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?

By , Middle East editor

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    A participant listens during an Iran war game near Tel Aviv, May 16. Israel has remained quiet on its nuclear capability.
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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.

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.

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“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.”

“Peres was talking about three sizes – and the size can also be interpreted as the range of the missile – and indeed... in a separate document, Israel was offering South Africa to participate in extending the range of the Jericho missiles from 500 km to 4,000 and even 6,000 km," he added.

The Guardian's interpretation

Mr. Polakow-Suransky and the Guardian argue that while there is no smoking gun – no memo signed by an Israeli official that admits or implies the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons – the sequence of meetings and memos results in only one possible conclusion: that the sole reason South Africa was seeking Jericho missiles was so they could fit them with nuclear warheads. And that's what South Africans thought was being offered, says Polakow-Suransky in an interview with Al Jazeera TV today.

Critical to the interpretation of the documents is one South African memo labeled “Top Secret” that was declassified years ago, in which a Lt. Gen. – who had attended a meeting by Peres and Botha earlier in the day – analyzed the Jericho missiles offered by Israel.

The merits of the deal meant that “certain assumptions have been made,” among them “that the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in the RSA [Republic of South Africa] or acquired elsewhere.” The document goes on to describe the “need for a nuclear deterrent.”

The Guardian suggests that the “three sizes” later referred to by Peres “are believed to refer to conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons,” though that is not specified in the documents. South African notes of the meeting say that the “correct payload was available in three sizes.” But the following paragraph notes different missile ranges that might apply to long-range Jericho missiles of 3,000 km or 6,000 km – and makes no comment about any warheads.

Such a nuclear deal never happened, wrote Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, who went farther than Melman in comments posted in a Guardian blog today:

... there is no proof whatsoever that Israel ultimately officially OFFERED those weapons to SA. In fact, I know that Israel did not: Israel neither offered and passed along nuclear weapons (and materials) nor weapons designs to the South Africans. Whatever the SA discussed among themselves in memos, and regardless of what Minister Peres told them, Prime Minister Rabin and the people in charge of the Israeli nuclear program (Mr. Shaleheveth Freier) were never willing to pass along weapons components and/or designs to the SA. Nothing like that ever formally offered to SA, regardless of Peres' reference to the "correct warhead." At the end of the day South Africa did not ask and Israel did not offer the "correct payloads." Israel did behave as a responsible nuclear state.

Indeed, that is the question: Did Israel behave as a responsible nuclear state?

The publication of the documents, coming during the final week of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, is ill-timed for Israel. Even as it has sought to take a backseat to a Western push for UN sanctions against Iran, Israel has been heavily criticized during the month-long conference as hypocritical – asking Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program when it has refused to do so about its own for years.

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