South Africa, Israel, and the U.S. – Past and Present

I didn’t get the chance, over the weekend, to blog about the New America Foundation event last Friday for Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s new book, “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.”

The book, of course, is best known for the revelation that then Israeli defense minister and now president Shimon Peres offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons in 1975, a charge that Peres denies. The exchange undermines the excuse that Israel seeks to excuse itself the hypocrisy of being a covert nuclear power and belligerently attempting to stymie the Iranian nuclear program — that Israel would never be a proliferation risk.

There were other aspects of the talk at NAF that indicate the book’s timeliness (I should confess here to not yet having read it). You can check the video of the event website to hear NAF Mid East director Daniel Levy and his guests, Polakow-Suransky and editor and blogger Tony Karon, discuss both the now-exposed hypocrisy of attempted character assassination of Judge Richard Goldstone for his work in Apartheid South Africa (see below) and the comparisons of modern day Israel to that regime.

But I was most struck by a comparison not of Israeli and South African pasts and presents, but that of what the U.S. Jewish establishment used to be, and what it is today.

As Matt Duss points out in his review of the book at The American Prospect, while Israel’s labor government viewed the South African relationship as an economic necessity, Likud’s rise to power established ideological ties with South Africa’s white rulers on the basis of, as Polakow-Suransky put it, both being “part of a larger nationalist project designed to protect a minority group that believed its survival was threatened.”

But South Africa’s project was unsustainable, and eventually collapsed under the weight of Western pressure, while Israel’s has continued more or less unabated. In the NAF discussion, Karon, a South African Jew who was a member of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, makes an important distinction: “One of the major differences between Apartheid South Africa and Israel’s diplomacy is that South Africa had no diaspora.”

Ah, the Lobby. But the most curious point here is that, despite the benefits to Israel of a robust arms trade with South Africa, the Lobby — specifically AIPAC — did step in and tell Israeli pols that they were hurting their own cause by continuing the relationship.

“A lot of people will look back at the ’80s and say, here’s a situation where Israel is clearly shooting itself in the foot and AIPAC reacted to that,” said Polakow-Suransky. “But you don’t see the same result in the situation today. This is something Peter Beinart took up” — referring to another NAF scholar’s recent essay on how the Jewish establishment doesn’t adhere to the liberal Zionism of its supposed constituency when those organizations ignore troubling trends in Israel.

“That level of intervention and that level of foresight that you saw in AIPAC and a few other American Jewish organizations in the ’80s who were aware of and sensitive to the growing anti-Apartheid Jewish American movement,” Polakow-Suransky went on. “You don’t see that today.”

“Things changed in Washington in the 1990’s,” Karon responded, “for a whole number of reasons.” With the 1990s Republican Party takeover by Evangelical Christian Zionists, things changed — there is a widespread “sympathy for Israel’s demand for exception treatment on Capitol Hill today than there was in 1986.”

Levy called the AIPAC Apartheid stance a “very smart, forward thinking, far sightedness” to Israel’s stance — both in terms of Israel and the world and domestic U.S. politics, namely the black-Jewish alliance in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, that sort of long-view is absent in discussions today. How often does AIPAC push the intransigent Netanyahu, who’s party’s most recent “charter” in English denies the Palestinian State’s right to exist? Or does the Lobby even, as Peter Beinart pointed out in an exchange with the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, have anything critical to say about “Avigdor Lieberman’s crusade to humiliate, disenfranchise, and perhaps even eventually expel Arab Israelis”? Beinart commends the ADL for compassion in the U.S., say its opposition to controversial racial profiling laws in Arizona. But he rightfully wonders where this wide angle view is when it comes to the Jewish state:

But how can an organization that is so vigilant in opposing bigotry in the US be so complacent about a government shaped by men like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and Ovadia Yosef? How can it not take its rightful place in the struggle on behalf of Palestinians evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah?

Lastly, and my apologies for a meandering post, there is the hypocrisy of the attack on Richard Goldstone for his U.N. report on the Gaza slaughter of winter 2008 – ’09. I’ll let Matt Duss, however, handle this one. At length, again, from his TAP review of “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa”:

Those opposed to the Gaza investigation have even gone so far as to attempt to smear the author, Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who oversaw the report for the U.N. Human Rights Council. The report asserted evidence of possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas and has been a source of serious concern for Israeli officials. In early May, the popular Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot published a “special investigation” of Goldstone.

Titled “Judge Goldstone’s Dark Past,” the Yediot article details Goldstone’s career as a judge under South Africa’s system of apartheid, during which he apparently sentenced some 28 black South Africans to death for various crimes. Though it contained little new information, the article was enthusiastically seized upon by Goldstone’s critics. American law professor (and ubiquitous Israel defender) Alan Dershowitz dismissed Goldstone’s excuse that he was bound by the (admittedly racist) laws of the time, telling Yediot, “That was what everybody said in Nazi Germany.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also reportedly ordered the story to be distributed to Israel’s diplomats around the world to help in the country’s public-relations efforts. The irony of a racist ultranationalist like Lieberman — who has advocated forcing Israel’s Palestinian citizens to sign loyalty oaths to the Jewish state or face expulsion — attacking Goldstone is overwhelming.

It’s against this background that Polakow-Suransky presents his thoroughly researched account of the military and nuclear partnership between Israel and apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Polakow-Suransky’s book makes clear that Israel itself played an essential role in buttressing South Africa at a time when the apartheid state was earning its isolation and condemnation from the rest of the world.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. The point is made that the policy makers in Washington, Tel Aviv, and AIPAC no longer have long range thinking on their side. That construction reminds me of our double down policy. Doubling Down is not a long term strategy, it is rather a sign of stagnation and frustration. What has been lost is any perspective of what happens next.

    We may be pushing the stalled car over a stone that’s jamming one of the wheels. Only, that stone may be the only thing keeping the car from hurtling over the cliff. Push, push over that rock; up to the apex, and then the momentum of our actions will carry us… where?

  2. Pingback: Anonymous
  3. Just to meander a little bit myself . . .

    I haven’t read the book yet either. I wonder if it sheds fresh light on the mysterious 1979 “flash” in the Indian Ocean, believed by many to be a joint Israeli-South African nuclear test.

    I’d like to see more current writing about the Israeli-Iran relationship, particularly in the period AFTER the Shah’s fall. The whole Iran-Contra era, or at least its Middle Eastern aspect, cries out for a thorough reevaluation.

    Few things over the past 20 years have depressed me more than the takeover of the Republican Party by the Evangelical-Zionist movement. This marked the demise of the party’s pro-American foreign policy, just as its adoption of “big government conservatism” under Bush II spelled the end of its attempts to hold the line against socialism here at home. The Republican Party as it exists today needs to be smashed into a thousand pieces and scattered to the winds.

Comments are closed.