The Unspo­ken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Rela­tion­ship with Apartheid South Africa

Sasha Polakow-Suran­sky
  • Review
By – October 3, 2011

In recent years Israel’s ene­mies have attempt­ed to dele­git­imize the Jew­ish State using many of the same meth­ods and lan­guage of the anti-apartheid move­ment of the mid-1980’s, a cause that led to the demise of white-dom­i­nat­ed minor­i­ty rule in South Africa. Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s con­tro­ver­sial b ook will pro­vide addi­tion­al grist for Israel’s foes inas­much as the book is an indict­ment of Israel’s more than 20 year covert rela­tion­ship with the apartheid state. Although a work of his­to­ry, Polakow-Suransky’s prose is often scold­ing and sar­cas­tic, espe­cial­ly when he focus­es on Shi­mon Peres, whom the author cred­its as being the archi­tect of a duplic­i­tous for­eign pol­i­cy with South Africa. The author writes, for exam­ple: Just twelve years ear­li­er, after ini­ti­at­ing a series of arms deals in Pre­to­ria, the same man (Peres) had told his South African hosts that their alliance was based on unshak­able foun­da­tions of our com­mon hatred of injus­tice and our refusal to sub­mit to it.’ 

This, states Polakow-Suran­sky, is the same per­son who, in a vis­it to the Cameroons, stat­ed that A Jew who accepts apartheid ceas­es to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go togeth­er.” The author goes on to detail how Peres and oth­ers linked up with the apartheid regime in a major trad­ing part­ner­ship, which includ­ed exports from Israel’s bud­ding arms indus­try to the South African mil­i­tary, their coop­er­a­tion on nuclear weapon­ry, the fre­quent vis­its of both mil­i­taries to one another’s coun­tries in order to share mil­i­tary intel­li­gence, and the view of Israeli lead­ers, such as Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Sharon, and Rafael Eitan, that both coun­tries were fight­ing for sur­vival against sim­i­lar ene­mies. For Israel, the fight against the PLO was not unlike South Africa’s war against Nel­son Mandela’s African Nation­al Con­gress (ANC). Eitan, for exam­ple, told a Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty audi­ence, 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 pre­vent them from tak­ing us over.” 

Both nations were vir­tu­al­ly pari­ahs in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, and found in one anoth­er nat­ur­al allies in a war for sur­vival. Thus Israel eschewed its instinc­tive moral repug­nance for apartheid, as was the case when Gol­da Meir was Israel’s prime min­is­ter, for a prag­mat­ic rela­tion­ship with a regime whose lead­er­ship includ­ed a num­ber of those who were pro-Nazi dur­ing Word War II

A senior edi­tor at For­eign Affairs who holds a doc­tor­ate from Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty and a con­trib­u­tor to such pub­li­ca­tions as The New Repub­lic and Newsweek, Polakow-Suran­sky researched doc­u­ments from both Israel and South Africa and inter­viewed many of the key par­tic­i­pants in both coun­tries. Thus the author’s cre­den­tials can­not be ignored, nor can his argu­ment, that in the name of defend­ing itself against a hos­tile Mid­dle East, Israel, fol­low­ing the Six-Day War, moved from a nation vocal­ly opposed to apartheid, to one that aban­doned its moral con­dem­na­tion of racist South Africa in favor of a close and lucra­tive rela­tion­ship with the apartheid regime.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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