How the Israel lobby defended Israel’s military ties to apartheid South Africa

In a review of Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s new book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Glenn Frankel describes how spokesmen for American Jewish organizations acted as apologists or dupes for Israel’s arms sales to the apartheid state.

In the early days of the arms supply pact, Israel could argue that many Western countries, including the United States, had similar surreptitious relationships with the apartheid regime. But by 1980 Israel was the last major violator of the arms embargo. It stuck with South Africa throughout the 1980s when the regime clung to power in the face of international condemnation and intense rounds of political unrest in the black townships.

By 1987 the apartheid regime was struggling to cope with the combination of internal unrest and international condemnation to the point where even Israel was forced to take notice. A key motivator was Section 508, an amendment to the anti-apartheid sanctions bill that passed the U.S. Congress in 1986 and survived President Ronald Reagan’s veto. It required the State Department to produce an annual report on countries violating the arms embargo. The first one, issued in April 1987, reported that Israel had violated the international ban on arm sales “on a regular basis.” The report gave South Africa’s opponents within the Israeli government and their American Jewish allies ammunition to force Israel to adapt a mild set of sanctions against South Africa. I was in Jerusalem when Israel admitted publicly for the first time that it had significant military ties with South Africa and pledged not to enter into any new agreements — which meant, of course, that existing agreements would be maintained. It was, writes Polakow-Suransky, “little more than a cosmetic gesture.”

From the start, spokesmen for American Jewish organizations acted as apologists or dupes for Israel’s arms sales. Moshe Decter, a respected director of research for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in the New York Times in 1976 that Israel’s arms trade with South Africa was “dwarfed into insignificance” compared to that of other countries and said that to claim otherwise was “rank cynicism, rampant hypocrisy and anti-Semitic prejudice.” In a March 1986 debate televised on PBS, Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader of the Reform Jewish movement and outspoken opponent of apartheid, claimed Israeli involvement with South Africa was negligible. He conceded that there may have been arms sales during the rightist Likud years in power from 1977 to 1984, but stated that under Shimon Peres, who served as prime minister between 1984 and 1986, “there have been no new arms sales.” In fact, some of the biggest military contracts and cooperative ventures were signed during Peres’s watch.

The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged “fact-finder” named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States — a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as “totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American.” (In fairness, the ADL later changed its tune. After his release in 1990, Mandela met in Geneva with a number of American Jewish leaders, including ADL president Abe Foxman, who emerged to call the ANC leader “a great hero of freedom.”)

Polakow-Suransky is no knee-jerk critic of Israel, and he tells his story more in sorrow than anger. He grants that the secret alliance had its uses. To the extent it enhanced Israel’s security and comfort zone, it may have helped pave the path to peace efforts. Elazar Granot, a certified dove who is a former left-wing Knesset member and ambassador to the new South Africa, says as much. “I had to take into consideration that maybe Rabin and Peres were able to go to the Oslo agreements because they believed that Israel was strong enough to defend itself,” he tells the author. “Most of the work that was done — I’m talking about the new kinds of weapons — was done in South Africa.”

Polakow-Suransky sees in the excoriation of Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by American Jewish leaders an echo of their reflexive defense of Israel vis á vis South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The author himself draws uncomfortable parallels between apartheid and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, noting that both involved the creation of a system that stifled freedom of movement and labor, denied citizenship and produced homelessness, separation, and disenfranchisement. As the Palestinian population continues to grow and eventually becomes the majority — and Jews the minority — in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the parallels with apartheid may become increasingly uncomfortable. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed, observing in 2007 that if Israel failed to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, it would inevitably “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights.”

“The apartheid analogy may be inexact today,” Polakow-Suransky warns, “but it won’t be forever.”

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