An explosive issue

Sasha Polakow-Suransky has brought out an opportunistic book that plumbs the depths of the reasonably well-known relationship between South Africa and Israel.

311_yellowcake (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his new book, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who was born to anti-apartheid activists, covertly argues that “Israel risks remaking itself in the image of the old apartheid state,” while claiming to provide a more complete picture of the relationship between the two countries. He begins by laying out a clear thesis. Once upon a time, when Israel was governed by the good kibbutz-living-socialist cultured Ashkenazi Jews, it was a “celebrated cause of the Left” born “amid the ashes of Auschwitz” and was a pillar of “justice and human rights.”
Europeans loved Israel “often out of social idealism or sheer guilt.” The good Israelis of those days predicated their foreign policy on morality and, especially Golda Meir, “forged close ties with the newly independent states of Africa.
But over the years “Israel’s war-battered industries desperately needed export markets.” For pragmatic politicians like Shimon Peres “compromising certain values was necessary for survival” and the “socialist dream gave way to realpolitik.” Eventually even pragmatism became something darker, the bad Israeli Right came to power with “a view fully in line with the thinking of Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa” and the “party’s leaders had little patience for ancient talmudic dictates forbidding arms sales to oppressive foreigners.”
This simplistic discussion of Israel’s history isn’t new. It is the narrative often employed by Israel’s Left, where a good Israel of old is betrayed by a bad Israel after 1977. It is no surprise that the author acknowledges the support of those critics, like Naomi Chazan, Benjamin Pogrund, Yossi Beilin and Avi Shlaim, who are of this opinion.
But there is more in The Unspoken Alliance than clichés. Through a confusing 12 chapters the author provides insights into many aspects of Israeli and South African history and the way in which the Jewish state came to sell the apartheid government “$10 billion over the course of 20 years.”
Polakow-Suransky begins his discussion by providing a history of the Afrikaner nationalists’ flirtations with Nazism. Under Afrikaner war hero Jan Smuts the country had declared war on Germany, but extremist Afrikaners were supporters of Hitler. South African Jews were terrified and, even when they were classified as “whites” under apartheid, the author implies that their elites remained overly loyal and forever fearful of suppression over the years. They weren’t all loyal subjects though – the book highlights the careers of radical anti-apartheid activists like Arthur Goldreich, who was an ANC leader. Ironically, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldreich fled South Africa for Israel, which he now compares to apartheid South Africa.
The most contentious of the issues surrounding Israel’s relationship with South Africa is the question regarding nuclear technology. However, this book doesn’t seem to provide a great deal of new detail or answer the foggy questions about proliferation between the two countries. Israel obtained yellowcake (concentrated uranium) from South Africa and, in the 1970s, provided South Africa with tritium that was essential in increasing the payload of South Africa’s nuclear weapons. But the evidence unearthed by the author doesn’t seem to be revelatory. For instance he writes, “Andre Buys, a leading South African nuclear weapons engineer... remembers hearing that Israel’s nuclear threat had prompted US aid during the Yom Kippur War.” Hearsay?
One of the joys of Polakow-Suransky’s narrative is that it includes numerous vignettes that are probably more substantial than the overall product. Short biographies of men like Abba Eban or the story of the nuclear flash detected in the South Atlantic in 1979 are interesting and well written. Unfortunately they are badly cobbled together. A discussion of the origins of the Likud party, the Irgun and Lehi, reads like the attempts to tie all Afrikaner nationalism to Nazism: “Abba Ahimeir, one of Menachem Begin’s right-wing contemporaries, was a self-declared fascist sympathizer.” A lot of it leaves the reader asking “okay, so?”
The author is deeply prejudiced against what he perceives as the right-wing militancy of the Likud. Borrowing from Avi Shlaim he describes its “iron wall” approach to foreign affairs and claims its policy is to “use military force to ensure national survival... [and] denial of political rights to the enemy.” In fact the former policy was crafted by David Ben- Gurion and it was Begin who signed the peace treaty with Egypt.
There are unexplained assertions. Page 135 finds Taiwan lumped in with Israel and South Africa as “pariah states.” What did Taiwan do? There is a long digression about American Jewry’s relationship with radical black activists in the US. The book lauds Israeli leftists like Elazar Granot for forming friendships with Arab ambassadors from places like Libya and seems to ask no questions about Israel’s relationship with the mullahs in Teheran or Idi Amin. The insinuation is clear: A “moral” foreign policy is one that is guided by who the UN chooses to dislike – Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi or the Saudis and Stalin are okay, apartheid South Africans are beyond the pale.
The epilogue is filled with a long rant against Israel for its “Jewish-only access roads,” “identification requirements that resemble modernday pass laws” and “circumscribed existence for Palestinians” complete with a map that shows the West Bank bears “a striking resemblance to the old Bantustans in South Africa.” These assertions prove the author never investigated his sources fully; there are no roads in Israel or the West Bank that are “Jewish-only.” The reader is left perplexed by a book supposedly about policy that digresses so much into the realm of ill-informed condemnations.