The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa
, by Sasha Polakow-Suransky. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. ix + 242 pages. Acknowledgements to p. 245. Notes to p. 294. Bibliography to p. 307. Index to p. 324. $27.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Aslam Farouk-Alli
The sense of tragedy looms heavily through the book’s prologue as the star-crossed protagonists are drawn together by cruel circumstance. Prior to 1967, Israel was the darling of the international Left, and its leaders vocally opposed apartheid and built alliances with newly independent African nations. South Africa, on the other hand, was in the clasp of Nazi-sympathizing Afrikaner nationalists ... and never the twain shall meet. However, after occupying Palestinian territories in 1967, Israel found itself estranged from former allies and threatened anew by old enemies. As both countries now found themselves outcast as international pariahs, their covert military relationship began to blossom... this is the central narrative that runs throughout the book and therefore deserves critical reflection.
Polakow-Suransky states that his book “does not seek to draw a comparison between contemporary Israel and the old South Africa but, rather, to document the development and the demise of an extensive and lucrative military alliance” (p. 233). This, however, does not stop him from drawing conclusions that pass judgment on the state of affairs in Israel today and from offering advice on what needs to be done to avoid Jews becoming a “minority within the territories they control,” revealing the Zionist bent in his central narrative (p. 242).
The Zionism portrayed in this book is a conflicted moral ideal, and Polakow-Suransky skillfully teases out an ongoing struggle between the good Zionism of first-generation Israelis like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the bad Zionism of later-generation revisionists like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, saving his scorn and condemnation for the latter. This sophisticated reading is of course farcical because no matter how rich and varied the apologetics, the brutal reality of dispossession and occupation remains Zionism’s singular legacy. The good/bad Zionism narrative also produces a skewed reading of history; for example, the Ben-Gurion that one encounters in this study is a saintly father figure very difficult to reconcile with the ideologue that tirelessly planned and implemented the ethnic cleansing of Palestine so cogently documented by Ilan Pappé in a book of the same title.
To return to the author’s central narrative, we find Israel’s honeymoon in Africa in the pre-1967 period explained in terms of the Zionist state’s desire to be a light unto the nations, reflecting the morals and socialist concern of leaders like Ben-Gurion and Meir. To be fair, Polakow-Suransky also briefly explores the possibility that Israel’s relationship with Africa in this period may have been influenced by its strategy of the periphery, whereby it sought to strengthen relations with the belt of countries that lay beyond the Arab states that surround it. However, his narrative presents the former aspect much more emphatically and inadvertently shows that an ungrateful Africa finally spurned Israel, leading to the rise of realpolitik that, together with the ascension of the revisionist Zionist Right, gave birth to the military alliance with apartheid South Africa.
The author then goes on to clinically document this alliance, drawing on published works, archival material, and over one hundred interviews with key players. It is this aspect of the study that is the most fulfilling, not only because of the sheer immensity of the task and the author’s prodigious effort, but also because the facts that emerge sometimes stand in very clear counterpoint to his narrative. So while it is difficult for the author to accept the description of Israel as an apartheid state, we find that no less a figure than Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid South Africa, clearly saw that both countries are settler-colonial entities that dispossessed their native populations. Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 1961, Verwoerd declared: “[Israelis] took Israel from the Arabs after they had lived there for a thousand years. In that I agree with them. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state” (pp. 240–1).
For Polakow-Suransky, the possibility of Israel becoming an apartheid state is not yet a fait accompli but rather an imminent danger that can only be avoided by “dismantling West Bank settlements, swapping land for those that remain [and] creating a viable Palestinian state” (p. 241). Once again, this version of the two-state solution is blind to any alternative that sees beyond the Zionist narrative, even if such an alternative is increasingly being advocated by those that find the South African democratic model appealing and favor a single state that belongs to all its citizens, Jewish or not.
Considering the detailed evidence that the author has presented in this book on how Israel has mastered the art of forked-tongue diplomacy, it is somewhat surprising to find him placing so much faith in a two-state solution that emanated from the Oslo process, especially since he sarcastically points out that apartheid South Africa had failed to grasp the lessons that Israeli visitors had sought to teach them for years: “that managing hypocrisy was an art” (p. 207) and that, for example, discrimination for security reasons was far more palatable than discrimination on the basis of color (pp. 163–4), with the final objective being to aspire to be a diplomat like Shimon Peres, who was “a moral beacon in his rhetoric, if not his actions” (p. 165). Most astute observers have long grasped that the two-state solution is no more than a metaphor for a land grab and that for Israel the emphasis in the Middle East peace process is on the process and not the peace. However, in this instance Polakow-Suransky is blinded to the hypocrisy in spite of his own cogent analysis.
Apart from analysis, this book establishes important facts, the most important of which is Israel’s unashamed track record with regard to nuclear proliferation. Israel still pursues its secret nuclear program, in spite of its righteous condemnation of Iranian nuclear ambitions and its vigorous diplomatic and military efforts to ensure that neighboring Arab countries are not given access to nuclear technology, thereby once again privileging its own perceived interests over global concerns about nonproliferation.
Polakow-Suransky’s book will undoubtedly have advocates and detractors but remains important because whether one agrees with him or not, this study most certainly enriches our understanding. In addition to its illuminating research, a key lesson that can also be extracted—specifically from the author’s problematic narrative—is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a struggle over rights; it is very much a struggle over representation as well.
ASLAM FAROUK-ALLI lectured part-time in the faculties of Religion, Language & Literature, and Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. After leaving the academy, he served as a diplomat in the South African civil service. He is also the editor of The Future of Palestine and Israel: From Colonial Roots to Postcolonial Realities (Midrand, South Africa: Institute for Global Dialogue, 2007).