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  • The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa
  • Bill Freund
Sasha Polakow-Suransky (2010) The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa. New York: Pantheon and Johannesburg: Jacana

In the days when National Party rule in South Africa was new and the Jewish state had just fought its way to existence, an alliance between the two would have stretched the imagination of almost everyone. The Nationalists were led by men who had been injected with a strong anti-Semitic strain in their recent history. Once in power, they freed those considered as traitors by the wartime government and initiated a programme to welcome German war orphans to a new life among the volk. Israel, by contrast, not only symbolised the rebirth of Jewish hope after the Holocaust, it put forward and indeed internalised an image of itself as representing a break with the old diplomacy of imperialism, having fought the British in the last stages of the Mandate. Polakow-Suransky points out that, were it not for Nehru’s veto, Israel would have been represented at the 1955 Bandung Conference which signalled the emergence of a Non-Aligned Movement under fiercely anti-colonial auspices. This movement was instinctively hostile to the South African racial system. Colonialism was the geographic cover under which white power in South Africa secured itself in its region and its flanks were exposed when the last colonies in central and southern Africa became independent.

This situation changed, at first slowly in the late 1960s and then rapidly and dramatically, leading to the 1975 PW Botha-Shimon Peres secret accord, which not merely sealed the military alliance between the two states but [End Page 164] proposed intense and systematic mutual strategic planning. After the Yom Kippur war of 1973, wielding the carrot, Arab states used enhanced oil wealth to put paid to the paternalistic aid-giving role Israel had at first played in independent Africa (often, although this is not stated here, with US funds). Israel’s military allies, first Ethiopia and then Iran, saw revolutions sweep away pseudo-ancient monarchies and freeze Tel Aviv out of their strategic calculations, encouraging a search for new friends further afield. The exiled ANC established friendships with countries Israel particularly disliked, not to speak of the Palestine Liberation Organisation itself.

Intense, complex arrangements affecting army, intelligence, navy and air force and joint planning operations ensued at the height of the alliance despite frequent denials by Israel’s supporters. For some Israelis on the Left, this was still a deeply contradictory state of affairs. Golda Meir, the redoubtable Labour prime minister, never was really reconciled to it and genuine Israeli liberals, figures such as Naomi Chazan, for many years a political scientist specialising in Africa, or Shulamit Aloni, always spoke out against it. Arthur Goldreich, a once imprisoned ANC activist, came out to Israel with the intention of building an anti-apartheid movement. Things went OK until he started to talk about the enemy, the ‘terrorists’, ie the PLO, as people with whom to negotiate. That was the end of this friend of terrorists in Israel and he eventually moved to London.

By contrast, the top Labour leaders of the post-independence generation, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and, above all, the now aged and particularly two-faced Israeli president Shimon Peres, were prepared to speak with forked tongues depending on their audience; what they actually believed or believe is hard to say. On the Likud Right of Sharon and Netanyahu, today dominant in Israeli politics, the ANC was cordially hated along with liberation movements in general and there were many sincere declarations of friendship and natural affinity with the cause of white South Africa and its leaders to which Polakow-Suransky can point. The likes of Menachem Begin were already keen on establishing South African links before 1970.

These sentiments found strong echoes in the generation of Afrikaner nationalists who were not real players yet in the 1930s. The example of Israel, as a modernising, white state able to hold its own militarily despite the odds amidst a Third World mob, could not be more admirable in their eyes. It more than effaced...


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pp. 164-168
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