By Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Pantheon Books, 336 pages
In The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky depicts the decades-long military and diplomatic relationship between Israel and South Africa, a relationship that persisted during the most violent years of apartheid rule, when South Africa faced the height of diplomatic isolation and international moral opprobrium. According to declassified South African records, South Africa was Israel’s second- or third-largest trading partner in the world owing to the latter’s heavy arms exports, and the two cooperated extensively on illicit nuclear technology. Ultimately, as Polakow-Suransky writes, it was not any moral reassessment on Israel’s part but rather U.S. congressional legislation, which threatened to sanction any country that sold arms to South Africa, that led the Jewish state to enforce its own sanctions against the apartheid regime.
An editor at Foreign Affairs, Polakow-Suransky spent years poring through government archives and interviewing key players in Israel, South Africa, and the United States. The Unspoken Alliance takes the reader from secret nuclear facilities outside Pretoria, to jet-setting locales on the French Riviera, to the White House situation room. Polakow-Suransky has dug up a trove of new information (some of it quite delicious, like the revelation that Pat Buchanan allowed South African government officials to write part of a speech delivered by Ronald Reagan). But while The Unspoken Alliance illuminates the dark corners of a troubling episode in Israeli diplomatic history, its author has a political agenda that hinders a fair depiction of this complex, strategic relationship.
Even during the period of intense military cooperation, Israel’s bilateral relations with apartheid South Africa were not entirely harmonious. Israeli leaders were more than willing to denounce apartheid in public forums while swapping intelligence with, and selling weapons to, the regime in Pretoria. Israel’s ambassador in the 1970s frequently criticized apartheid on South African television and sparked a diplomatic incident when he refused to attend a play about Golda Meir because blacks were not allowed in the theater. In a 1986 speech, then–Israeli United Nations Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “For the Jewish people, apartheid is the ultimate abomination.” That same year, on a visit to Cameroon, Shimon Peres told its president, “A Jew who accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go together.”
This dual approach to South Africa was underlined by the constant warring between the Foreign Ministry (which, more attuned to world opinion, was trying to cut off the relationship with South Africa by the 1980s) and the Defense Ministry, which was narrowly focused on the military trade. The internal tension was symbolically defined at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria by a wall separating the defense attaché’s section from that of the ambassador, through which neither passed. Israel’s relationship with South Africa was, in the words of the author, “Janus-face[d].” But of what country’s foreign policy can that not be said?
Such a double standard—holding Israel up to some mythical ideal, a reverse of the maxim that nations don’t have friends but interests—mars Polakow-Suransky’s analysis of the history he has unearthed. He writes that “managing hypocrisy was an art” for leaders of the Jewish state, as if this were an attribute unique to Israeli politicians and not found everywhere in the West, never mind the world. Elsewhere, he seems to concede the point of those who defended the relationship on purely pragmatic grounds, writing that “the harsh reality was that Israel’s interests had once again trumped its morals.” But that’s the case for every country, especially liberal democracies, which actually have morals they try to embody, always imperfectly.
But where Polakow-Suransky strays furthest out on a limb is in his claims that, more than being a mere alliance of convenience between two pariah states in need of economic and security cooperation, Israel under Likud and South Africa under the ruling National Party had a “shared worldview [that] served as the ideological glue” holding them together. He has constructed a narrative in which an Israel of yore, led by visionary founding fathers like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, was a “light unto the nations” with a morally unblemished foreign policy. Yet as time wore on, a new generation of hard-nosed military men took over and, gradually, “the conviction that compromising certain values was necessary for survival gained sway and socialist idealism gave way to realpolitik.”
Yet, as Polakow-Suransky himself details, the architects and most zealous protectors of the relationship with apartheid South Africa were not rightists like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon—although both men were certainly enthusiastic nurturers of the alliance. Rather, it was Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Labour Party eminences both, who cemented ties in the mid-1970s while serving as, respectively, prime minister and foreign minister. In one of the more hackneyed parts of the book, Polakow-Suransky tries to draw a connection between the principles of the Likud Party and Afrikaner Nationalism, arguing that the two are ultimately racist, “militant,” and obsessed with the notion of “minority survivalism.” It’s preposterous to make a convincing argument that pins the alliance on “right-wing ideology” when the apartheid regime’s most dependable allies in Jerusalem were the two reigning stalwarts of the Labor Party.
Polakow-Suransky gives no serious consideration to the argument made by many Israelis, on the left and the right, that the military relationship with South Africa was vitally important for Israel’s economy and security. Facing a boycott by the Arab League, frequent condemnation at the United Nations, and diplomatic isolation from a whole host of countries, Israel—surrounded by states intent on its destruction—was not in the comfortable position of, say, Sweden in being able to pick and choose its friends. Though he acknowledges the financial and military benefits that the relationship afforded Israel (citing, for instance, that in 1985, at least 20 percent of Israeli industrial export revenue came from South Africa), Polakow-Suransky doesn’t weigh the costs of cutting these ties.
Willful inattention is but one of the book’s notable failings. On several occasions, the author unwittingly undermines his own thesis. In a discussion of the pro-Nazi activities of the apartheid regime’s leaders during the Second World War, he refers to the specter of an “Axis-friendly government [taking] power at the strategically vital southern tip of Africa.” South Africa enjoyed no less a strategically vital location during the Cold War, yet Polakow-Suransky waves away concerns that a Soviet-aligned ANC government could have hindered the West’s strategic posture. It’s far from certain that had the ANC taken over the country through force of arms in the 1980s, while the Soviet Union was still standing and funding Communist insurgencies around the world, South Africa would have witnessed the same sort of “miracle” that was its relatively peaceful democratic transition in 1994.
If Israel’s alliance with apartheid South Africa was “unspoken,” then the ANC’s alliance with the Soviet bloc and the whole lot of the 20th century’s most vicious terrorist groups was utterly explicit. “There is one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest,” Nelson Mandela said of Castro’s Cuba upon his release from prison in 1990, “that is in its love for human rights and liberty.”
Of? Yasir Arafat, he said, “we are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism, and neocolonialism.” Also in 1990, Mandela paid a friendly visit to the Soviet-backed Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, a man who killed some 1.5 million of his people through a forced starvation campaign, to receive that country’s highest honor. In 1997, Mandela ventured to Libya (he had been the inaugural recipient, while still in jail, of the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights) and referred to the award’s namesake as “My brother leader, my brother leader” (in 1999, Gaddafi was Mandela’s last official guest as president of South Africa).
Unlike Israel’s erstwhile alliance with South Africa’s authoritarian government, the ANC’s comradeship with unseemly regimes continued unabated after the fall of apartheid—when the excuse of expediency no longer applied—and carries on, unapologetically, to this day. During the 16 years in which it has ruled South Africa uninterruptedly and with a massive parliamentary majority, the ANC has had an abysmal record on human rights, from propping up Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to blocking consideration of abuses in Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, and Uzbekistan during its recent term on the UN Security Council. Last year, in deference to China, it denied a visa to the Dalai Lama.
“Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle,” Mandela said in a 1990 televised town-hall meeting in New York City. “Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt. Our attitude is based solely on the fact that they fully support the anti-apartheid struggle.” It didn’t matter to Mandela that these regimes held their own nations’ Mandelas in prison or that their human-rights records were equally abysmal, if not worse, than that of apartheid South Africa. All that counted was that they provided the ANC with money and weapons in its own fight to overthrow white racism. Meanwhile, Mandela saw no hypocrisy in lecturing delegates at a 1993 meeting of the Socialist International that “the people of South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the apartheid regime.”
The ugly fact of statecraft is that nations and opposition movements must often make moral compromises. But what distinguishes the “unspoken alliance” between Israel and apartheid South Africa from that between the ANC and the Soviet bloc is the very recognition that such bonds were morally compromising. While Israeli leaders publicly acknowledged the cruelty of apartheid, there has been no such reappraisal on the part of those now ruling South Africa regarding the Soviet Union.
Towards the end, The Unspoken Alliance descends into polemic, and of a particularly slippery sort. Polakow-Suransky is at pains to deny the analogy between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel—he judges it “imperfect”—yet by the end of the book, he effectively embraces it. The epilogue contains two maps: one of apartheid-era South Africa with its Bantustans shaded in gray, the other of the West Bank with Palestinian areas similarly demarcated.
He writes that “Israel risks remaking itself in the image of the old apartheid state” and insists that it must “dismantle West Bank settlements on a large scale and create a viable Palestinian state,” without bothering to mention that successive Israeli governments have offered to do just that only to be rebuffed repeatedly by the Palestinian leadership. He acknowledges the moral difference of the struggle undertaken by the ANC—which rarely targeted civilians—and that carried out by the PLO, though he leaves out any mention of Hamas, which unlike the ANC doesn’t even voice the pretense of coexistence.
Trying to glean lessons for Israelis and Palestinians from the demise of apartheid—as Polakow-Suransky ultimately seeks to do—is more than a futile effort. It is a manipulative, irresponsible, and offensive one, especially in a work that is otherwise a serious attempt at historical excavation.