As the world’s great, good, and not-so-good flocked to South Africa this past week to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of the Nelson Mandela, one leader was conspicuous in his absence. It was, he said, too expensive to go.
Who was this person who put dollars and cents – or rather shekels and agorot – ahead of paying respects to the liberator of South Africa? And the one person the satirical newspaper The Onion declared to be, “the first politician to be missed,” by all the world’s peoples? Why, none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cited cost and security as the major reasons he would not be attending Mandela’s funeral.
For Americans who follow neither South African nor Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s decision may seem rather understandable. Israel, after all, is a small country in a troubled region and with instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria, perhaps now is not the time for Israel’s hardworking prime minister to be away from home. Such understanding, however, would miss one of the biggest stories of the latter half of the 20th century – the secret, intimate, decades-long military alliance between apartheid South Africa and Israel.
What’s that, you say? Israel was once in bed with the racist authoritarians who imprisoned Mandela for a third of his life and instituted one of the most all-encompassing systems of racial tyranny seen outside of Nazi Germany and the American, Jim-Crow South? Surely not!
Alas, friends, you would be wrong, for the alliance between Pretoria and Jerusalem is well documented in an eye-opening history of the subject recently written by Sasha Polakow-Suransky entitled “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.”
Polakow-Suransky, currently a staff editor at the New York Times and formerly an associate editor at Foreign Affairs, documents the long, sordid relationship between the two in what might best be described as excruciatingly uncomfortable detail – at least if you are an Israeli or an unabashedly pro-Israel booster here in the United States. The story is a revelatory one.
The story begins, according to Polakow-Suransky, with back-channel meetings between South African representatives and Israeli defense officials, among them Shimon Peres, in Paris during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Then, France was embroiled in a series of anti-colonial struggles in Africa which, in turn, made Israel and South Africa natural allies of the French. As France’s colonial wars wound down after the mid-1960s, however, both countries saw much to be gained in continuing their relationship by cooperating with one another.
For South Africa, growing increasingly isolated as time went on, Israel provided needed connections with the outside world, particularly when it came to arms. For Israel, which was seeing France slip away as its major arms-providing patron and having not yet won over Washington to its cause, the need to develop a domestic arms industry was a growing security requirement. Unfortunately for Israel, the cost of financing such an industry out of wholly domestic resources was more than the tiny country could support on its own.
Given this, and despite reservations some in Israel had about dealing with a pariah state ruled by a racist, right-wing party with ideological connections to the Third Reich, a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries was consummated. Initially covering weapons sales and technology transfers that Israel used to finance its own high-tech defense industry, the relationship between the two countries grew deeper when the Six-Day War transformed Israel into an occupying power overnight.
Expanded cooperation after the Israeli victory in 1967 included mutual, clandestine assistance with each other’s secret nuclear weapons program. Israel, by most accounts, had a working nuclear device by the eve of the Six-Day War, derived mostly through French assistance in building Israel’s Dimona reactor and smuggled uranium acquired clandestinely by Israeli intelligence. As that initial stock of uranium was used up, however, the need to acquire fresh supplies so as to facilitate the buildup of Israel’s nascent nuclear weapons stockpile increased dramatically.
With South Africa being a major uranium producer, a deal was quickly struck between the two that saw knowledge and tritium – a hard-to-produce isotope of hydrogen critical in the production of thermonuclear weapons – being traded away by Israel for tons of South African yellowcake uranium. Both countries also needed what the other had for the development of a nuclear delivery system – long-range ballistic missiles – and eventually worked closely together on Israel’s Jericho missile system, which was eventually tested at a proving range in South Africa itself in the 1980s.
Indeed, the importance of the South African connection for Israel’s defense industries cannot be overstated, and Polakow-Suransky conservatively estimates that the annual worth of the secret, illicit – since South Africa was under international sanctions for much of the period – trade amounted to between $500 million and a $1 billion.
At its height, the trade with South Africa made Pretoria Israel’s “second or third-largest trading partner after the United States,” and commonly accounted for nearly a fifth of the country’s total industrial exports. In no small part, then, many of the weapons used against anti-Apartheid protesters inside South Africa itself were ‘made in Israel,’ while Israel’s modern economic prosperity came in no small part from the oppression of South African blacks.
Much of this trade could, in theory at least, be written off as opportunistic trading by a small country in desperate need of currency and connections. After all, other countries – including many conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia – also broke international sanctions by selling goods to apartheid South Africa, so what’s the big deal?
Benjamin Netanyahu himself articulated this very point in a 1986 speech at the U.N. where he derided criticism of Israel on the South Africa issue as little more than rampant hypocrisy by states hostile to Israel.
In hindsight, Netanyahu did have something of a point – other countries did break sanctions – but as Polakow-Suransky points out again and again in his book, what Israel did went far beyond breaking sanctions by trading through shady middlemen and international smugglers. Israel’s relationship with South Africa was a direct, state-to-state cooperative alliance that frequently saw high-ranking military and security officials from one country visiting and conferring with peers from the other. As such, it was fundamentally a much more intimate and important relationship than Netanyahu would admit – and he likely knew so at the time.
Moreover, the relationship by the 1980s had grown so close that annual military and intelligence conferences between Israeli and South African officials were routinely held. At these conferences, Israelis and South Africans briefed one another on pressing security issues, traded intelligence information, trained each other, and planned limited operations together. They even visited one another’s front-lines in their respective wars – Israel’s in Lebanon and South Africa’s in Namibia and Southern Angola, and traded tips on how best to neutralize their terrorist foes.
What’s more, as Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories wore on and the political right – led by Likud – began to ascend in Israeli politics, the alliance between South Africa and Israel became much more than a simple utilitarian exchange between isolated countries – it took on an increasingly ideological hue, too. As South Africans, for instance, acquired jets and munitions from Israel, many Israelis, especially on the right, could not help but see their own situation – an ethnic minority beset by enemies from both without and within – reflected in white-ruled South Africa.
This basic similarity in circumstances, especially as Israel came to occupy and illegally settle the West Bank, did not go unnoticed by leaders in either country and both counseled one other on how to handle what they each saw as hypocritical criticism from the liberal West. As prominent Israeli journalist and former Irgun fighter Aharon Shamir once told a high-ranking South African foreign affairs official:
«Take Israel, for example. I am ready to give the Arabs equal rights but not now, not today. But we can say that after 10 or 20 years, once we have allowed the Arabs to try out their rights, they might be ready for full and equal rights with the Jews in Israel. Give the blacks the vote very slowly. See how it works. Bit by bit. Explain your course of action, stress that it has never been done before. If you see that your bit-by-bit approach is not working, change it. But make the world believe you are sincere. You have to be hypocritical to survive.»
“The trend is to sound liberal. To be liberal is to be nice. It is a nice thing to give political rights to all subjects of a country. Yet, what we seen in so many places in this world are governments giving those rights and then suppressing them. Why do you not seem to be giving those rights by not really giving them?”
Similar advice was given to the same official a few months later by Ariel Weinstein, a Likud Party member and sitting member of the Knesset, and his wife:
“You must sell South Africa by yourselves and through your own people. Look what we did with the Arabs. We sent our Arabs abroad to sell our political product. By doing this we create the impression for the visitors that Arabs and Druzes are very much part of our society. You now have Coloureds and Indians in your parliament. Use them. Send them abroad to sell your product.”
Not be outdone by her husband, Weinstein’s wife opined that though discrimination based on skin color was unsavory, Israel nonetheless:
“Gives less rights to our Arabs than the Israeli Jewish population enjoys. We have to take some measure to protect ourselves. So you should explain that what you do is necessary for your own security.”
According to Polakow-Suransky, a ‘light’ went off in the South African official’s head – as if he had just heard the solution to his country’s problems.
“So, you can discriminate for security reasons and that is acceptable,” he remarked.
South Africa, then, did not have a race problem. To right-wing Israelis, South Africa had a marketing problem rather similar to their own.
Apartheid South Africa and Israel were ultimately something along brothers-in-arms, then. Both saw a reflection of themselves in each other as each was, and in the case of Israel continues to be, an isolated, herrenvolk republic with a secret nuclear arms program, surrounded by enemies, threatened internally by a subject population, and very much out of place among the West’s established liberal democracies due to ruthless oppression and exploitation of an indigenous, native people. Birds of a feather, it seems, flocked together.
It comes as no surprise then that Netanyahu wanted to avoid attending the funeral of the man most responsible for apartheid’s demise.
As Mandela himself said, “The people of South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the apartheid regime.”
For a man who will go down in history as a great conciliator, these are harsh words. Netanyahu, it seems, is set on doing his level best not to remind them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.