To the editor:

In his review of my book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, James Kirchick raises some interesting questions about the universality of hypocrisy in international relations [“Convenience, Not Consent,” September]. He rightly mentions the African National Congress’s ties to unsavory Third World despots (even if those ties were never as strategically or economically significant as Israel’s ties with the apartheid regime). However, in his rush to defend Israel and attack South Africa’s ANC, Kirchick misleads his readers by pretending that I give “no serious consideration to the argument…that the military relationship with South Africa was vitally important for Israel’s economy and security.”

Kirchick mentions, parenthetically, only one economic statistic from the book. In fact, I devote an entire chapter to the economic importance of Israel’s ties with South Africa after the Yom Kippur War and throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, I criticize left-wing Israeli opponents of the alliance who argued against ties with South Africa on the (erroneous) grounds that they weren’t economically beneficial. Kirchick incorrectly asserts that I don’t “weigh the costs of cutting these ties,” neglecting to mention my discussion of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1986 Knesset speech on the thousands of jobs that would be lost if Israel stopped selling arms to South Africa. What Kirchick fails to argue convincingly is that these economic motives justified Israel’s policy of arming a regime that used Nuremberg-style laws to forcibly keep 80 percent of its citizens disenfranchised.

Kirchick attempts to discredit my argument that Likud’s rise in 1977 strengthened the Israeli–South African alliance, claiming that “the apartheid regime’s most dependable allies in Jerusalem were the two reigning stalwarts of the Labor Party.” While it is true that Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin established the alliance in the mid-1970s, the architects of the relationship were by no means its “most zealous protectors,” as Kirchick would have it. Figures like Ariel Sharon, IDF Chief of Staff Raful Eitan, and former Altalena commander Eliahu Lankin were the key figures in promoting ties with South Africa and publicly defending the apartheid regime. In the late 1980s, while Peres spouted righteous platitudes (“A Jew and racism do not go together”), Eitan was telling Tel Aviv University students that blacks “want to gain control over the white minority just like the Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.” Meanwhile, Lankin was writing journal articles on the perils of enfranchising black people in South Africa. “If there is to be any prospect of avoiding the much-prophesied carnage,” he wrote, “the first step must be to discard the doctrinaire conceptions of theoretical democracy—one man one vote.”

I contend that certain members of the Likud Party and the military top brass openly identified with apartheid officials because they had similar worldviews when it came to minority survival and the need to defend themselves against a much larger enemy. It is entirely fair to take issue with this argument; however, Kirchick grossly misrepresents it. He writes that “Polakow-Suransky tries to draw a connection between the principles of the Likud Party and Afrikaner Nationalism, arguing that the two are ultimately racist.” In fact, I argue the opposite: “[Begin and his colleagues] were not racists, but, like their mentor, Jabotinsky, they were ethnic nationalists…. This ethnonationalist ideology allowed Begin and other Likud leaders to stomach racist apartheid policies because they were part of a larger nationalist project designed to protect a minority group that believed its survival was threatened.”

Finally, Kirchick accuses me of having “a political agenda” and descending into polemic when I argue that “Israel risks remaking itself in the image of the old apartheid state.” But my arguments are actually no different from those made by Ehud Olmert in 2007 or Ehud Barak in February, when he declared that Israel “will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic…. If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.” Kirchick may think that seeking lessons for Israel’s future in apartheid’s demise is “a futile effort.” Many others who care about Israel’s future would beg to differ.


Brooklyn, New York


James Kirchick writes:

In September, the United States announced the largest arms sale in its history: more than $60 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and missile-defense systems to Saudi Arabia.

It would be nice if the United States did not sell weapons to a country that beheads homosexuals, bans women from driving, and outlaws political dissent. But America’s strategic interests dictate that it counters the growing hegemony of a nuclear-weapon-seeking, terror-exporting, radical Iranian regime. Selling arms to its Sunni adversary is a key component of that strategy.

There is also, of course, the inescapable fact that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of petroleum. As long as fossil fuels remain vital to the world economy and Iran continues its policy of regional destabilization, the United States has no choice but to continue the relationship, which is not mutually exclusive from making an issue of Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human-rights record.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s history of Israel’s strategic relationship with apartheid South Africa would have been more credible had he appreciated the complexity that lies at the heart of all interstate relations. If he can excuse the African National Congress’s alliance with the Soviet Union as a mere matter of convenience (though its ideological disposition suggests that it was more than that), then surely Israel’s relations with apartheid South Africa can be viewed as an unfortunate consequence of Cold War politics, the Jewish state’s unjustified international isolation, and its unique position as a small country surrounded by forces intent on its destruction.

In the book, Polakow-Suransky interviews Elazar Granot, Israel’s first ambassador to post-apartheid South Africa and a former leader of the far-left Mapam Party. Lauded by Polakow-Suransky as a virulent critic of apartheid and a man of peace, even Granot acknowledges the importance of the Israeli–South Africa alliance. “I had to take into consideration that maybe Rabin and Peres were able to go to the Oslo agreements because they believed that Israel was strong enough to defend itself,” he tells the author. “It wasn’t the Americans and it wasn’t the French and it wasn’t the English. Most of the work that was done—I’m talking about the new kinds of weapons—was done in South Africa.”

Polakow-Suransky is selective in his appraisal of “moral” bilateral relationships. He bemoans thatIsrael’s relations with black African states collapsed in the years following the Six-Day War as its alliance with apartheid South Africa blossomed. But the initiative for this rift came entirely from the black governments (nearly all of them dictatorships as bad or worse than South Africa), largely at the goading of the Arab bloc. Nevertheless, he writes, this turn demonstrated that Israel had “abandoned the last vestiges of moral foreign policy in favor of hard-nosed realpolitik.” Would an alliance with Idi Amin have been more palatable than one with B.J. Vorster?

As to the supposed ideological affinity between Zionism and apartheid, Polakow-Suransky wants to have it both ways. He denies thatLikud’s leading lights were racists but elsewhere argues that “the militant Zionist ideology that had shaped [the Likud] worldview denied political rights to national minorities and its more radical proponents eschewed democratic principles,” and that “they were willing to tolerate xenophobic and racist ideas—and even occasional anti-Semitism—if those ideas served broader nationalist aims that they admired.”

Finally, Polakow-Suransky, oblivious to the role that his book plays in the international campaign to delegitimize Israel, rejects my contention that he has a “political agenda.” His citing Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak to buttress his claim that “Israel risks remaking itself in the image of the old apartheid state” fails to clarify that both men were describing the situation in the West Bank, which a series of Israeli governments have agreed will become part of a future Palestine, and not Israel proper. His allegation that Israel has gained an “overwhelmingly bad reputation generated by the use of devastating force against seemingly powerless civilians” puts him in league with those who argue that Israel should effectively disarm itself in the face of wanton terror attacks. And his suggestion that “dismantling West Bank settlements, swapping land for those that remain, creating aviable Palestinian state, and negotiating with Lebanon and Syria would enhance Israel’s image throughout the developing world and in the eyes of the old that once supported it” neglects to mention that Israel has been spurned by its adversaries in attempting all these initiatives. Those who “once supported” the Jewish state are now armed with yet another tome that singles out Israel for injudicious condemnation.

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