Israel’s president is denying a blockbuster report in the Guardian, which says that not only has Israel been a nuclear power for a long, long time (not a revelation since most people know it) but during the 1970s, he, Shimon Peres, offered to sell nuclear weapons technology to the Apartheid regime in South Africa. From the Guardian:
Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state’s possession of nuclear weapons.
The “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa‘s defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”. The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret.
The documents, uncovered by an American academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in research for a book on the close relationship between the two countries, provide evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of “ambiguity” in neither confirming nor denying their existence.
The Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa’s post-apartheid government declassifying the documents at Polakow-Suransky’s request and the revelations will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week’s nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East.
They will also undermine Israel’s attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a “responsible” power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted.
A spokeswoman for Peres today said the report was baseless and there were “never any negotiations” between the two countries. She did not comment on the authenticity of the documents.
South African documents show that the apartheid-era military wanted the missiles as a deterrent and for potential strikes against neighbouring states.
… South Africa eventually built its own nuclear bombs, albeit possibly with Israeli assistance. But the collaboration on military technology only grew over the following years. South Africa also provided much of the yellowcake uranium that Israel required to develop its weapons.
Related: Israel and Apartheid, a marriage of convenience. A clip:
For years after its birth, Israel was publicly critical of apartheid and sought to build alliances with the newly independent African states through the 1960s.
But after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, African governments increasingly came to look on the Jewish state as another colonialist power. The government in Jerusalem cast around for new allies and found one in Pretoria. For a start, South Africa was already providing the yellowcake essential for building a nuclear weapon.
By 1976, the relationship had changed so profoundly that South Africa’s prime minister, John Vorster, could not only make a visit to Jerusalem but accompany Israel’s two most important leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, to the city’s Holocaust memorial to mourn the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Neither Israeli appears to have been disturbed by the fact that Vorster had been an open supporter of Hitler, a member of South Africa’s fascist and violently antisemitic Ossewabrandwag and that he was interned during the war as a Nazi sympathiser.
Rabin hailed Vorster as a force for freedom and at a banquet toasted “the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence”.
A few months later, the South African government’s yearbook described the two countries having one thing in common above all else: “They are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, leaders of the Black South African freedom movement have long hinted, or stated on the record, that they see Israel as a practitioner of Apartheid against its Palestinian citizens. Surely, people like Desmond Tutu also knew that their oppressors in South Africa were cooperating with the Jewish state. There’s even a current cultural and academic boycott against Israel by a group called the US ACBI Campaign, that has attracted international attention, and which may have led Elvis Costello to cancel a planned appearance in Israel (echoes of what was done to South Africa in the 1990s, when a group called Artists United Against Apartheid (led by Little Steven and Bruce Springsteen) supported the international sports, entertainment and trade boycott of South Africa, vowing they “ain’t gonna play Sun City.” During that time period, Costello also recorded one of the seminal anti-Apartheid songs, “Free Nelson Mandela,” with the group Special AKA )
Palestinians have instituted their own boycott of products made in the occupied West Bank.
And of course, there’s Peter Beinart’s really surprising, but authentic, criticism of Israel’s present government, and how it’s separating Israel from its supporters in the U.S. by the way it treats Palestinians.
Are the two cases the same? Not exactly, but Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and the international community’s apparent impotence to impose a solution on both stubborn parties, is disturbing enough without bringing back old associations with South Africa, especially at the same time Israel is seeking the world’s help taming Iran’s nuclear ambitions — in part on the basis that they might sell them to others.
Also related: how do you define a responsible nuclear power?
UPDATE: Israeli journalist Yossi Melman reacts to the Guardian report: