Pariahs Can’t Be Choosers

Bernard Porter

  • 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 similar.

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 time.’

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.