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The Alliance that Dared Not Speak Its Name

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Abbas/Magnum Photos
F. W. de Klerk visiting the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, 1991

The discussion the Guardian seized on dealt with the sale of Israeli-made medium-range missiles, given the biblical name of Jericho, capable of carrying nuclear as well as conventional warheads. From Polakow-Suransky’s account, the two sides seemed to be feeling each other out in an exploratory talk, preliminary to any hard bargaining on the details of their cooperation. Israel—shaken by its huge losses of troops and matériel in the first phase of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Washington’s initial hesitation in sending an air armada on a resupply mission—had determined that it would have to get into the production of sophisticated arms on a scale well beyond its own means. It was looking for customers with big pockets who might invest in costly programs like the Jericho. South Africa, shaken by the impending Portugese withdrawal from Angola and Mozambique, was steeling itself for confrontation with liberation movements on its own borders. It had an embryonic nuclear program underway but had not yet committed itself, strategically or financially, to the goal of becoming a nuclear power. Still, it was interested. The weapons would have to come with “the correct payload,” Botha told Peres.

Peres responded like a salesman unpacking his samples kit; in the words of minutes of the meeting on file in the South African National Defense Forces Military Intelligence Archive, he said: “The correct payload was available in three sizes.” There is no corroborating Israeli document on public view and, even if there were, there’s no way to measure Peres’s real intentions at this early stage of the discussions. While it’s possible to imagine Pakistan’s supposedly renegade nuclear huckster A.Q. Khan flashing a similar come-on to Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli, in this case the Israelis’ apparent offer wasn’t put to the test. The South Africans weren’t ready to put up the money. On the basis of the evidence he presents, Polakow-Suransky seems to overstate the case when he refers to it as an “abortive deal.” There was no deal, just a conversation. It’s the difference between conception and a gleam in the eye.

In the context of present-day discussions of proliferation, it’s not exactly irrelevant to mention that a market-hungry Israel then carried its proposal for missile cofinancing to the Shah’s Iran where agreement was struck on a short-lived project code-named “Flower” (a forerunner, it might be suggested, of the reckless maneuvers that came to be known as the Iran-contra scandal, in which Israel and the Reagan administration plotted to reengage revolutionary Iran by selling it arms).

The first South African purchases from Israel, meanwhile, were not reach-for-the-stars stuff but standard military hardware: ammunition, tanks, and tank engines. However, the story doesn’t end there. It continues into the last decade of the apartheid regime. With the fall of the Shah, the Israelis were once again keenly interested in South African partnership on missile technology. Magnus Malan and other high military officials in Pretoria were invited to witness tests of a new, improved Jericho missile over the Mediterranean. By 1984, the two governments reached agreement on coproduction of the Jericho 2, which had three times the range of the original, and on joint testing from the Overberg Test Range on the Cape of Good Hope, where rockets could be fired off into the South Atlantic with less risk of discovery. During this period, Polakow-Suransky tells us, seventy-five Israeli rocket specialists were stationed at the Cape, while more than two hundred South Africans were sent to Israel for training. The tide of expertise was clearly flowing north to south, from Israel to South Africa.

They were able to develop their own military industries by using our know-how and our expertise which we sold sometimes, I thought, too easily,” a former head of the Israeli military mission in Pretoria remarked to the author. “But we did because we were very much in need of this relationship.” This official, once the commanding officer of Israel’s navy, wasn’t referring specifically to know-how on missiles and warheads. But his words may apply there too.

When the administration of the first President Bush eventually asked its ally in Jerusalem whether there had been a transfer of missile technology to South Africa, it got less than a straight response. (The Central Intelligence Agency, we’re told here, strongly suspected it knew the answer, which was why the question was being put.) Israel said merely that it had made a decision after the United States imposed sanctions on South Africa in 1987 to refrain from engaging in any new arms deals with Pretoria. It failed to mention that an agreement on missile cooperation had been signed three years earlier and was still in force. By this point Israeli diplomats and analysts well understood that the writing was on the wall for white rule in South Africa. But Israeli generals and security officials clung to the relationship—and to their access to the test range—to almost the last possible hour.

By the time the missile accord was finally struck in 1984, South Africa had produced its first nuclear device. The idea was never to hurl a warhead into Luanda, Lusaka, or Maputo. It was a card to be played in trying to persuade Western powers not to “abandon” the regime in the face of a Communist “onslaught.” But when the curtain rose for the last act, South Africa’s undeclared nuclear status proved to be less powerful than the political pressure for sanctions brought to bear in the West by the anti-apartheid movement; nor could a nuclear arsenal do anything to slow the breakdown of the racial order increasingly evident in the industrial belt around Johannesburg. The end of the cold war shredded the always feeble argument that the white regime might have some residual value as a strategic partner.

When the relationship first got serious, back in the 1970s, Israel had already been a fully fledged, though unacknowledged, nuclear power for at least six years. South Africa didn’t build its first nuclear device until seven years after the Botha–Peres talks. Could it have progressed that fast without outside guidance and advice? Any answer to that question must be speculative but it’s not a great stretch to imagine that there was some payback for Israel’s access to South Africa’s vast mineral resources and open spaces.

Polakow-Suransky cites several indications that the two countries were continuously engaged on nuclear issues. Shortly after the Botha–Peres meetings South Africa removed restrictions that had been placed on five hundred tons of “yellowcake”—a compound suitable for enriching to weapons-grade uranium—that had been shipped to Israel under a secret agreement that the ore was to be stockpiled and inspected annually in the Negev by the South African Atomic Energy Board. In exchange, Israel shipped South Africa thirty grams of radioactive tritium, a substance, according to the Federation of American Scientists, that’s “essential to the construction of boosted-fission nuclear weapons” (in which tritium and deuterium are heated to the temperature and pressure required for nuclear fusion, making the bomb more powerful).

Finally there was the once-notorious double “flash” over the South Atlantic in 1979, which an American surveillance satellite recorded and instantaneously relayed as a presumptive nuclear test. The Carter administration came down hard on Pretoria, only to back off when further scrutiny of the evidence led to the conclusion that the test was more likely to have been carried out by Israel with the connivance and assistance of South Africa. “Overnight, just like that, the pressure disappeared,” a former South African official recalled in an interview for this book. It was one thing, it seems, to be seen as pushing South Africa on a nuclear issue; quite another to make it an open issue with Israel, whose status as a nuclear power Washington resolutely declined to acknowledge. That could only undercut the official American stand on nonproliferation. Which is where we came in.

The threads of the nuclear relationship that The Unspoken Alliance traces stand out because of the new material its author has dug up, which may be deemed to provide a measure of insight into ongoing and tricky proliferation issues. But those threads represent a relatively small part of the broader narrative Polakow-Suransky stitches together, which aims to set the hidden relationship between two beleaguered states in its full geopolitical and domestic settings. He capably, sometimes breezily, delves into Israeli and South African politics. In his assessment, it’s the Israelis who come off worse on any scale of hypocrisy, especially those who’d indulged in denunciations of apartheid with a “light unto the nations” fervor. Shimon Peres, the wheeler-dealer who served as David Ben-Gurion’s right hand on arms procurement before stepping into the political limelight himself, takes a bigger beating than P.W. Botha for his “customary sanctimony.” In private, he could laud South Africa’s white leaders, telling them that they shared “a common hatred of injustice.” In public, he called apartheid “the ultimate abomination” and “the cruelest inhumanity.” Having ascended to the post of prime minister, he assured the president of Cameroon that “a Jew who accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go together.” The military relationship he had fostered was still in force.

Giving Peres not the slightest benefit of the doubt, Polakow-Suransky doesn’t consider the remote possibility that the public comments may have been sincere; that they may have brought psychic compensation to the speaker for what he’d made himself say and do in private. Golda Meir, who fostered an ambitious program of development and military outreach to newly liberated African states in the 1960s, comes off much better. The author probably romanticizes Israel’s brief honeymoon with the first generation of African leaders when he writes that they “revered” Meir.2 But it seemed a breakout by Israel from isolation and Arab embargoes at the time. When, one by one, the new states shut down Israeli programs they’d previously embraced and broke off ties, the sense of betrayal in Jerusalem made turning on the rebound to Pretoria that much easier. Finally, even Golda Meir bowed to the prevailing view that there was no choice.

Few such qualms were expressed after Menachem Begin led the Likud Party to power in 1977. Many in the party and the Revisionist Zionist movement that gave rise to it were not pretending when they expressed sympathy with the essential values of Afrikaner nationalism: the idea that a people’s claim to a land could be divinely or historically ordained, that “survival” was not something to be put to a vote of all its inhabitants. The analogy between the two situations could be carried too far but there were those on both sides who were willing to do so. Rafael Eitan, a hard-line former chief of the Israel Defense Force, told a student audience in Tel Aviv that blacks in South Africa “want to gain control over the white minority just like Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we, too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.”

When finally Israel was backed into a position of support for international sanctions against South Africa, a body called the Jewish Board of Deputies, the official mouthpiece of the Jewish community there, decried the waning of “the special relationship.” Polakow-Suransky tells the story of that support for the regime as well as the story of Jews, South African and Israeli (including Israelis of South African origin), who were stalwarts against apartheid from the start. One of these, he relates, lavished praise on Nelson Mandela not long after his release from prison, before the majority-rule election that would sweep him into office as president. The former prisoner, this Israeli gushed, was a latter-day Moses who would reach the Promised Land. The normally mellow Mandela replied sharply. “The people of South Africa,” he’s quoted as saying, “will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the apartheid regime.”

That regime sunk from view sixteen years ago. The alliance that dared not speak its name had faded out by then; the warheads had been dismantled; the question of what sort of collaboration went into their production lost its urgency. All water under the bridge, we’re inclined to think, until we’re told that Washington and Jerusalem now have an “understanding” touching on issues of nuclear nonproliferation. Is it clearer now, we may wonder, than it was then? The answer is not apparent, not just in sensitive discussions the United States may occasionally have with Israel on such matters but also with Pakistan and India, not to mention North Korea and Iran. When it comes to ultimate weapons, it seems, there is always a thick shroud of murk.

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    I’ve another quibble that may seem parochial: the columnist C.L. Sulzberger never became executive editor of The New York Times.

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