Israel denies South African nuclear weapons agreement
The Guardian news website, citing the work of an American academic, has reported that declassified South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to the apartheid regime in 1975. The office of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was defense minister at the time of the alleged agreement, has vehemently denied the claims.
"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," the president's office 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," said the statement. "Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa."
Israel maintains a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” neither acknowledging nor denying that it has nuclear weapons.
Although the Guardian provides documentary “proof” of attempted nuclear collaboration, which shows the signatures of then South African defense minister alongside his Israeli counterpart, the Israeli statement declares: "There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place."
The documents, uncovered by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor with the Council of Foreign Relations, are being hailed in some political quarters as solid proof that Israel has a nuclear stockpile.
“The South African documents show that the apartheid-era military wanted the missiles as a deterrent and for potential strikes against neighboring states,” The Guardian said.
The documents seem to prove that both sides met on March 31, 1975, Polakow-Suransky writes in his book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's secret alliance with apartheid South Africa. In minutes purportedly taken during the meeting, the Israelis "formally offered to sell South Africa some of the nuclear-capable Jericho missiles in its arsenal."
Among those in attendance was the South African military chief of staff, Lieutenant General R.F. Armstrong, who laid out the benefits of South Africa obtaining the Jericho missiles, but only under the condition they were fitted with nuclear weapons.
According to the Guardian report, the alleged nuclear deal failed to materialize, partly because of the cost.
But this is not the first time that rumors of nuclear co-operation between South Africa and Israel have been kicked around in the media.
Back in 1990, the US television network CBS reported on a suspected nuclear test carried out by the two countries after an American satellite detected a mysterious flash over the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the US academic and aspiring author, whose book hits the newsstands this week, claims that Israel attempted to prevent the secret documents from being declassified.
"The Israeli Defense Ministry tried to block my access…on the grounds it was sensitive material, especially the signature and the date," Polakow-Suransky said. "The South Africans didn't seem to care; they blacked out a few lines and handed it over to me. The ANC government is not so worried about protecting the dirty laundry of the apartheid regime's old allies."
Will Israel “come clean”?
Given the level of global interest in the nuclear weapons issue, instigated by Iran’s nuclear program, as well as US President Barack Obama’s commitment to a “nuclear-free world,” more pressure is being placed on Israel to officially disclose its nuclear stance. But before the recent revelations hit the newsstands, Israel’s defense minister was staunchly defending the country’s policy of nuclear ambiguity.
"I do not think there is a real or significant danger to Israel's traditional stance of nuclear ambiguity," Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on May 10th. He then alluded to Iran, and America’s commitment to preventing Israel’s long-term nemesis from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"The [US] administration is steadfast in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," he said. "They are much more active."
Yet Barak failed to mention that Israel’s commitment to nuclear ambiguity places the United States in an awkward position when it comes to lecturing Iran, and other “rogue states”, on the hazards of obtaining such weapons.
Ironically, Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons arsenal (which experts have estimated to be in the neighborhood of 200-400 warheads) was placed in a questionable position by America’s recently revised nuclear policy.
Israel (and America’s) awkward position
In April, the administration of US President Barack Obama released a revised nuclear policy, called the Nuclear Posture Review, which precludes the use of nuclear weapons “against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.”
This new qualification, intended to get more countries on board the document, had the added effect of placing Israel – which is not a signatory to the NPT – in the high beams. Since it is nearly universally accepted that Israel has nuclear weapons, Washington’s updated nuclear policy places it squarely in the company of India, Pakistan and North Korea – countries that have tested positive for nuclear weapons yet have not signed on to the document.
Iran, it should be noted, is a signatory of the NPT, but was found in violation of the document’s safeguards agreement.
The Obama administration, eager to close the controversy over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program (which continues to hamper the Middle East peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians), would like to see Israel “come clean” on its nuclear weapons, if only to remove charges of hypocrisy from Tehran and enhance Washington’s ability to resolve the dangerous stand-off by cool diplomacy.
“So far, none of the non-nuclear weapon states has ever been able to exercise their inalienable and legal right to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy without facing pressure and threat at some level,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech at the United Nations on May 3rd.
The Iranian leader, unmoved by UN delegates exiting the hall as he spoke, went on to chastise the “Zionist regime,” which he says “stockpiles hundreds of nuclear warheads…with US assistance.”
Although nothing is really predictable when it comes to the Iranian regime, it is possible to imagine that by Israel coming out of the closet on its nuclear weapons program, as well as becoming a signatory to the NPT, would be the first crucial step in easing tensions between Israel, Iran and the United States.
Meanwhile, in other nuclear news, an Israeli nuclear whistleblower who spent 18 years in prison for providing evidence that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, is heading back to jail.
Mordechai Vanunu was taken into custody Sunday for violating the conditions of his 2004 release, which includes not “leaving the country and meeting foreigners.”
Vanunu’s lawyer told reporters that his client has a Norwegian girlfriend. Israel prison officials say he is to serve three months behind bars.
Before being led away he shouted, "You didn't get anything from me in 18 years; you won't get anything in 3 months. Shame on you, Israel!”
Vanunu was a technician at a nuclear plant who leaked details and pictures of the facility to the Sunday Times of London in 1986. On the basis of this material, foreign experts concluded that Israel had a formidable nuclear arsenal.
Israeli intelligence agents kidnapped Vanunu in Rome and brought him back to Israel, where he was sentenced in a closed-door trial.
Regarded by peace activists as a hero for taking a stand against weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation, Vanunu has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on various occasions.