Did Israel offer to sell South Africa nuclear weapons?
Israel has long kept silent on its nuclear weapons capability. But The Guardian newspaper reported today that it had written proof of an Israel nuclear program as early as 1975. Or does it?
In an apparent blow to Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” the Guardian newspaper in Britain today asserted that it had the first written proof of a robust Israeli nuclear weapons program that the country has never formally admitted to.Skip to next paragraph
Relying on South African documents released to American academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky, whose book "The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa" is coming out tomorrow, the Guardian said that Israel had offered nuclear weapons of three different sizes to apartheid South Africa in 1975.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who in 1975 was defense minister and whose signature is apparently on an agreement to keep defense dealings with South Africa secret, rejected the claim on Monday. Israel was supplied non-nuclear armaments to South Africa at the time.
“There exists no basis in reality for the claims published this morning by The Guardian that in 1975 Israel negotiated with South Africa the exchange of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Peres said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Guardian elected to write its piece based on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts.”
The pledge of secrecy document is separate from the minutes of meetings in which South African officials believed they were being offered nuclear weapons by Israel. Polakow-Suransky says Peres's signature is not on any of those minutes.
Israel's alliance with South Africa
Israel has long been thought to have helped South Africa’s nuclear weapons program – which ultimately built six nuclear weapons that were later dismantled. These documents do not indicate that any transfer of nuclear technology took place, and mostly focus on the sale of Israel’s Jericho missiles.
Israel often said it would not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. But in 1986, Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu revealed the existence of Israel's nuclear program, providing photos to the Sunday Times of London that enabled analysts to estimate that Israel had some 180 to 200 nuclear warheads.
Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel formed an alliance with apartheid South Africa, which also felt threatened by a hostile indigenous population.
In one late 1974 “Top Secret” thank-you note to South Africa’s Secretary for Information, Mr. Peres – then Israeli defense minister – spoke of a relationship based on the “determination to resist equally our enemies,” and also the “unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”
No proof Israel offered nuclear weapons
Cooperating with South Africa's defense establishment was a "shameful" part of Israel's history, said Yossi Melman, intelligence correspondent for Israel's center-left Haaretz newspaper, in an interview with Al Jazeera English today. But while Israel received uranium from South Africa in exchange for materials such as Tritium, he added, there is no proof that Israel ever offered – much less provided – nuclear weapons.
"Israel offered to sell and develop South Africa with Jericho ground-to-ground missiles," Mr. Melman told the TV station. "But there is no evidence – it’s only an interpretation by the author and the Guardian … that Israel also offered nuclear warheads for South Africa, and there is no evidence for that.”