It might be worth bearing in mind these days, as the international community launches yet another investigation against alleged Israeli war crimes, that in times of political isolation, Israel has occasionally resorted to desperate, even reckless measures. That’s one of the themes explored in The Unspoken Alliance (Pantheon), a hugely impressive book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who probes in groundbreaking detail the illicit relationship Israel maintained with South Africa throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and concludes that military ties and nuclear cooperation ran much deeper than previously known.
In the background lurks Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur war. In the 1950s and ’60s, Polakow-Suransky reminds us, Israel didn’t just rely on special ties with Western countries like France (the intimate bond with the U.S. would evolve later); it also maintained relationships with many of Africa’s newly independent countries, having in common the shared experience of throwing out their colonial masters. Though it’s hard to imagine these days, for the first two decades of its existence Israel was largely embraced by the international left, including anti-imperialist movements and black American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. On the question of apartheid, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and other members of the founding generation did not equivocate. “A Jew can’t be for discrimination,” Ben-Gurion said on one occasion, after Israel supported a 1961 U.N. vote denouncing the white-only government in Pretoria.
The shift began in 1967, with the start of Israel’s long and destructive rule over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But it was really the 1973 war that left Israelis feeling alone and vulnerable. Though a coalition of Arab countries had launched the campaign to retake territory lost in the 1967 Six-Day War, surprising Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, more than 20 countries severed ties with Israel when it was over, including most of sub-Saharan Africa. The United States had rallied to Israel’s side with airlifts and economic aid. But in the aftermath of the war, Washington decided to rethink the special relationship between the two countries over Israel’s refusal to sign an armistice with Egypt. The Arab oil embargo, blamed on Israel, heightened the feeling of besiegement, as did the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism. Financially, Israel was struggling to bear the cost of the war, which equaled the country’s gross national product over a full year.
It’s in this context that Israel’s ties with South Africa, which Polakow-Suransky describes as a “shared bond of minority survivalism,” burgeoned and bloomed. Over the next 20 years, Israel would supply the apartheid regime billions in defense gear and help develop its nuclear program and train its military in, among other things, intelligence gathering and riot control. In return, South Africa would provide Israel much-craved funds and friendship. Throughout, the two countries would keep the relationship largely secret, defying an international embargo and even Israel’s own law against new deals with South Africa. “To the Israeli defense ministry, South Africa seemed the ideal customer: a developing country with a defense-conscious, right-wing government that did not have close ties to the Arab-Muslim bloc,” writes Polakow-Suransky. “It was a perfect match.”
The book is much more than a knee-jerk indictment of the relationship between the two countries—one a full-fledged pariah, the other an occasional outcast. Polakow-Suransky, an editor at Foreign Affairs and an American Jew whose parents emigrated to the United States from South Africa, managed to unearth thousands of pages of documents in Pretoria, where the government today has no vested interest in keeping the secrets of apartheid locked up. Among other things, he deduces from the documents that the total military trade between the two countries was at least 10 times higher than most estimates, reaching about $10 billion over two decades. Polakow-Suransky provides details of a secret security pact signed by then–Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and then–South African defense minister P. W. Botha; discloses an Israeli offer to sell Pretoria nuclear missiles (which Botha eventually turned down); and describes what could only have been an Israeli nuclear test in cooperation with South Africa.
But the most interesting sections are the ones in which Israeli actions and motives are carefully and compellingly elucidated: the way Ben-Gurion’s principled stand against apartheid gives way to the realist politics of Peres and Yitzhak Rabin; the effect of Likud’s rise in 1977, helping transform the relationship with South Africa from an alliance of convenience to a true kinship; the manner in which Israelis rationalized their embrace of political figures who not only subjugated blacks but had historical ties to Nazi Germany; the case made by younger pols like Yossi Beilin for breaking ties with South Africa, not so much on ideological grounds (which they knew would not get a hearing), but on the practical argument that the relationship was harming Israel’s stature in the world. Though there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around, Polakow-Suransky singles out “the ever sanctimonious” Peres. As foreign minister and later prime minister, Peres regularly denounced apartheid even as he led Israel deeper and deeper into Pretoria’s embrace. In a 1975 memo to South African officials quoted in the book, Peres describes the relationship between the two countries as underpinned by, among other things, the “unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”
Is there a lesson in the book that can help peace-seekers formulate a constructive policy toward Israel today? Polakow-Suransky spends his epilogue examining the accusation that Israeli measures against Palestinians amount to apartheid. He concludes there are both similarities and differences (among them the way in which black servitude allowed “a minority white population to live in ostentatious luxury with swimming pools, servants and gardeners amid millions of blacks in abject poverty”). But he also argues that the longer Israel’s occupation of the West Bank lasts, the fuzzier the differences become. A sound approach, no doubt, would be to prod Israel to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and allow the creation of a Palestinian state while avoiding a campaign of isolation. In the 1970s, that kind of campaign helped push Israel into a reckless alliance with a rogue regime. In our time, with Israel worried about a nuclear Iran, the consequences could be far worse.