A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Report Claims Israel Offered South Africa Nukes in 1975

There's a lot of attention being paid today to a report in Britain's The Guardian concerning a forthcoming book that claims to reveal documents showing that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa in 1975. It's being portrayed as an open admission of Israel's nuclear capability, and of a willingness to proliferate. The original Guardian story can be found here.

Israel, not surprisingly, is denying the story, and indeed there's an ambiguity in the document quoted, which refers to Israel offering to sell Jericho missiles to South Africa with the "correct payload," the latter presumably a euphemism for the nuclear warhead for which the missile was designed, but of course, it doesn't quite say it, leaving some deniability. The Israeli reply and denials are here.

Nuclear and other cooperation between Israel and South Africa was often rumored in the 1970s and 1980s. There is some evidence of cooperation in aircraft development, artillery, and missiles, to cite several examples where South African and Israeli products seem derived from each other. Nuclear cooperation was also rumored in the development of South Africa's bomb. At the time it abandoned its program, it had built six weapons and was working on a seventh, though it had cancelled a possible test under international publicity.

Mystery still surrounds the so-called Vela incident of 1979 in which a Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in the sea south of South Africa. The incident is still debated but many have suspected it was a joint Israeli-South African test, possibly of a tactical nuclear shell from a South African warship.

Israel's continuing policy of ambiguity in admitting its nuclear arsenal, and the obvious explosiveness of revelations concerning its dealings with South Africa in the apartheid era, mean we may never get the full story, but this latest story is likely to bring some of the other stories to the surface again. And I guess I just helped in that.

No comments: