This week's headlines alleging that Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1975, reported in a new book and a report in The Guardian, come at a particularly bad time for the Jewish state. (Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time, had denied the charge).
Whether all the allegations in Sasha Polakow-Suransky's new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, prove accurate, the buzz they are generating will inevitably highlight Israel's uncomfortable relationship with the former South African regime at a time when “Israel as an apartheid state” claims seem to be spreading.
Polakow-Suransky is an editor at Foreign Affairs magazine and a former South African Jew; he tapped South African government documents to draw a complex picture of an Israeli-South African relationship that he says was more extensive than had been revealed in the past, and which he alleges included the nuclear offer.
Back in the 1980s, I periodically reported on the Israel-South Africa connection; many of my stories had to do with the conflict between Israel's need for allies in a mostly hostile world (something it shared with South Africa), as well as its need to export weapons and other military supplies as a way of funding its own defense needs – and the recognition that dealing with the pariah state, which was then under international sanctions, was a risky business in terms of Israel's reputation.
At the time, Israel's supporters here put a great deal of emphasis on the argument that Israel was the Middle East's only democracy and understood that Israel's dealings with South Africa risked undermined that argument. But they had little choice, given the apparent decision in Jerusalem that the potential security and economic benefits of the relationship outweighed the public relations costs.
Thanks to Polakow-Suransky's new book and sensational headlines about an alleged nuclear offer, the issue is back – at a time when Israel is fighting renewed apartheid claims and when it is trying to mobilize international support in the effort to keep another pariah state – Iran – from getting nuclear weapons.
As former Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel reported in his review of the book in Foreign Policy , American Jewish groups ardently defended Israel's actions back in the 1970s and 1980s while denying those actions buttressed the apartheid system. He wrote:
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.
In his review, Frankel called the book “The result is the best-documented, most thorough, and most credible account ever offered of the secret marriage between the apartheid state and Israel.”
It will be interesting to see what American Jewish leaders do now that that the Israel-South Africa connection is back in the headlines.
My guess: they'll follow the lead of the Israeli government and vigorously dispute the claim Israel sought to sell nukes to the apartheid government, while keeping silent about the rest of the Israel-South Africa connection.
Selling arms to the apartheid regime doesn't mean Israel supported apartheid, or that it sees apartheid as a model for its actions with respect to the Palestinians today. But that's the logical leap many will make, and they'll use the nuclear allegation to up the ante. Israel's friends had better be ready to counter it.
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