Israel’s Most Illicit Affair
A new book reveals that Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa went far deeper than previously understood.
History is a great teacher, but sometimes it packs a nasty sense of irony. A case in point: South African Prime Minister John Vorster’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in April 1976, where he laid a wreath to the victims of the German Reich he once extolled.
It’s bad enough that a former Nazi sympathizer was treated like an honored guest by the Jewish state. Even worse was the purpose behind Vorster’s trip to Israel: to cement the extensive military relationship between Israel and the apartheid regime, a partnership that violated international law and illicitly provided the white-minority government with the weaponry and technology to help sustain its grip on power and its oppression of the black majority over two decades.
Like many illicit love affairs, the back-door relationship between Israel and the apartheid regime was secret, duplicitous, thrilling for the parties involved — and ultimately damaging to both. Each insisted at the time that theirs was just a minor flirtation, with few regrets or expressions of remorse. Inevitably it ended badly, tainting everyone it touched, including leaders of American Jewish organizations who shredded their credibility by endorsing and parroting the blatant falsehoods they were fed by Israeli officials. And it still hovers like a toxic cloud over Israel’s international reputation, providing ammunition to those who use the comparison between Israel’s 43-year military rule over Palestinians and the now-defunct system of white domination known as apartheid to seek to delegitimize the Jewish state.
As bureau chief for the Washington Post in Southern Africa and Jerusalem in the 1980s, I squandered a lot of hours trying to pierce the iron curtain that the two countries carefully drew around their strategic partnership. I reported the various estimates that the arms trade between the two amounted to anywhere from $125 million to $400 million annually — far beyond the $100 million that the International Monetary Fund reported as total imports and exports in the mid 1980s. Soon after arriving in Jerusalem in 1986, I asked Ezer Weizman, a former Israeli defense minister and champion of the secret partnership, about the uncanny resemblance between Israel’s Kfir fighter jet — itself patterned on the French Mirage — and South Africa’s newly minted Cheetah. He just smiled at me and replied, "I’ve noticed that as well."
Now comes Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who is an editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, a Rhodes scholar, and an American Jew whose parents emigrated to the United States from South Africa. His singular achievement in his new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa scheduled for publication on May 25, is to have unearthed more than 7,000 pages of heretofore secret documents from the bowels of South Africa’s Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and Armscor, the state defense contractor, including the secret 1975 military cooperation agreement signed by defense ministers Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha.
The Israeli government sought to block release of the pact to the author, but the post-apartheid South African government ignored its protests. The black-majority government, led by the African National Congress, "is far less concerned with keeping old secrets than with protecting its own accumulated dirty laundry after 15 years in power," Polakow-Suransky notes. Beyond locating the secret papers, he also interviewed South Africans and Israelis who played key roles in forging and promoting the partnership. The result is the best-documented, most thorough, and most credible account ever offered of the secret marriage between the apartheid state and Israel.
(By way of disclosure, let me add that Polakow-Suransky thanks me in his acknowledgements, although he needn’t have; I only bought him a cup of coffee and passed on a handful of names and numbers when he approached me about this project some five years ago.)
Polakow-Suransky puts Israel’s annual military exports to South Africa between 1974 and 1993 at $600 million, which made South Africa Israel’s second or third largest trading partner after the United States and Britain. Military aircraft updates in the mid-1980s alone accounted for some $2 billion, according to correspondence he obtained. He puts the total military trade between the countries at well above $10 billion over the two decades.
Israel reaped big profits, but paid a price in moral standing. By focusing solely on its purported strategic value to the United States, Israel and its supporters have tended to downgrade the country’s real case for preserving a special relationship with its staunch ally. Foreign-policy realists argue that the price Washington pays in the Muslim world for its support of Israel far outweighs whatever strategic value the Jewish state provides. The more compelling case has always focused on Israel’s character as a robust democracy that shares American values. But the clandestine alliance with South Africa undermined Israel’s rightful claim on U.S. admiration and support. After all, if Israel is just another standard-issue country that conducts business with pariah states and lies about it, why should America be concerned about its fate?
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, understood this, routinely condemned apartheid and sought to ally his country with the new black-governed nations of sub-Saharan Africa that emerged from colonial rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the balance of forces began to change dramatically after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel seized control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Ben-Gurion’s heirs — Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Moshe Dayan, second-generation leaders of the ruling Labor Party — worked to transform Israel into a mini super power and had no qualms about cooperating with South Africa to get there. "It was not a shotgun marriage," writes Polakow-Suransky.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War put the seal on the shift. Egypt succeeded in framing the war as a Zionist invasion of the African continent, and more than 20 African states severed diplomatic ties with Israel. South Africa, by contrast, furnished Israel with spare parts for its Mirage jet fighters, and South Africa’s substantial Jewish community, encouraged by its government, poured money and support into the Zionist state. The two countries were on their way to becoming, in Polakow-Suranskys words, "brothers in arms."
The relationship started as a marriage of self-interest. South African money helped Israel became a major arms manufacturer and exporter and funded its high-tech economy, while Pretoria gained access to cutting-edge weapons and military technology at a time when most of the world sought to isolate and condemn the apartheid regime. For the ensuing two decades Israel continued to publicly denounce apartheid while at the same time secretly propping up the white-minority government and helping sustain racial supremacy.
Peres had been Ben-Gurion’s gifted protégé and a key architect in building Israel’s defense establishment and its nuclear capability during his years as director general of the Defense Ministry. When he became defense minister after the Yom Kippur War, he sought to grow the military-industrial complex in part with millions from the arms export market, which Polakow-Suransky reports increased 15-fold between 1973 and 1981. Early on his new role, Peres secretly visited Pretoria. In a memo afterward, he told his South African hosts that their mutual cooperation was based not only on common interest, "but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it." That same year the two governments began holding biannual gatherings for Defense Ministry officials and arms industry exporters and an annual strategic cooperation conference between intelligence officials.
After Peres and Botha signed their secret security pact in April 1975, Israel sold tanks, fighter aircraft, and long-range missiles to Pretoria and offered to sell nuclear warheads as well. Israel also began to act as middleman, buying arms from countries that refused ostensibly to do business with Pretoria and passing them on to the regime. All of this continued even after the United Nations Security Council passed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa in November 1977. Menachem Begin’s rightist Likud came to power that same year, and relations became even stronger.
Along the way, Polakow-Suransky introduces the unsung actors who helped cement the relationship. One of the key figures was Yitzhak Unna, a skilled, pragmatic and two-fisted Israeli diplomat who became counsel general in Johannesburg in 1969 and was later promoted to ambassador. Unna learned to speak Afrikaans, befriended the former Nazi sympathizer who headed South Africa’s bureau of state security and launched a series of deals that brought the two countries closer together. Then there was Binyamin Telem, former commander of Israel’s navy, who handled defense contracts with Armscor. Both men saw themselves as anti-racists — Telem insisted that the Israeli embassy pay its black employees at the same rate as whites — but both deepened the ties and approved contracts in the millions. Included were training and weapons systems that helped the South African military suppress internal revolts against apartheid. Israeli security companies and former military men also trained and equipped the repressive police forces of the sham puppet states known as Bantustans that South Africa sought to establish in the 1970s and 1980s.
By 1979, Polakow-Suransky writes, South Africa was Israel’s single largest arms customer, accounting for 35 percent of its military exports. South Africa supplied Israel a 500-ton stockpile of uranium for its nuclear program. In turn, Israel sold South Africa 30 grams of tritium, a radioactive substance that helped increase the explosive power of its thermonuclear weapons. The extent of Israeli-South African cooperation was symbolized in September 1979 by a double flash over the South Atlantic that analysts believed came from an Israeli nuclear bomb test, undertaken with South African cooperation. To this day the details remain classified.
In the early days of the arms supply pact, Israel could argue that many Western countries, including the United States, had similar surreptitious relationships with the apartheid regime. But by 1980 Israel was the last major violator of the arms embargo. It stuck with South Africa throughout the 1980s when the regime clung to power in the face of international condemnation and intense rounds of political unrest in the black townships.
By 1987 the apartheid regime was struggling to cope with the combination of internal unrest and international condemnation to the point where even Israel was forced to take notice. A key motivator was Section 508, an amendment to the anti-apartheid sanctions bill that passed the U.S. Congress in 1986 and survived President Ronald Reagan’s veto. It required the State Department to produce an annual report on countries violating the arms embargo. The first one, issued in April 1987, reported that Israel had violated the international ban on arm sales "on a regular basis." The report gave South Africa’s opponents within the Israeli government and their American Jewish allies ammunition to force Israel to adapt a mild set of sanctions against South Africa. I was in Jerusalem when Israel admitted publicly for the first time that it had significant military ties with South Africa and pledged not to enter into any new agreements — which meant, of course, that existing agreements would be maintained. It was, writes Polakow-Suransky, "little more than a cosmetic gesture."
From the start, spokesmen for American Jewish organizations acted as apologists or dupes for Israel’s arms sales. Moshe Decter, a respected director of research for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in the New York Times in 1976 that Israel’s arms trade with South Africa was "dwarfed into insignificance" compared to that of other countries and said that to claim otherwise was "rank cynicism, rampant hypocrisy and anti-Semitic prejudice." In a March 1986 debate televised on PBS, Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader of the Reform Jewish movement and outspoken opponent of apartheid, claimed Israeli involvement with South Africa was negligible. He conceded that there may have been arms sales during the rightist Likud years in power from 1977 to 1984, but stated that under Shimon Peres, who served as prime minister between 1984 and 1986, "there have been no new arms sales." In fact, some of the biggest military contracts and cooperative ventures were signed during Peres’s watch.
The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged "fact-finder" named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States — a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as "totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American." (In fairness, the ADL later changed its tune. After his release in 1990, Mandela met in Geneva with a number of American Jewish leaders, including ADL president Abe Foxman, who emerged to call the ANC leader "a great hero of freedom.")
Polakow-Suransky is no knee-jerk critic of Israel, and he tells his story more in sorrow than anger. He grants that the secret alliance had its uses. To the extent it enhanced Israel’s security and comfort zone, it may have helped pave the path to peace efforts. Elazar Granot, a certified dove who is a former left-wing Knesset member and ambassador to the new South Africa, says as much. "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. "Most of the work that was done — I’m talking about the new kinds of weapons — was done in South Africa."
Polakow-Suransky sees in the excoriation of Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by American Jewish leaders an echo of their reflexive defense of Israel vis á vis South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The author himself draws uncomfortable parallels between apartheid and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, noting that both involved the creation of a system that stifled freedom of movement and labor, denied citizenship and produced homelessness, separation, and disenfranchisement. As the Palestinian population continues to grow and eventually becomes the majority — and Jews the minority — in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the parallels with apartheid may become increasingly uncomfortable. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed, observing in 2007 that if Israel failed to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, it would inevitably "face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights."
"The apartheid analogy may be inexact today," Polakow-Suransky warns, "but it won’t be forever."
I’ve always believed the apartheid analogy produces more heat than light. But it’s a comparison that Israel itself invited with its longstanding partnership with the white-minority regime. While Israel profited from the alliance, it paid a heavy price. Moral standing in the international community doesn’t come with an obvious price tag, nor does it command an influential lobby of corporate and military interests working tirelessly on its behalf. But it does have value and its absence has consequences. The anti-Israel divestment campaign that is slowly gathering steam in college campuses across the United States and Europe is one such potential consequence. This movement, backed both by genuine supporters of the Palestinians and by Arab governments whose motives are far more cynical, once again seeks to equate Zionism with racism and rob Israel of its hard-earned legitimacy by portraying it as, in Polakow-Suransky’s phrase, "a latter-day South Africa." The Israeli government has provided this movement with plenty of ammunition, including the sad and sordid saga that he so carefully unearths in his important new book.