Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010). 324 pps. $27.95 hardcover
I could hardly contain my excitement after reading Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. So, I got on the phone and called a long-time friend who had been active in the solidarity movements against white colonial/minority rule in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. He responded: “Well, didn’t we already know about the connection between apartheid South Africa and Israel?”
What is striking about The Unspoken Alliance is not that it contains the revelation of a complete secret. My friend was correct. Bits and pieces of this story had been public for years, at least in some circles. What makes this book different is both the level of detail and factual disclosure combined with its blunt recognition of a strategic unity between Israel and apartheid South Africa based on a common colonial/settler framework.
Polakow-Suransky provides historical background that may surprise many readers in pointing out that the dominant political forces in Israel, up through the late 1960s, saw themselves as operating within an anti-colonial framework. Israel reached out to many newly independent African states, for example, providing a wide range of types of assistance. While this ‘solidarity’ may not have been driven completely by the noble aims that Polakow-Suransky suggests, it is nevertheless noteworthy. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, for instance, saw no inconsistency between advancing a settler project in the Palestine Mandate (the territory occupied by Britain until 1948) aimed at displacing the Palestinian people, on the one hand, and positioning Israel as an ally in the struggle for independence on the part of African states. Interestingly, they suggested that they were an outpost not only for the anti-colonial struggle, but also one in the struggle against reactionary Arab regimes.
This paradigm began to change in the context of the June 1967 war between Israel and the Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and the subsequent occupation and colonization of Palestinian territories. The situation shifted even further in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, which Israel nearly lost. During those moments Israel made the decision to become a nuclear power and an essential component of their ability to make such a decision was related to the slow but steady construction of an alliance with apartheid South Africa.
Apartheid South Africa, at the same time, was an increasingly isolated state. Interestingly Israel, at least in the early 1960s, joined with most of the rest of the international community, in condemning the system of apartheid. Nevertheless, as Israel began to face international criticism for its role in the 6 Day War and the subsequent occupations, it found itself drawn toward a relationship with the South African regime, a relationship that it entered into somewhat ambivalently and later joined with determination and without apology. One consequence of this developing relationship was the steady decline, to the point of becoming obstructive, of criticisms of the South African apartheid system.
The details of this relationship read like an excellent politico-mystery novel, yet they are documented. With the ascendancy of the more reactionary elements of the Israeli establishment in the 1970s (symbolized by the rise of Menachem Begin), the paradigm of Israel as an anti-colonial outpost was completely jettisoned in favor of Israel-as-fortress state. This new paradigm was well-suited to justify the alliance with the criminal South African regime.
Striking for any reader will certainly be the discussion of potential cataclysms. Once both Israel and apartheid South Africa achieved nuclear status, they were prepared to entertain the actual usage of such weapons. Polakow-Suransky, in describing the circumstances of the Yom Kippur War, suggests that the Israelis were prepared to use nuclear weapons against the Egyptians and/or Syrians if the USA did not intervene to provide additional military support in order to blunt the Arab assault. Apartheid South Africa, during the 1980s, contemplated using nuclear weapons against those southern African states that supported the national liberation forces of the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. This latter point helps the reader to better understand the complicated politico-military situation in which the national liberation forces in South Africa found themselves in the late 1980s when negotiations toward the end of apartheid commenced.
Interestingly Polakow-Suransky ends his book suggesting that while—in his opinion—Israel is not yet an apartheid state, it is well on the road. This was probably the greatest weakness of the book, but a weakness that should not turn the reader away from this work. Israel is already an apartheid state, both in the context of the conditions of the occupation of the Palestinian territories but also with respect to the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Polakow-Suransky conceptualizes apartheid far too narrowly rather than in the manner that the United Nations defined it, i.e., a system of racist oppression and separation. The South African system was only one possible variation on a theme, not the only apartheid model.
That said, what this book succeeds in doing so well is dispelling the notion of the supposed democratic and moralistic character of the Israeli state. The alliance between Israel and South Africa, as well documented in this book, was not a time-limited aberrant action on the part of an otherwise honorable state. It was a cold, calculated maneuver that not only was seen from the standpoint of naked self-interest, but equally from within the context of a growing recognition that two settler states needed mutual protection in a world that was heightening its objections to such social systems.
At a moment of increasing interest in the growth of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement in opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, The Unspoken Alliance becomes that much more important to read. The struggle for Palestinian self-determination involves, among other things, an ideological struggle against the dominant Israeli narrative, a narrative that has suggested that a people on the verge of extermination by the Nazis had the right to seize a territory away from its indigenous population. This narrative, in addition to holding a blind spot to the indignity and injustice within which the Palestinian people have been treated, first by the British colonialists and then later by the Israelis, is premised on the notion of the Israeli state as being grounded on a high moral platform placing it beyond any criticism. The Unspoken Alliance contributes to shattering at least one of the legs upholding that platform.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.”