israel continually flouted; or rules for the inspection
of that yellowcake, to make sure it was used only for
peaceful purposes. By the 1980s, as a consequence, each
country - small though they both were - had become one
of the two or three biggest markets for the other, with
the arms trade and its requirements dominating. Trade
and defence - even survival - went together. Realpolitik
could get no more real.

Among those in Israel who supported the arrangement with
South Africa, these were clearly the crucial
considerations. Most were probably not racists. This
book cites several examples of Israeli diplomats who
seem to have been genuinely appalled by apartheid, but
believed their own national interest overrode this. One
was Ambassador Yitzhak Unna, whose earliest encounter
with a South African - who had refused to swim in the
same pool as a Yemeni friend of his - ended in a punch-
up. Unna went so far as to attack apartheid on South
African TV (he did it in Afrikaans, which he had taken
the trouble to learn; apparently you could insult the
Afrikaners as much as you wanted if you did it in their
language). But he still maintains that the alliance was
vital `from a strategic point of view and from a
commercial point of view and from a Jewish point of
view'. Polakow-Suransky also quotes a Holocaust survivor
whom the anti-apartheid campaigner Arthur Goldreich
expected to approve of the `swastika' posters he was
putting up at the time of Vorster's visit in 1976, only
to be spat at instead: `We will make agreements with the
devil,' the old man told Goldreich, `to save Jews from
persecution and to secure the future of this state.'
`That,' Goldreich commented, `was the climate of the

There may, however, have been more to it than this,
especially as the relationship developed, and the two
sides discovered they had more in common than a marriage
of sheer convenience, or even necessity. Shimon Peres
said almost as much after a secret meeting with South
African leaders in Pretoria in November 1974: `This co-
operation is based not only on common interests and on
the determination to resist equally our enemies,' but
also on `our common hatred of injustice' (sic), and
could develop further into `a close identity of
aspirations' as they got to know each other better. As
they did get to know each other, certain intriguing
affinities emerged. Both countries found they had a
common historical enemy in the old British Empire, for
example, although neither of them would have been able
to get as far as it had without it. South African
Nationalist leaders, brought up on both parts of the
Bible, Old Testament as well as New, found themselves
`mesmerised' by the Holy Land when they got the chance
to visit. Prime Minister D.F. Malan came back from his
first trip in 1953 voicing his `admiration of the Jews'
ability to maintain their national identity despite
centuries of adversity' - which clearly struck a very
special chord in his beleaguered Afrikaner soul. One
superficially obvious historical parallel was between
the 1830s Great Trek of Afrikaners, fleeing from the
British across the Vaal River to found their own
republic, and the Biblical Exodus. (`Superficial'
because the Jews were fleeing from servitude, whereas
the Afrikaners were fleeing, in part, to keep their
black slaves.) Religious elements in both countries saw
themselves as God's `chosen people'. If you could get
your head around the idea that God might have chosen two
peoples, that was something else they shared.

All this paved the way for a harder and more ideological
form of Zionism in the 1970s, though its intellectual
origins go back at least to the 1920s: more aggressive
in its territorial claims (for a `Greater' Israel, on
both sides of the Jordan), hostile to liberalism,
assertively a-principled, overtly anti-Arab, tending to
regard the whole world as incorrigibly anti-semitic, and
so emphasising the importance of military might far more
than Jews had ever done before. (One motive behind this
may have been to dislodge the older Jewish stereotype of
a rather wussy people, all effete intellectuals and fat
capitalists, and so almost ripe for persecution - which
it certainly did.) Polakow-Suransky credits Menachem
Begin with inserting this `neo-Revisionist' ideology
into mainstream Israeli politics, as a layer on top of
the realpolitik, when his Likud Party came to power -
displacing old Labour - in 1977. The settlements are
evidence that it is still clearly very much alive in
Israel today.

Begin had apparently always favoured closer ties with
the Afrikaners - whom no one had ever regarded as
wusses. True to his own military instincts - but also
arising out of the obvious needs of both countries - the
closest ties were between their respective defence
staffs. Polakow-Suransky notes how very intimate the
generals, war ministers and arms procurers became, with
their written correspondence `characterised by a
remarkable sense of familiarity and friendship', in
contrast with the much more formal chatter among the
diplomats. And because - as he claims - it was its
defence establishment that ruled the Israeli diplomatic
roost in this period, or, more often, bypassed it (he
describes the two staffs being separated by a `wall',
presumably a literal one, in the Pretoria embassy, which
even the ambassador never crossed), it is these
friendships that are likely to have forged the
particular `aspirations' that Israel and South Africa
increasingly came to share.

One of the ways the defence establishment would have
done this would have been to encourage both leaderships
to see their countries' problems and their solutions in
mainly military and strategic, rather than diplomatic or
moral, terms. There is no need to labour this point
today in Israel's case, after its 2008-09 military
onslaught on Gaza and - to a lesser but still
disproportionate degree - against the aid convoy that
challenged its blockade of Gaza on 30 May this year.
Another was to construct parallel views of their main
opponents, the ANC and the PLO: both were increasingly
pictured simply as `communists' and `terrorists',
possibly just `fronts' for a single great international
communist conspiracy; fighting them, therefore, became
`a joint mission' between the two countries. (Or was
this just a propaganda ploy, to bring Cold Warriors like
Reagan and Thatcher on board?) How to fight these two
organisations became the subject of intense
consultations between the two sides, at annual bilateral
intelligence conferences and with exchanges of
personnel. One report by the South African army chief
Constand Viljoen after a visit to see the Israeli
checkpoints in 1977 had him `marvelling' at the
`thoroughness' of the process. `At the quickest, it
takes individual Arabs that come through there about one
and a half hours. When the traffic is heavy, it takes
from four to five hours.' That was the way to do it!
Another lesson the South Africans learned from the
Israelis was the advantage of an `opaque' policy with
regard to nuclear weapons: letting other countries think
you might have them whether you did or not, in order to
gain `leverage' over the major powers. That may account
for those ambiguities in 1975.

The Israelis probably learned rather less from the South
Africans. Some South Africans tried to sell apartheid -
and `bantustans' in particular - to their new Israeli
friends as a way of dealing with their Palestinian
`problem', but the idea never really caught on, or not
formally. Israel has sometimes recently been referred to
as an `apartheid state', most controversially by Jimmy
Carter in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,
the title of which seemed to give respectability to what
before had been mainly a leftish charge; but any
apartheid-like symptoms we may detect there are more
likely to have arisen from Israel's own situation than
from her affair with the South Africans. Near the end of
his book Polakow-Suransky discusses whether it is proper
to use the `a'-word in connection with Israel, which is
not strictly relevant to his main theme but will be
expected in a book with `Israel' and `apartheid' in its
title. His conclusion, briefly, is that although there
are similarities - `"Israeli-only" access roads
crisscrossing the West Bank' and `identification
requirements that resemble modern-day pass laws' - the
analogy is `imperfect' because Israel has never outlawed
miscegenation, and doesn't impose the same degree of
institutional servitude on the Arabs that the South
African whites did on their blacks. As he puts it, `the
people cleaning the gutters in Tel Aviv and shovelling
shit on kibbutzim are much more likely to be Asian and
African guest workers than Palestinians.' That marked
the fundamental difference between the two forms of
settler colonialism. White South Africans wanted both
land and labour, whereas the Israelis were content (if
that is the word) with the land.

The arrangement between them was almost entirely a
military one, and based on the assumption that the best
way to defend both their interests was by hard military
means. In South Africa's case this proved to be a
chimera; to the surprise, incidentally, of the military-
minded Israelis, who on the eve of apartheid's collapse
were still basing their strategy on the assumption that
it would last 20 more years. So Israel lost its other
pariah partner, inevitably; and, to make things worse,
was saddled with the new stigma of having bolstered a
deeply reviled regime - even possibly to the extent of
helping it acquire nuclear weapons - to add to all its
other stigmas, deserved or not. That made it difficult
to get replacement allies, for example among the newly
emerged African nations, whose own historical
experiences (with Arab slave-traders) might otherwise
have inclined them to Israel. It was a high price to pay
for a couple of decades' perceived security, especially
for a country that had started out with such high
liberal ideals. Whether it turns out to have been worth
it - whether Israel's continued adhesion to macho
military force, even against humanitarian blockade-
runners, in the face of almost universal international
opprobrium, will be any more effective in securing its
long-term security than it was in the case of its former
ally - has yet to be seen. In Polakow-Suransky's more
liberal view, the omens do not look good.


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