Book Review – The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow-Suransky
The charge centres on some ambiguous statements in a minute of a meeting between the two countries’ top defence officials on 31 March 1975. Sasha Polakow-Suransky argues that it is their very ambiguity which indicates that something fishy was going on. This is backed up by a memo from the South African Defence Force’s chief of staff, of exactly the same date, ‘enthusiastically’ welcoming the prospect of South Africa’s acquiring nuclear weapons. At the very least this seems to show that the South Africans believed Israel was offering them the bomb. In the end the ‘offer’ came to nothing: P.W. Botha thought it would be too expensive. But there are further indications of nuclear weapons co-operation between the two countries later: some tritium that Israel supplied to South Africa in 1977-78; a ‘double flash’ over the South Atlantic in September 1979, which is apparently the tell-tale signature of a nuclear explosion, and if so was most likely to have been an Israeli test launched from near the South African coast; secret exchange visits by nuclear scientists; and so on. And one way or another South Africa did eventually acquire nuclear warheads. All this is, I agree, suspicious, though I’m not an expert. Nor do I feel I can necessarily trust Israeli denials in this area. We have known for some time that Israel consistently dissembled, in the 1970s and 1980s, about its wider alliance with South Africa: this is the far more interesting puzzle that Polakow-Suransky’s well-researched, readable and (I think) balanced book sets out to unravel.