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Apartheid South Africa’s Secret Relationship with Israel

Thank you for having me, Yousef [Munayyer], and thank you all for coming out on a day when it’s over 100 degrees.  I know it wasn’t easy.  I’m going to talk a little about the research that went into this book [The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa] and where my interest in the topic came from.  Then I’ll give you a short overview of some of the key points in the book, and then we can talk a little bit about the contemporary analogy, Israel’s isolation today, and also the question of ideology and how that played into this relationship over the years.  This is something that Yousef mentioned in his review of the book, on the Palestine Center website, and it is an interesting historical debate over the extent to which ideology is part of this relationship.

So, let me begin by telling you a little bit about how I got into this topic.  My parents are South African Jews.  I’m the only person in the family who was born in this country.  It’s always been a topic that was mentioned around the dinner table but it’s not something that people in my family, or anyone for that matter, ever really had strong evidence about.  It’s something that activists throughout the seventies and eighties and journalists, during those years, wrote about.  It’s something that everyone always suspected was going on, but there was never any hard, documentary evidence of the extent of the relationship, the amount of money that was involved, and the role which certain key individuals, people like Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, played in setting up the relationship, because the documents were never available in Israel, and until recently, they were not available in South Africa either.  So what I set out to do when I started my doctoral research at Oxford [University] in 2003 was to unearth these documents and to see what I could actually find and what I could actually prove with hard evidence from the archives in South Africa.  I quickly found out that I wasn’t going to get anything in print in Israel.  This is a very sensitive topic.  It remains a very sensitive topic today.  My research in Israel focused almost entirely on oral history.  There are a few documents here and there that would come out, but most of those are Israeli documents that show up in the South African archive because the apartheid regime in South Africa kept very good records, meticulous records.  And that included all of their correspondence from their interlocutors on the Israeli side.  So that side of the correspondence is available in South Africa as well.

Now, the ANC [African National Congress] government in South Africa is not particularly interested in keeping this secret; that’s one of the main reasons these documents are now out and declassified.  It wasn’t easy to get them, but the resistance was more bureaucratic then political.  There wasn’t a political agenda within the ANC leadership preventing certain officials from releasing documents.  It was more simple, bureaucratic inertia, in the fact that they only had a few people at the archive declassifying documents and blacking out a line here or there.  So it took me about two years to get my hands on this stuff.  But when I did receive the documents it was about 7,000 pages from the South African defense ministry.  The bulk of the research in this book comes from that particular archive and then a smattering of documents from South Africa’s foreign ministry, the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation in Johannesburg, and other South African national archives.

The book is both a military and political history and a discussion of how and why this relationship came to be.  I open the book with a scene that was jarring for many South African Jews, certainly people of my parents’ generation and older.  That is, South African Prime Minister John Vorster walking into the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem in 1976, escorted by the Israeli leadership.  To many Israelis and to others throughout the world this was not so jarring, but for South African Jews, to people of my grandparents’ generation who were German-Jewish refugees, they knew that John Vorster was an open Nazi supporter during World War II: someone who had compared the Afrikaner nationalist project to the Nazi project in Germany, quite favorably, and talked about the Germans as a role model.  This was something that caused a degree of disgust among certain South African Jews.  That was not the beginning of the relationship, but it was the first public moment when the world actually saw that this was happening.  It goes back further.  I argue that the military relationship takes off in earnest in 1973, immediately after the Yom Kippur War.  That’s when you begin to see a lot of traffic back and forth of South African generals visiting Israel, Israeli generals visiting South Africa.  That grows in 1974, 1975, when the first major military deals are signed between the two countries.  By 1976, when Vorster comes to Israel, it’s really almost in full swing.  He’s going around, not only visiting Yad Vashem and having dinners and banquets with Israeli leadership, but also shopping for arms.  This relationship, despite what was said in the press, despite what both the South African and Israeli governments did to cover it up over the years, was always primarily a military relationship.  To go back to what Yousef was saying in his introduction, it grew out of isolation, isolation of both countries.  South Africa had been ostracized by the international community as early as the 1960s after the Sharpeville Massacre.  By 1976, around the time of Vorster’s visit, South Africa became even more of a pariah because the Soweto Massacre took place in June 1976.  Those who were willing to tolerate the apartheid regime up to a point ceased to tolerate it after 1976.

So what you see in the late 1970s, especially after Likud comes to power in Israel, is an even more intimate relationship and a more lucrative relationship as well.  So the arms deals that began in the early 1970s begins to grow, the trade begins to grow.  If you look at the actual purchasing data from the South African defense ministry, you see it climbing and climbing throughout the seventies up until the late 1980s.  This relationship continued, almost to the eve of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.  It starts to trail off in the early 1990s, but, even weeks before Mandela’s inaugurated as president of South Africa, there are still South Africans visiting Israel, aircraft industries, trying to cut the last few deals, exhaust the contracts that are still in effect.

This really went on for 20 years and it peaked in 1988 and 1989, somewhat ironically, because in 1987 Israel imposed sanctions against South Africa as a reaction to the U.S. Congress’ Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.  In that sanctions bill in 1986 that [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan vetoed, but the Congress subsequently overrode that veto, there was a stipulation that any country violating the arms embargo against South Africa would risk losing economic and military aid.

This was an explicit threat against Israel because people in the know knew that Israel was the primary violator at this point.  There had been other countries selling to South Africa throughout the seventies and even in the early eighties, but they trailed off.  After ’81 when the socialists came to power in France, people who had been selling actively to South Africa stopped and Israel really became a lifeline.  If you talk to the leading generals in South Africa from this era, people in the air force, the army, the navy, they talk about Israel as a real vital source.  One of the arguments in my book is that this was a lifeline to the apartheid regime at a time when they were facing increased isolation, sanctions, and absolute opprobrium from the international community and South Africa’s military strength was not the only thing preserving the regime but it was a vital part of preserving the regime.  I argue that it may not have lasted as long as it did had it not been for this relationship.

Now, let me talk a little bit about some of the broader issues in the book.  A lot of the focus in the press in South Africa, especially in the UK, after the book came out, has been on the nuclear dealings between the two countries.  The Guardian ran a cover story on May 24th, the day before the book came out here, talking about a couple of paragraphs in this book relating to a series of meetings that took place in 1975 between Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha, who had been South Africa’s defense minister and later became the head of state.  The two of them met with lots of high-ranking military officials several times between March and June 1975.  They discussed a variety of military deals and among those deals was Jericho missiles.  In several of these documents, there are references to the appropriate payload, the correct payload, warheads in three different sizes.  When you look at these documents together, as well as the South African responses to these documents, it becomes clear that South Africa was seeking to purchase nuclear-armed missiles from Israel and that this was discussed and Peres was present at these discussions.  The deal never went through, which is important to stress.  But the fact that the discussions took place is important.  That is what has received the most attention about this book, but I’d like to stress that this particular deal that never went through is not the sole and major revelation in the book.  The cooperation on missile technology, for example, went on throughout the 1980s and it wasn’t a direct transfer, like the one discussed in 1975.  Instead, Israeli scientists came down to South Africa and worked together with South African scientists to design the delivery systems for South Africa’s planned next generation of nuclear weapons.  By this point South Africa had acquired its own nuclear weapons capabilities in the early 1980s — that’s something that people tend to forget, that South Africa was a nuclear power for about ten years — and dismantled its nuclear capabilities in the early 1990s during the transition.  So even though Israel never went through with this deal in ’75, that has gotten all the attention.  They continued to cooperate extensively with South Africa, and it didn’t really end until heavy pressure from the U.S. came in the late 1980s, and it was from the first President [George] Bush who was upset that Israel seemed to be violating its own sanctions in 1988, ’89, and 1990.  And his administration cracked down on Yitzhak Shamir’s administration and put an end to this specific missile cooperation between Israel and South Africa.

Beyond these military deals, there is also the question of ideology, and to what extent did ideology play into this relationship?  Now, I make the argument that there was a specific relationship between a certain brand of Zionism and a certain segment of the Afrikaner nationalist leadership in South Africa.  Essentially, in my view, there was an identity of interests and a sense of affinity between revisionist Zionists in Israel and elsewhere in the South African Jewish community as well and the militant Afrikaner nationalists who were running the South African state.  If you trace the thinking of these two groups back several decades, you see that there is a similar influence of militant rhetoric and the sense that the state’s security and the minority population’s security needs to be defended at all costs.  The identity is not necessarily between Zionists of all stripes and the Afrikaner nationalist leadership in South Africa, but between a certain segment of the Israeli leadership and the Israeli security establishment, who really saw themselves as facing a common enemy as the South Africans.  If you look at the correspondence between these groups — and I’m talking about Ariel Sharon’s letters to his counterparts in South Africa, people like Magnus Malan and Constand Viljoen, and others like Raful Eitan, who was the Israeli chief of staff in the early 1980s, Eliyahu Lankin, who was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa from ’81 to ’85 — there was a real sense of identification, and these letters are quite personal and intimate.  They write back and forth to each another, congratulating one another on various military operations.  When Israel takes out the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the South African generals write and congratulate, saying, “Don’t pay attention to the international attacks on you.  We’re in this together, we face a common enemy.”  This group of Israeli generals and Likud officials identified with the South African leadership.

But that’s not to say that everyone in Israel did; there was always a moral critique coming from the left in Israel.  It’s important to remember that people like Yossi Beilin and Alon Liel and others on the left in Israel really denounced this relationship with South Africa from the beginning.  There was actually quite a heated debate in the Knesset in 1986 and 1987 about shutting it down.  That pitted doves on the left, essentially, against both the military establishment — certain Likud officials — and people like Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, who were Labor party officials, but they were also the two key figures in starting this relationship with South Africa in 1973 and 1974.  They resisted this until the end, until 1987, and until the U.S. pressure was placed on Israel and really forced them to impose sanctions of their own.  We can get into this ideological question a bit more in the Q&A because I think it’s interesting and I imagine that people in the audience will have some questions about it, and I’m happy to talk more about that.

Before we move on to questions, I want to talk a little bit more about the question of isolation and how isolated states behave.  And this is a bit more academic and it’s one of the things that my advisors when I was working on my dissertation really stressed — that this is an interesting case study of two isolated states who formed an alliance, despite international pressure, and despite heavy secrecy, in order to reinforce their position in the world.  And obviously Israel is feeling very isolated once again, today, and that raises the question of whether the Israeli state may behave today as it did back then.  I’m not so sure that that analogy is exact.  It’s an interesting question.  But what’s important to understand is that this relationship took off during a moment of crisis, and it’s a crisis that a lot of people don’t remember today.  But, in 1975, at precisely the moment when Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha were holding these meetings discussing the possible transfer of various weapons systems, including nuclear Jericho missiles — this occurred during what was called “the re-assessment crisis.”  And that is when [former U.S.] President [Gerald] Ford and [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger got fed up with Israel’s position and negotiations with Egypt in early 1975, and Ford came out publicly and said that he refused to finance a state of deadlock in the Middle East.  And, for about six months between March and September of 1975, the U.S. cut off aid to Israel.  And this was exactly the time when Rabin stepped up contacts with the South Africans, Peres started meeting with the South African defense minister, and if you talk to Israeli officials from the era and from South African military officials who were visiting then, this was a moment when the trade really accelerated.  And the Israelis were looking for what they called “a third leg to stand on” because they feared abandonment by the United States.  And of course everything was patched up six months later, and we all know the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship from that point onward.  But this was a moment when Israel felt very vulnerable and abandoned and they sought out other allies, namely South Africa.  Now, South Africa was never going to replace the United States as a supplier, but what South Africa could offer to Israel, and what was always vital in this relationship, was a massive export market.  And Israel’s defense industry was expanding, the economy was largely a mess after the Yom-Kippur War, but the defense industry was a bright spot and South Africa quickly became the biggest customer during the mid-to-late 1970s.  And so that is an important point to remember about this particular relationship and the way in which isolation played into it.

Finally, I’d like to address the question of the analogy.  This has been a hot and controversial issue ever since [former U.S. President] Jimmy Carter’s book came out, and it is becoming a more and more popular argument in certain circles.  What I argue in this book is that the analogy is imperfect.  And there are certainly a great deal of similarities between the current situation in the West Bank and the old South Africa.  And anyone who has spent time in pre-’94 South Africa and has spent time in the West Bank will notice this in terms of the control of movement, checkpoints, identification checks, these sorts of things that burden the everyday life of Palestinians, as they burdened the everyday life of blacks in South Africa.  And if you look at some of these documents, the South African generals made the similarities quite clear in their own correspondence with their bosses when they visited Israel.  There are documents from 1977, where Constand Viljoen, who was the head of the army and subsequently became the head of the entire South African Defense Force, wrote back to his superiors in Pretoria and said that he was incredibly impressed and marveled at the Israeli checkpoint system because it took four or five hours for individual Arabs to pass through these checkpoints, and wouldn’t it be great if we could replicate this in South Africa?  And that was in 1977.

So people who were involved in this relationship saw the similarities, and the similarities exist today, but, again, there are many, many differences.  And one thing that is very important to understand is that the South African economy was almost entirely dependent on the exploitation of cheap, Black labor.  And the form of racial capitalism that existed in South Africa during the Apartheid era was fundamentally dependent on this large cheap labor pool, and that of course is something that is not an exact parallel in contemporary Israel and Palestine given the closures, etc.  And so I think for those who are addressing the analogy and discussing it, it’s very important to look at these differences as well.  So then the key question becomes, “if the analogy doesn’t apply today, will it in the future?”  And Yousef mentioned this in his introduction: Carter was attacked for making this argument, but when Ehud Barak said the same thing, or essentially the same thing this past February, and said that — I’m paraphrasing here — “If there’s only one political entity between the Jordan and the sea, and the Palestinians vote, then it’s a binational state, and if they don’t, it’s an apartheid state” — and he used the “A word” — he did not face the same level of vitriol as Carter did, when he said something similar.  Ehud Olmert said something very similar without using the word “apartheid” in 2007 after the Annapolis Conference.  He said that Israel would face a South African style struggle if it didn’t get out of the West Bank and move towards a two-state solution very soon.  The argument is essentially the same as Barak’s.  So the real question is whether this analogy is going to apply in the future, and I argue in the epilogue to my book that, if Israel does not get out of the West Bank, and if there’s not a viable serious Palestinian state in the very near future, then this label is actually going to stick and that this really should be seen as more of a warning than a threat by the Israelis.  But, based on the reaction to everyone who’s made this argument outside of the Israeli government in recent years, it seems that it’s still being perceived as a threat rather than a warning.  So on that note I’m going to conclude, and I welcome your questions on anything related to what I’ve said, or anything else on the book or anything else that you’re interested in that may or may not be in the book.  Thank you very much.


Sasha Polakow-Suransky is the author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa and is a senior editor of Foreign Affairs.  The speech above was delivered at the Palestine Center, Washington, D.C., on 6 July 2010.  The text above is an edited transcript of the speech.




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