The mysterious, nuclear-type flash over the Southern Hemisphere last Sept. 22 is back in the news. Although unproved and vigorously denied by both countries, the Feb. 21 CBS News report of a joint Israeli-South African nuclear bomb test over the South Atlantic had US defense analysts pondering possible repercussions in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Before the 1979 Camp David peace accords, spokesmen for Egypt, Syria, and Iraq all were quoted as saying that a confirmed Israeli nuclear explosion would push them to seek an Arab nuclear capability, if not into war.
According to some reports, Pakistan, with uranium and money from Libya, is close to developing what its late prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one called an "Islamic bomb."
Strictly interpreted, a clandestine Israeli-South African nuclear explosion could be used as a reason for the United States to curtail military aid to those two countries. South Africa gets little or none, but Israel is totaly dependent on American help. The so-caled Symington amendment, a central part of President Carter's nuclear nonproliferation policies, could require an aid cutoff, since both countries have some nuclear facilities that are not opent to international inspection and safeguards in the way specified by that law.
Future confirmation of the Sept. 22 explosion might place the Carter administration -- now devising ways to waive US law under which aid to Pakistan was cut in April 1979 and under which nuclear fuel deliveries to India's Tarapur reactor have been held up -- before a difficult election-year dilemma.
Israel's supporters in the US exert great influence in an American presidential election year. Arab-American groups and others argue, correctly or not, that someone on the White House staff may have covered up evidence about the Sept. 22 explosion. This evidence was to have been summarized in a still-unpublished report by independent US scientists, working under the auspices of Dr. Frank Press, the President's science adviser.
Official US policy, said one administration spokesman, is to take note of the Israel and South African denials and to say "we don't know" what caused the triple, nuclear-type flash recorded by a US Vela satellite Sept. 22. (A New Zealand nuclear institute first reported picking up confirming radioactive fallout in rain water, then said it was mistaken because the samples were "contaminated" in the laboratory.)
Analysts in several US executive departments and in Congress, always asking that their names be withheld, react more or less this way: The Vela satellit has never been wrong before. There was a nuclear explosion, probably on a balloon sent up from a boat. South Africa and Israel are the most likely candidates, but Argentina, Japan, and Pakistan are among the possibilities, too.
South Africa, according to a visiting scholar from that country, "has clamped a tight lid on all public information about its nuclear program" and on exchanges with Israeli nuclear experts. "The news media can carry only foreign reports," this scholar says -- the same situation that prevails in Israel.
CBS's dispatch from reporter Dan Raviv, who filed it from Rome, said his information on the test came from a still-unpublished Hebrew-language book manuscript by Israeli journalists Eli Teicher and Ami Dor-On. They had submitted thier manuscript to the Israeli censor, as required, before publication, but the result of the censor's review was unknown, Mr. Raviv said.
CBS said Israel has several dozen nuclear weapons and several hydrogen bombs. Israel neither sought nor received US nuclear help, CBS added. Israel's closest nuclear partner, it went on, is South Africa. (However, Israel's top-secret Dimona reactor was originally completed in the late 1950s with French help). The Teicher-Dor-On manuscript, said CBS, mentioned a mid-1950s accord under which South Africa provided Israel with uranium in return for nuclear expertise.
Another Israeli journalistic team published a "fictionalized" account (which they afterward said was factual) of the delivery of a 200-ton shipment of uranium ore in 1968 aboard the Liberian-registered freighter Scheersburg. They said the uranium reached Israel while the ship had temporarily vanished from the high seas, emerging later with a new name and crew.
Another 206 pounds of uranium, this time highly enriched, disappeared in the early 1960s from a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania.
Aside from current denials, Israel's official stand, first announced by Premier Levi Eshkol in 1966, is that it "will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East."
In 1972, an Egyptian Cabinet minister told this reporter there was solid evidence of Israel's nuclear capability, but that Egypt "could not afford" to duplicate it. The New York Times reported in December, 1974, that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had told Iranian publisher Farhad Massoudi that Israel already had nuclear weapons.
In March 1976, the Times reported a US Central Intelligence Agency briefing in which Israel was said to have 10 to 20 operational bombs. Twice during the same month, Moshe Dayan, who then held no Israeli government post, publicly called for developing nuclear weapons because Israel could not hope to match Arab conventional arms and because US leadership was weak.