The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (Book Review)
Palestine Center Book Review No. 6 (29 June 2010)
Apartheid. It is a word — an idea — which stirs up strong and angry reactions. Indeed, this dark period in South African history was a stain on the collective conscience of the world during the twentieth century. When the word “apartheid” was introduced into the discussion on Palestine, it was even more controversial. President Jimmy Carter, who first brought the analogy to the forefront in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, was lambasted, even called an anti-Semite, before anyone had read the book. Nearly four years later, Israeli prime ministers were using the word apartheid to describe the absence of a negotiated peace (what we actually have now).
The discussion on Israel and South Africa is fostered by the recently published work by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Aparthied South Africa. If the readers are looking for an in-depth discussion on the similarities and difference between Israel’s and South Africa’s treatment of their oppressed, they will not find it in this book. Rather, The Unspoken Alliance is an important work on international relations which uses extensive archival documents and interviews with key players to discuss in detail the development of a strategic military and diplomatic relationship between Israel and South Africa.
Polakow-Suransky argues that the relationship between the two nations was not always very strong. In the early years after the creation of the state of Israel, the author argues that Israel valued relationships it had with other African nations which were opposed to the apartheid regime. The votes of these African nations would be coveted in the UN General Assembly to counter-balance the Arab/Muslim bloc. But over time, African nations gravitated away from Israel and, as Israel became more isolated regionally, interests began to mount for Israel to strengthen its relationship with another isolated state like apartheid South Africa.
The height of this cooperation probably came in the mid-1970s when then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres sought to secure nuclear cooperation between Israel and South Africa. While Israel already had an operating nuclear facility capable of producing nuclear weapons, South Africa had enough nuclear fuel like uranium to ensure that the Israeli reactor could continue to operate should it face further international isolation. Israel would provide not only weapons, but military advisers and clandestine support for nuclear tests.
The author details the development of the relationship in an engaging fashion. The writing style allows the reader to attentively follow the story without the normal drag of academic books that are extensively footnoted. Polakow-Suransky writes:
“Nuclear missiles notwithstanding, the Israelis were extremely eager to sell anything and everything to Pretoria, including weapons from their parties. South Africa conveniently used Israel as an intermediary to buy arms from countries off limits to them because of embargoes. This much was clear from a 1975 Israeli Defense Ministry letter informing the South Africans that one of their orders could not be fulfilled because the item ‘is at present not available and we have instructed our Purchasing Missions abroad to scan every available source’.”
The Unspoken Alliance is an important work that uses declassified government documents to confirm what many had always suspected. There is little in this book which comes as a shock to those who had long presumed deep ties between Israel and South Africa, but the level of detail, precision and documentation is first-class and unique.
It must be noted that the author avoids drawing ideological connections between Zionism and Afrikaaner Nationalism in South Africa. Polakow-Suransky sees this relationship as one based in interests and not in values. Surely, drawing ideological connections between the two ideologies may have made this a far more controversial book and left more of the conclusions up to the author’s interpretation as opposed to primary source documents. But given the circumstances and the similarities between both governments and their colonial nature, one must ask these questions.
For example, Polakow-Suransky glosses over the relationship between Chiam Wiezmann and South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts. Despite citing Richard Stevens and Abdelwahab El Messiri’s book Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship in his section on this relationship, he understates its importance and misses the ideological connection between the two. Weizmann, who had first met Smuts in 1917 in England, cabled him on 15 May 1948:
“Now that the Balfour declaration has been consummated by the establishment of the State of Israel, I take opportunity of expressing to you as one of the architects of Declaration and most constant supporter of Jewish cause my deepest appreciation and gratitude for manifold kindness which you have shown to the Zionist movement and to me personally during intervening years stop. I understand that new state has approached you for recognition and I venture express hope it will be possible for you to crown your lifelong encouragement of our national aspirations by giving speedy recognition stop.”
Within days, Smuts’ government extended recognition to Israel. It was these elements of the relationship that led Stevens to write:
“It must be noted that during the entire thirty-three years of this relationship, extending from 1917 to 1950, both men took for granted the moral legitimacy of each other’s respective position. Thus, not a word is to be found in Weizmann’s correspondence or writing questioning the racial basis of the South African state on which Zionism was so dependent or Smuts’ own role in upholding its racist system. Similarly, Smuts assumed without question ‘the right’” of Jewish settlers to occupy Palestine without regard to the rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. In both cases, Smuts and Weizmann projected at the highest level the capacity of western civilization to rationalize domination and exploitation, conquest and control as Christian civilizing mission or ethnocentric Judeo-Christian fulfillment.”
A more extensive account of the ideological connections would have made The Unspoken Alliance an even more powerful book. Nonetheless it remains an important read on a discrete relationship between two of the most controversial regimes in the twentieth century.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This book review may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.
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