History is a great teacher, but sometimes it packs a nasty sense of irony. A case in point: South African Prime Minister John Vorster's visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in April 1976, where he laid a wreath to the victims of the German Reich he once extolled.
It's bad enough that a former Nazi sympathizer was treated like an honored guest by the Jewish state. Even worse was the purpose behind Vorster's trip to Israel: to cement the extensive military relationship between Israel and the apartheid regime, a partnership that violated international law and illicitly provided the white-minority government with the weaponry and technology to help sustain its grip on power and its oppression of the black majority over two decades.
Like many illicit love affairs, the back-door relationship between Israel and the apartheid regime was secret, duplicitous, thrilling for the parties involved -- and ultimately damaging to both. Each insisted at the time that theirs was just a minor flirtation, with few regrets or expressions of remorse. Inevitably it ended badly, tainting everyone it touched, including leaders of American Jewish organizations who shredded their credibility by endorsing and parroting the blatant falsehoods they were fed by Israeli officials. And it still hovers like a toxic cloud over Israel's international reputation, providing ammunition to those who use the comparison between Israel's 43-year military rule over Palestinians and the now-defunct system of white domination known as apartheid to seek to delegitimize the Jewish state.
As bureau chief for the Washington Post in Southern Africa and Jerusalem in the 1980s, I squandered a lot of hours trying to pierce the iron curtain that the two countries carefully drew around their strategic partnership. I reported the various estimates that the arms trade between the two amounted to anywhere from $125 million to $400 million annually -- far beyond the $100 million that the International Monetary Fund reported as total imports and exports in the mid 1980s. Soon after arriving in Jerusalem in 1986, I asked Ezer Weizman, a former Israeli defense minister and champion of the secret partnership, about the uncanny resemblance between Israel's Kfir fighter jet -- itself patterned on the French Mirage -- and South Africa's newly minted Cheetah. He just smiled at me and replied, "I've noticed that as well."
Now comes Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who is an editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, a Rhodes scholar, and an American Jew whose parents emigrated to the United States from South Africa. His singular achievement in his new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa scheduled for publication on May 25, is to have unearthed more than 7,000 pages of heretofore secret documents from the bowels of South Africa's Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and Armscor, the state defense contractor, including the secret 1975 military cooperation agreement signed by defense ministers Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha.
The Israeli government sought to block release of the pact to the author, but the post-apartheid South African government ignored its protests. The black-majority government, led by the African National Congress, "is far less concerned with keeping old secrets than with protecting its own accumulated dirty laundry after 15 years in power," Polakow-Suransky notes. Beyond locating the secret papers, he also interviewed South Africans and Israelis who played key roles in forging and promoting the partnership. The result is the best-documented, most thorough, and most credible account ever offered of the secret marriage between the apartheid state and Israel.
(By way of disclosure, let me add that Polakow-Suransky thanks me in his acknowledgements, although he needn't have; I only bought him a cup of coffee and passed on a handful of names and numbers when he approached me about this project some five years ago.)
Polakow-Suransky puts Israel's annual military exports to South Africa between 1974 and 1993 at $600 million, which made South Africa Israel's second or third largest trading partner after the United States and Britain. Military aircraft updates in the mid-1980s alone accounted for some $2 billion, according to correspondence he obtained. He puts the total military trade between the countries at well above $10 billion over the two decades.
Israel reaped big profits, but paid a price in moral standing. By focusing solely on its purported strategic value to the United States, Israel and its supporters have tended to downgrade the country's real case for preserving a special relationship with its staunch ally. Foreign-policy realists argue that the price Washington pays in the Muslim world for its support of Israel far outweighs whatever strategic value the Jewish state provides. The more compelling case has always focused on Israel's character as a robust democracy that shares American values. But the clandestine alliance with South Africa undermined Israel's rightful claim on U.S. admiration and support. After all, if Israel is just another standard-issue country that conducts business with pariah states and lies about it, why should America be concerned about its fate?