Israel,  Media

Interview with Sasha Polakow-Suransky, source for the Guardian report on Israel and South Africa

This is a cross-post from Just Journalism

Interview with Sasha Polakow-Suransky, source for Guardian report on Israel and South Africa

The Guardian’s front-page story, ‘Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons’, by Chris McGreal, was triggered by uncovered documents revealed in ‘The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa’,a newly published book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor at the New York-based Foreign Affairs magazine. In his book, Polakow-Suransky claims that the extent to which Israel traded with apartheid South Africa was much greater than had previously been assumed. Drawing on declassified documents from the South African archives, he argues that in 1975, Israeli defence minister Shimon Peres ‘formally offered to sell South Africa some of the nuclear-capable Jericho missiles in its arsenal’ via Peres’ counterpart in Johannesburg, P.W. Botha. The supposed codename of this project was ‘Chalet’.

Peres, now president of Israel, has vigorously denied these allegations, saying that they have ‘no basis in reality.’ Additionally, historian Avner Cohen, author of ‘Israel and the Bomb’, has responded to The Guardian story saying that the ‘headline, sub-headline, and lede of Chris McGreal’s story are erroneous and misleading’ because the documents uncovered by Mr Polakow-Suransky only show that South Africa was probing Israel about the purchase of nuclear weapons, and that the probe ultimately went nowhere. Cohen writes, in a letter posted on The Guardian’s website, that any such sale would have to have been authorized by Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and ‘I believe that both Rabin and Shalheveth Freier, the head of the nuclear program, would have opposed the sale of nuclear weapons, technology, or even components — not just to South Africa, but to anyone. And note that this was 1975, when nonproliferation norms had yet to take shape fully.’ [Cohen gave a similar argument in this Independent article.] Polakow-Suransky has elsewhere been asked about the validity of the inferences he’s drawn from the 35-year-old documents.

Following Just Journalism’s analysis of The Guardian’s editorial framing of the McGreal article, our executive director Michael Weiss spoke to Sasha Polakow-Suransky to address The Guardian’s coverage, as well as his own view about the moral and ideological analogies between the Jewish state and apartheid South Africa.

Michael Weiss: What do you think of The Guardian’s coverage of your book, as well as its editorial framing of the story?

Sasha Polakow-Suransky: I don’t think this is the most explosive or damning revelation in my book, to be frank. I wouldn’t have picked this for the front-page of a major world newspaper. There are other historical occurrences that I found to be more revealing and interesting. For instance, the ongoing missile cooperation on a latter-day version of [the ‘Chalet’ missile project] in the late 1980s, when dozens of Israelis were in South Africa helping to build the nuclear arsenal. They were working on a Jericho-based missile system and the Israelis were providing all of the rocketry expertise. Another big story, which I discuss in the book, was the Israeli purchase of South African uranium with all the safeguards lifted.

MW: In The Unspoken Alliance, you write that the turning point for Israel’s willingness to ally with rogue regimes was the Six-Day War [in 1967] and Israel’s increased alienation on the world stage. Arab oil wealth was used to pressure other African nations to sever their ties with Israel, France stopped arming it, the USSR turned against it, and the only real ally left was the United States. There was also the rise of a right-wing faction in Israel, you argue, that mistook the struggle against the African National Congress as tantamount to the struggle against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Yet despite these forbidding circumstances, you still write that men like Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres ‘saw Israeli security as paramount and they were willing to make moral compromises in order to ensure it. It was precisely this worldview that would drive the alliance with South Africa.’ ‘Moral compromises’ suggests that they knew better and felt queasy about their dealings with a racist state. Is that accurate ?

SPS: I think that quote encapsulates it, yes.

I believe that there are several different types of categories of Israeli government officials throughout this period. This is a crude division but, I think, a revealing one. Basically, I’d put in the first group Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion and Abba Eban – the founding fathers and mothers of the nation who were not just queasy but outright opposed and viciously critical of apartheid. These people spoke out against it, they allied with black African states. They represented the moral vision of Israeli policy.

Then you have the second category: the Labour party category, which consisted of staunch realists. Shimon Peres has had a technocratic vision to secure the state no matter what. Security was his top priority. This new breed of Labour politicians were willing to make moral compromises that the previous generation wasn’t willing to make. It was strict realpolitik. Look at the country in the wake of the Second World War. The arms industry was a bright spot of the global economy. South African needed weapons. So Israel and South Africa got in bed together.

I’m harsh toward Peres in my book because of his sanctimony. He blended the rhetoric of the first group with an incredibly shameless support and engagement with South Africa behind the scenes. Peres comes across as a sanctimonious hypocrite.

[Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin made a few statements when [South African prime minister John] Vorster visited Israel in 1976. Moshe Dayan never quite went as public. They generally denounced apartheid and supported the alliance behind the scenes.

Finally, there’s a third group. These are the Israelis who came up in the Revisionist Zionist tradition, high level security types that included Ariel Sharon, Raful Eitan, Eliayahu Lenkin.. All of them made pretty blunt statements of support for South Africa on anti-Communist grounds, on the grounds that ‘one man, one vote’ would be the end of the white South Africans. They didn’t have many reservations expressing support on those grounds.

So yes, I think it’s fair to say that in certain circles there was an ideological affinity. The correspondence between leading Israelis and their South African counterparts during this period bears this out. Sharon and Eitan were writing letters to their counterparts and saying we face a common threat and common enemy. The PLO and the ANC are one and the same. There was a real sense of a common lot and a common purpose.

A pure realist explanation that one would be encouraged to give to this relationship doesn’t quite cover it. What I do in the book is to try and trace the element on the Israeli right and the military establishment — strains of the Revisionist movement and people who went beyond Vladimir Jabotinsky — that has a lot in common with the basic tenets of Afrikaner nationalist thought.

Of course, there were latter-day Golda Meirs who fought against this alliance in the late 1980’s and tried to revive the old Labour tradition, like Yossi Beilin.

Anyone who reads the book carefully should see that these typologies exist.

MW: Gary Younge in his comment piece uses your book and The Guardian expose to indict critics of Richard Goldstone who have pointed out that as a judge in apartheid South Africa he was responsible for ordering the death sentences of several black men. Is this a non sequitur or do you see your book as having any bearing on the Goldstone Report or the chorus of commentary that has arisen from it?

SPS: Actually, I made that argument myself originally in [US magazine] Foreign Policy and then in the Huffington Post. The Goldstone Report has many flaws but it can be attacked on its own merits without resorting to character assassination, so once I saw what was coming from [current Israeli speaker of the Knesset] Reuven Rivlin and [current Israeli deputy foreign affairs minister] Danny Yaalon about Goldstone’s past, I was inclined to remind them of Israel’s own. You have to also keep in mind Goldstone’s involvement in the transitional period and that he was appointed to the Constitutional court by Nelson Mandela. If you’re to do any kind of moral accounting, Israel comes out worse. I see these attacks on Goldstone’s record as a distraction. Focus on the report.

MW: There are many in the UK who’d argue that Israel is in effect running an apartheid state at present. What makes you disagree with this assessment? You disclaim the analogy in the introduction to The Unspoken Alliance.

SPS: The tipping point for me is a minority governing over a majority. That’s the core definition of political apartheid. The little apartheid, or the petty apartheid — separate benches, beaches and so on — is not as important. It is offensive but not as distasteful and unjust as a minority governing over a disenfranchised majority. That is what Israel should be afraid of. I’m viciously critical of the response to Jimmy Carter’s book [‘Palestine: Peace not apartheid’, published in 2006] in the epilogue to mine. While I’m no fan of the book, the reaction was a revival of all of the 1980’s denialism that surrounded the relationship between Israel and South Africa. Rather than substantively engaging the apartheid analogy crowd, they just started crying anti-Semitism.

There are people who’ll look at this book and use it for that agenda. I knew that would happen all along. I’m very careful with how I present the information, and I think that the argument stands on its own merits. Anyone who wants to make an ‘Israel is an apartheid state today’ argument is going to have a hard time citing my work. I endorse the two state solution and argue that, while Israel may one day become analogous to South Africa, it isn’t yet.