A new book probes Israel’s murky relationship with apartheid South Africa
That Israel traded with apartheid South Africa is well known. But the extent of it, and even more the nature of it, have been shrouded in mystery. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, exposes the details in his new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa—together with the disinformation, lies, and hypocrisy that kept them hidden for so long.
In doing this he gives rise to questions about the place of morality in a country’s foreign policies.
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. Less than two weeks later, in an unrelated event, South Africa’s whites adopted the policy of apartheid—Afrikaans for “apartness”—to enshrine in law a system that made them dominant and to deepen racial segregation. Israel made its disapproval plain: As David Ben-Gurion, the father of the new nation, said, “A Jew cannot be for discrimination.” Israel regularly voted against South Africa in international forums. With only minimal contact between the two countries, Israel instead became a friend and helper of Africa’s emerging independent states.
As Polakow-Suranksy notes, the 1967 Six Day War was a turning point. Arab states used their oil wealth to pressure Africans to sever relations with Israel; France ceased arms supplies, and Israel looked to its own resources and turned to the United States. At home, the right wing was gaining strength and declaring an ideological affinity with South Africa’s whites, despite the anti-Semitism among the ruling Afrikaners, which during the 1930s and 1940s had manifested itself with support for Nazi Germany. (This anti-Semitism, which reached back into the 19th century, is surprisingly understated by Polakow-Suransky.)
The early 1970s saw dramatic changes in Israel’s strategic thinking: It was now an occupier on the West Bank and Gaza, and world opinion, especially on the left, was turning against it. The Soviet Union was more pro-Arab and anti-Zionist. The old Labor Zionists were dying out and being replaced by sabras—homegrown Israelis—and hardened military men and securocrats: Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres.
Polakow-Suransky says these leaders “saw Israeli security as paramount and they were willing to make moral compromises in order to ensure it. It was precisely this worldview that would drive the alliance with South Africa.”
The book is a chronicle of this alliance. It’s the outcome of six years’ doctoral research at Oxford University and reflects impressive perseverance in getting access to secret documents and interviewing more than 100 key players.
Polakow-Suransky notes that by late 1972 Israel had decided against criticizing South Africa at the United Nations. The aftermath of the Yom Kippur War the next year took relations further: Whereas 20 more African countries severed links with Israel, South Africa supplied spare parts for damaged Mirage fighter planes. The left-wing Haaretz newspaper editorialized: “No political fastidiousness can justify the difference between one who has been revealed a friend and one who has betrayed friendship … in our hour of fate.”
The war also had calamitous economic effects, costing Israel an entire year’s worth of gross national product; yet, after having come so close to defeat and annihilation, military expenditure was increased the next year by 40 percent. The domestic arms industry became a savior: Exports increased nearly fifteenfold from $70 million in 1973 to nearly $1 billion in 1981.
As Israel’s military-industrial complex expanded, so did its influence, as did that of the army officers who moved from battlefield to boardroom and used every opportunity to lobby for the defense industry.
The fast-developing relationship between Israel and South Africa was kept hidden, with knowledge of it confined to the defense ministries and high levels of government. On April 3, 1975, relations were formalized in a secret agreement signed by Peres, as then-defense minister, and his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha.
Some indication of what was going on came to light a year later when Prime Minister John Vorster made an official visit to Israel. It caused outrage, at least among some: Vorster not only headed an increasingly oppressive regime, but he had been interned during World War II because of his Nazi sympathies.
Polakow-Suransky recounts interviewing me about the visit; I told him I had watched it on television at my home in Johannesburg and had walked out of the room in disgust at the sight of Vorster, an honored guest of the Israeli government, visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
Arthur Goldreich had a more directly bruising experience: He had escaped from a police cell in South Africa after being arrested as a major player in the underground resistance led by Nelson Mandela. He later settled in Israel and became a distinguished architect and artist. As Polakow-Suransky recounts, Goldreich was plastering telephone poles with posters featuring Vorster’s name alongside swastikas, when an elderly man spat on a poster. “At first he thought the man might be a disgruntled South African immigrant who supported apartheid, then he got a closer look at the vandal. ‘He had an Auschwitz number on his arm,’ Goldreich recalls. The Holocaust survivor lashed out at Goldreich, telling him, ‘We will make agreements with the devil to save Jews from persecution and to secure the future of this state.’
“He was left speechless as the old man walked away. ‘That was the climate of the time,’ Goldreich recalls with dismay.”
Polakow-Suransky comments: “The old man’s diatribe represented the views of the young, security-minded technocrats running the country as much as those of the older generation of fearful Holocaust survivors. There was an acute sense that Israel’s existence was threatened and that most of the world didn’t care—and that those that did had betrayed the Jewish state in its hour of need.”
In May 1977, Menachem Begin was voted in as prime minister and was more than happy to violate the new U.N. embargo against arms sales to South Africa. Thus the pattern was set, and it continued for nearly 20 years. South Africa became Israel’s largest arms buyer, soon accounting for 35 percent of military exports (other customers were similarly unpleasant regimes such as Argentina, Chile, and Zaire). South Africa also paid for combat training and the joint production of weapons. The total military trade over two decades is estimated at $10 billion.
The two countries grew even closer as a result of their cooperation in developing missiles to carry nuclear weapons and the weapons themselves. Polakow-Suransky explores these sub-plots, noting that during the 1980s as many as 75 Israeli experts worked “quietly” in South Africa, and more than 250 South Africans went to Israel.
With so much hidden, an anything-goes atmosphere came into being, opening the way for Israeli opportunists and crooks to plunge into profitable ventures in the apartheid-created tribal Bantustans.
South Africa’s motivation for partnership was obvious: It was an international pariah and grabbed what friends it could. Israel, also shunned by many, was motivated by the same sort of expediency as countries throughout the world that traded with South Africa, whether openly or surreptitiously. South Africa had vast strategic value, magnified during the Cold War, as a treasure chest of minerals that industry in the West needed to survive. Whatever the disapproval of apartheid in the capitals of the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, and the rest, the policy over many years was to support the status quo of white rule so as to keep out the Soviet Union.
African nations, even while providing bases for liberation forces, boycotted or traded when it suited them. Thus sundry capitals, when hosting conferences of the then Organization of African Unity, shipped in luxury cars from South Africa, plus carpets and fine foods and wines (with labels, it is said, changed to disguise the origin).
The Soviet Union was strong on anti-apartheid rhetoric and supported liberation movements with money, training, and arms. But it also worked closely with South Africa’s De Beers company to ensure mutually profitable control of world diamond prices.
Above all, apartheid could not have lasted for any length of time without the oil that came largely from the Middle East. In 1973, Arab states agreed to implement the U.N.’s (unsuccessful) 10-year-old embargo. But apart from a few critical weeks, South Africa never lacked oil. It is known that both Iran and Iraq, during their 1980-1988 war, sold oil and bought arms in return. That apart, South Africa bought oil at a premium on the high seas through middlemen. The argument that these were not state-to-state dealings and therefore do not compare with the Israel-South Africa links does not carry weight: Did Saudi Arabian and other rulers not know where their oil was going?
So, was Israel as cynical and uncaring as everyone else in dealing with South Africa? Whether its arms sales and help in the nuclear sphere were more amoral or immoral and more supportive of apartheid than was the supply of oil is a matter for debate. Whether its survival was truly at stake and it was compelled to sell arms to South Africa (as it did too, incidentally, to the post-revolution Iran of the ayatollahs) is difficult to assess these years later; Peres and his cohorts believed it to be the case in the circumstances and climate of the time. Whether the Israeli public would have responded with disgust and demanded a halt to the trading had the extent of it been known also cannot be said.
There is another dimension. If Israel had held its nose, so to speak, while cooperating with apartheid then the worst that could be said was that it behaved no better and no worse than the rest of the world. Unhappily, there was more to it because Polakow-Suransky presents repeated evidence of the enthusiasm with which Israeli leaders behaved. He says letters between military leaders were “characterized by a remarkable sense of familiarity and friendship.” The sense of a “shared predicament had become so strong that Israeli and South African generals saw fighting the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization as a shared mission.”
In November 1974, Shimon Peres went to South Africa for secret meetings. Upon his return home, he wrote to his hosts to thank them for helping to establish a “vitally important link between the two governments.” Peres, who routinely denounced apartheid in public, went on: “This cooperation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and refusal to submit to it.”
“Common hatred of injustice”? Could a Jewish leader have sunk any lower than to make that comparison?
In October 1980, General Magnus Malan was appointed South Africa’s Defense Minister and received a congratulatory letter from Israel, from General Yonah Efrat, the former head of the IDF’s Central Command who had helped create the alliance: “May the Mighty God be with you in all you do.”
Public dissimulation concealed the cozy messages: “Disguise and denial became the norm,” says Polakow-Suransky. In 1986, Peres, then prime minister, was again cultivating black Africa and visited Cameroon. He publicly criticized South Africa and told President Paul Biya: “A Jew who accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go together.”
Yet at that time the links with South Africa were as strong as ever, and Polakow-Suransky points out that “some of the biggest contracts and cooperative ventures went into effect on Peres’ watch [as prime minister] from 1984 to 1986. While publicly demonizing apartheid, he simply maintained the alliance that he himself had initiated a decade earlier as defense minister.”
In the same vein, in November 1986, Benyamin Netanyahu, then ambassador to the United Nations and a rising Likud star, gave a powerful anti-apartheid speech at the world body. He denied Israel’s links with South Africa. Was he the innocent dupe of the securocrats in telling a lie?
In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League, and in South Africa, the Jewish Board of Deputies, played toadying and inglorious roles over the years in defending Israel’s ties and in support of the apartheid government.
The tide began to turn in the early 1980s. Israel’s left was energized by massive public protests against the war in Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and there was also a developing rift between the defense establishment and the diplomatic corps. Young diplomats argued for morality in foreign policy and also for getting on board the world’s developing movement for sanctions against South Africa.
In March 1987 the Israeli cabinet voted to “refrain from new undertakings, between Israel and South Africa, in the realm of defense.” In September the cabinet issued a comprehensive sanctions package, including no new investments in South Africa and no promotion of tourism.
But, Polakow-Suransky notes, “in practice it amounted to little more than a cosmetic gesture. Ultimately, the sanctions had hardly any impact on the flourishing trade between the two countries, especially in the defense sector, where multibillion-dollar contracts signed before 1967 remained in effect.”
It all ended after the new South Africa emerged in 1994: Israel found alternative export markets such as China and India, and South Africa turned to Europe for arms.
These days, the African National Congress has forgiven the past and, as the government of South Africa, maintains polite relations with Israel (and is friendly, too, with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and other previous apartheid traders). It condemns Israeli occupation but generally supports both Palestinian freedom and Israel’s right to existence.
Cooperation could be extended, to everyone’s benefit: Israel could learn from the process of dialogue with the enemy that ended apartheid; Palestinians could learn from the ANC’s nonviolence toward civilians during its struggle. Israel, in turn, has much to offer South Africa, such as agricultural and technical expertise. For Israel, it would be fitting recompense for the past to have South Africa play a significant mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians in securing peace.
Finally, if so many nations were in bed with apartheid, why single out Israel for special attention, as Polakow-Suransky does so effectively? The answer, at least for me, as a Jew and an Israeli, is that he is right to do so because the moral stain remains, and some who were involved still enjoy high office in Israel. Even more, what they did cannot be compartmentalized: Rotten behavior in one sphere carries over into other areas of society. That is evident in Israel’s crude policy and behavior on the West Bank and Gaza, where morality does not apply; in the abusive way in which some Israeli Jews treat Israeli Arabs; and in the spate of corruption scandals emerging from the innermost recesses of the Israeli establishment in business and government.
Other nations can decide for themselves about their past. Israel must deal with itself, especially with a past that hangs so heavily over the present.
Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and was later founding director of Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town and is writing a book about Israel and apartheid.