Unholy alliance: Israel, apartheid South Africa and nukes

“We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism [Nazism],” John Vorster said in 1942. But when the South African Prime Minister visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel on April 9, 1976, he laid a wreath and said a prayer in Afrikaans in memory of Nazi victims. It was an anomalous situation for the state of Israel, founded on socialist and communitarian values, and as refuge for victims of racial oppression, to have welcomed this top-level proponent of apartheid racism.

A rationale became clear earlier this month with the publication on May 25 of Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s book “Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.”

Chris McGreal, reporting for the UK Guardian, surveyed revelations in the book, written by a U.S. scholar and child of anti-apartheid South African exiles. Polakow-Suransky based his conclusions on interviews and on perusal of 700 declassified documents, released by the current South African government.

According to McGreal, the once secret papers provide “the first official documentary evidence of the [Israeli] state’s possession of nuclear weapons.”

The revelations came about just as United Nations discussions were beginning on nuclear non-proliferation, with a special focus on the Middle East. Israeli spokespersons have denied charges of Israeli nuclear cooperation with apartheid South Africa.

In his book’s preface, Polakow-Suransky provides an explanation for rapprochement, coming about after years of Israeli support for liberation struggles in Africa. “Material interests gave birth to an alliance that greatly benefited the Israeli economy and enhanced the security of South Africa’s white minority regime,” he writes. Ideology was operating too, he contends. Both the Israeli and apartheid state projected a racist image of a minority people “under siege.”

Israel was looking primarily for a reliable source of yellow cake uranium and, less crucially, for military weapons buyers. South African military leaders, seeking to develop missile capabilities, specifically with nuclear warheads, needed hardware and technical expertise.

South Africa’s offer to buy nuclear armed missiles from Israel, and Israeli officials’ willingness to sell, never resulted in actual transfer of nuclear material. Polakow-Suransky speculates that the South Africans had hopes of adapting their own nuclear weaponry to missile use, thereby saving money.

The main point, however, is that bilateral approval was secured for the deal, and it could have been consummated.

Interviewed by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” the author discussed key documents. One describes Israeli and South African defense officials agreeing March 31, 1975, on the transfer of nuclear-armed Jericho missiles to South Africa. A document from later that day has one of South African military participants in the talks extolling to superiors the security benefits of nuclear armed missiles headed presumably to South Africa. Polakow-Suransky referred to another document from a few days later, the only one with signatures, demonstrating that the two countries’ defense ministers, Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha, had agreed on secrecy. Lastly, documents are presented showing South Africa interested in Israeli missiles, only if they were nuclear equipped.

Delving below the “tip of the iceberg,” Polakow-Suransky told Goodman,  “Throughout the late ’70s and the mid-1980s, these two countries were cooperating in South Africa on building missile technology that the South Africans intended to use for a second generation of their nuclear weapons.”

Another important revelation had to do with yellow cake uranium, which South African had supplied Israel since 1961. The two nations had agreed that South Africa was providing the material exclusively for domestic use. In 1976, South Africa Prime Minister Vorster instructed Minister of Mines Fanie Botha “to release the safeguards on the uranium,” freeing it up for nuclear weapons use.

Polakow-Suransky read from an interview with the now elderly Botha: “I didn’t sell it to them. I didn’t give it to them. But when I became minister, they had it. They couldn’t use it unless South Africa lifted them, the safeguards, so that’s what I did.”

Israel’s role as arms supplier to apartheid South Africa played out as the nation was becoming, as of three years ago, the world’s fourth largest arms purveyor, accounting for 10 percent of all arms exports.

From the 1960s on, weaponry buyers included notable human rights abusers, including the Pinochet and Somoza regimes in Chile and Nicaragua, along with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Oil – rich Angola and Nigeria are Israel’s top African arms buyers now, with Kenya, worried about Somalia, getting in line this year.



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.