Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, poured through 7,000 pages of never-before-seen classified South African documents while researching his book, Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.
In it, he relays the minutes and details of conversations between top level officials on both sides that shed light on the extent and nature of Israel’s cooperation with and enablement of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, both in military and non-military matters.
It was a relationship that benefited both sides: South Africa acquired vital components from Israel to help advance its nuclear programme, while sharing their knowledge and components with Israel as it pursued its own nuclear ambitions.
Al Jazeera talked to Sasha Polakow-Suransky about his book.
Al Jazeera: There are several other books on the subject of Israeli-South African arms cooperation. How is yours different?
Polakow-Suransky: It’s the first book based on primary source material from either country’s archive.
Those archives also include a lot of Israeli documents and interviews with very high level people on both sides, not just diplomats but also generals who are retired from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or from the South African Defense Force (SADF).
Was there a single incident that led to the birth of the Israeli-South African alliance?
The Yom Kippur war in 1973. Almost all African countries severed ties with Israel during and after the Yom Kippur war, and they felt a sense of betrayal and very quickly got in bed with South Africa.
There were major economic motivations for this as well: this was one of the only bright spots for the Israeli economy and [Shimon] Peres took over the defence ministry soon after that and rebuilt the defence industry, and South Africa was a very needy and eager customer.
Within a few years they became the single largest client for the Israeli defence industry.
When and how did the interests of either side converge?
This gets into the question of ideology.
There is a convergence of interests in 1973 and this lasts throughout the relationship.
1973 to 1977 is a period in the relationship that’s really defined purely by Realpolitik and Israel’s economic needs, desire for export markets, and South Africa’s desperation for weapons that they are having trouble buying elsewhere.
The economic motivation is always there but after 1977 it becomes much deeper and you see a group of leading Israeli security officials who were willing to openly state their admiration for the South African government and urge Israel and other countries to support and arm the South African government.
When Israel takes out the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, they invite the South Africans to come and view the video footage of the operation.
The Israeli army chief of staff Raful Eitan tells them it was necessary to prevent “these crazy Arabs to possess nuclear weapons”.
By 1988 when the Apartheid regime is crumbling these guys are still very shamelessly openly defending the Apartheid regime – in 1988 – this is two years away from Nelson Mandela being released.
So it’s hard to deny this ideological element. It’s certainly not the only motivation and certainly not the catalyst in the beginning of 1973 but it comes into play after 1977 and it really lasts through [to] the end of the alliance.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, has denied accusations that he offered to sell nuclear-capable Jericho missiles to South Africa.
Peres was very careful in what he said. He denies that his signature is on the minutes of the meeting.
But he doesn’t deny that he was present at [that] meeting or that the discussions took place. His signature is on other documents from the same week swearing it all to secrecy.
He was there. The discussions happened. Nuclear weapons were part of the discussion.
My charge is not that Peres came with a briefcase with a warhead. My charge is that he was present at the meeting and willingly discussed a possible sale that never went through.
It’s clear to me that Peres had led the South Africans to believe that there was an offer on the table and the South Africans reacted to that.
I personally feel that’s not the most revealing or shocking revelation in the book because it’s a deal that never went through.
What did go through?
A joint research and development programme on nuclear-capable Jericho missiles.
Dozens of Israeli scientists went to South Africa to help build the delivery system, and the South Africans were working independently on creating their own nuclear warhead for that missile. This was the planned future nuclear arsenal in South Africa.
They were working very closely on it throughout the 1980s, and South Africa was helping with financing and Israel was helping with knowhow. And this was not just for the South Africans.
This was also for the modernisation of technology that Israel was using itself. It was a two-way street.
In the last paragraph of the book, and to me this is one of the most important parts, Israeli politician Elezar Granot who served on the knesset’s defence committee in the 1980s told me that a lot of important work was being done for Israel’s military and nuclear programme, and it wasn’t being done in the US or France or England.
He said: “Most of the work that was done – I’m talking about the new kinds of weapons – was done in South Africa.”
What would you say was the most interesting or revealing thing you uncovered in the course of your research?
I personally believe it’s the story of the South African supply of uranium to Israel, and Israel’s quid pro quo, the supply of tritium to South Africa that South Africa hoped to use in its more advanced nuclear weapons that boosts the yield of thermo-nuclear weapons and the Israeli government’s efforts to prop up the South African mining minister who lifted the safeguards on the uranium.
Essentially from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s South Africa was shipping yellowcake uranium to Israel but the Israelis were not allowed to use it for military purposes because they had agreed on bilateral safeguards.
And then in 1976 the Israelis need it and there’s a large stockpile by that point. Israeli intelligence officials want to release the safeguards and so they approach South Africa.
In July 1976, Fanie Botha [the South African minister of mines] meets with Peres, with [Yitzhak] Rabin [the then Israeli prime minister], with the leading nuclear scientists, and with some other leading generals, and he agrees to lift the safeguards.
That was confessed to me in an interview with Botha himself and also substantiated by both Israeli and South African documents and a secret hidden camera trial that took place detailing these transactions – the actual quid pro quo.
I discovered that the real story here is not so much money or the exchange of tritium and yellowcake uranium but that South Africa responded to an Israeli request to release safeguards which essentially stopped this uranium from being used for military purposes and agreed to lift safeguards which essentially allowed the Israeli to use it in Dimona [Israel’s nuclear research centre] for their nuclear programme.
That is the most important and revealing thing in the book.
What ultimately led to the demise of the relationship?
The biggest factor was the US imposing sanctions on South Africa in 1986 and forcing Israel to follow suit because of the implicit threat within the US sanction bill to cut off aid to anyone who continued to violate the arms embargo – and that was an open threat to Israel.
Once the Israeli security establishment accepts that Apartheid is finished – and that doesn’t really happen until 1988/1989, then they start to panic because there’s all of this Israeli technology in South Africa and this new government starts to come to power and they fear that the new government might transfer some of the technologies to their friends.
The driving motivation then becomes how do we stop this stuff from getting to our enemies and so the Israeli interest is to prevent proliferation.
What was the “ideological glue of the alliance” that you refer to in the book?
There was a sense of a common enemy and a common mission and a sense of a threatened minority that needs to defend itself by any means necessary. This is the common thread.
The Afrikaners and the Israelis identified on this level.
This ideological identification can be traced very far back and their similar worldviews underline the revisionist Zionist perspective and the Afrikaner nationalist perspective.
And they looked at [Yasser] Arafat and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and Nelson Mandela through the same lens. It’s this common worldview and identification and empathy.
You say that the two countries were essentially “acting as advocates for each other on the international stage”. Can you explain this?
South Africa after 1973 was always full of praise for Israel, whenever Israel was involved in a war they would come out and openly identify with Israel and they had no qualms about it.
The Israelis were more reserved about this while behind the scenes [it] was maintaining this thriving military relationship.
The most interesting part of this is how the Israelis advised South Africa on selling itself to the West.
There are documents from the South African foreign ministry archive detailing conversations between South African diplomatic officials and Israeli visitors, with Israelis saying things like “make them think there is an agreement” and “you must be hypocritical in order to survive”.
There’s another conversation with a knesset member who talks about using Israeli-Arabs and Druze to go and sell Israel’s story to the world and how South Africa should send some “happy blacks” to sell their image.
South Africa didn’t have the moral empathy that Israel has enjoyed for years in the West but they also didn’t have a diaspora to argue on their behalf whenever something controversial happened.
That’s why the South Africans felt so desperate and they saw the Israelis succeeding in this PR campaign and wanted to learn how they were doing it. It was South Africans desperately trying to figure out how to do this – how can we make ourselves look acceptable and good?
You talk about the South African General Constant Viljoen going to the Occupied Territories in 1977, and marveling at the Israeli checkpoint system.
Viljoen goes to the West Bank in 1977 and he sees all these people waiting in line for hours and he’s really impressed and wishes South Africa could control blacks as effectively. He’s really admiring the Israeli model.
And were the Israelis as inspired by the South African model?
I argue that there are some unmistakable similarities, both in the appearance on the map but also the control of movement.
The Bantustan model in South Africa was premised on the idea of externalising the race problem – if we can just get these blacks out of the cities and onto their little reserves far away from us and then grant independence to these sort of nominal puppet states, then they could say we’re not oppressing our own citizens.
On a map of Israel, you see a series of noncontiguous Palestinian enclaves around the West Bank that are cut up by Israeli-only access roads, the wall weaving in and out, and also Jewish settlements in between everywhere cutting up this territory and making the possibility of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state in the future much less likely.
Now in terms of checkpoints and access roads, control of movement, access to East Jerusalem, all these sorts of things, there’s definitely parallels to some of the policies in the old South Africa. On other levels the situation is quite different.
A big part of Apartheid was the absolute dependence [on the] exploitation of black labour. There’s not [an] absolute parallel there.
One can argue that there was an exploitation of Palestinian labour and de-development of the Palestinian economy – at least until Ariel Sharon’s disengagement policy.
That’s a valid point.
Many Israeli and American Jews bristle whenever they hear analogies to Apartheid, and it’s very telling because there was no similar reaction when [Ehud] Olmert [the former Israeli prime minister] and Ehud Barak [a former Israeli prime minister and current deputy prime minister and minister of defence] say essentially the same thing – “we face an Apartheid future if x y and z don’t happen”.
[In a speech to the Herzliya Conference in February 2010, Ehud Barak said: “The simple truth is, if there is one state including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, it will have to be either binational or undemocratic …. if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
In a November 2007 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a day after the Annapolis conference, Ehud Olmert said: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”]
There’s this perception that any use of this of this analogy is automatically a delegitimisation of the state of Israel.
The issue here is that it’s a warning. It’s because Israel hasn’t formally annexed the West Bank and because the Palestinian leadership has not formally decided on a civil rights struggle for democratic rights within [one country] that I don’t define it as a parallel to Apartheid – yet.
I think if either of those things happened then you’d immediately have the situation that Ehud Barak was describing. So it’s a matter of how you define the tipping point for Apartheid.
If the Palestinians don’t vote, it’s either a non-Jewish state or a non-democratic one. If the Palestinian vote it’s a non-Jewish state, and if they don’t it’s an Apartheid one. And Barak said as much. That’s what’s in store.
Was Israel the only violator of the arms embargo on South Africa?
No, just the most significant one. There were violations. The significance of the Israeli case was the systematic, consistent, and large scale trade that was going on, and the fact that it was being handled at the highest ministerial level – the highest level of government negotiating and approving these deals rather than occasional transfers here and there. It’s a question of scale and how important it was to the South Africans.
If so many nations were in bed with Apartheid, why single out Israel for special attention?
There were many but after 1977 there were very few who were willing to sell weapons after the mandatory US arms embargo.
In the 1980s Israel was really the only avenue for South Africa in many areas of military hardware, especially aircraft and missile technology.
There’s an old argument that [Binyamin] Netanyahu [the current Israeli prime minister] and other Jewish groups made in the 1980s based on incomplete data from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] that excluded arms sales and the amount of trade and it made it look like Israel’s trade with South Africa was negligible.
And once you look at the real numbers – roughly $10bn over 20 years just in arms, South Africa becomes one of Israel’s biggest trading partners and it’s perfectly fair to single them out.
“Disguise and denial became the norm” is how you describe the policy of ambiguity and secrecy surrounding the armament negotiations. To what extent does this statement continue to define Israeli policy until this day?
For nuclear policy – absolutely. It’s formally disguised and denied. There’s also certainly an effort on the part of the Israeli government to put a friendly face on a very oppressive occupation, and also an attempt to deny some of what’s going on and stop people from seeing it and experiencing it and trying to downplay the gravity of the situation in Gaza and the West Bank – their public relations efforts, they’re doing their best to downplay and deny it.
Did Israeli cooperation with South Africa, in defiance of the arms embargo, specifically enable Apartheid?
Some technology is explicitly and clearly useful for domestic purposes: anti-riot equipment, ammunition. It’s true that a lot of technology wasn’t necessarily going to be used on black protestors in townships – the broader argument is that states survive as a result of their military prowess and their deterrent capability; and so strengthening the military establishment of any country contributes to its overall security and viability. If everyone had boycotted South Africa, and no one had sold arms to them, it would have appeared weaker and crumbled sooner.
There are some interesting revelations about the role the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) played in sabotaging the efforts of the anti-Apartheid movement in the US.
A lot of Jewish organisations in the US and elsewhere felt threatened by the anti-Apartheid movement because it was calling out Israel for selling arms to South Africa. The most telling revelation in the book is that the ADL had a man on its payroll that was also on the payroll of South African intelligence.
He was doing the same thing for both of them – trying to infiltrate the anti-Apartheid movement by going to anti-Apartheid meetings, taking down license plate numbers, addresses, P.O. Boxes and information on activists. Eventually the whole thing broke down after Mandela was released.
What was so shocking to me was the evidence – its not just interviews. I’m talking about FBI depositions that prove these guys were on their payroll and it’s quite damning.
How has the book been received in Israel and South Africa?
It’s gotten a lot of press in both places. The Jewish community – both within my family and outside it is not very happy. There are people within my own family who are very upset about this.
F.W. de Klerk, the former South African prime minister, has come out and criticised the nuclear allegations in a much less convincing way. In Botha’s case, the defence ministry always kept the foreign ministry in the dark so of course he wouldn’t have known. In de Klerk’s case he was just misleading people.