Israel described as baseless on Monday reported findings in a new book that it offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa in 1975, Reuters reports.
Britain's Guardian newspaper said documents uncovered by a U.S. academic in research for a book on Israel's ties with South Africa's then-white minority government, provided the first official documentary evidence the Jewish state has nuclear arms.
The Guardian said documents declassified by South Africa's post-apartheid government at the request of the academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, included top-secret minutes of meetings between senior officials of the two countries in 1975.
Those papers, the newspaper said, showed that South Africa's defense minister at the time, P.W. Botha, asked for nuclear warheads and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, now Israel's president, offered them in "three sizes."
In an official response to the report, a statement from Peres's office said: "Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa. There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place."
It said there was "no basis in reality for the claims" published in the Guardian and the newspaper's conclusions were "based on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts."
According to the Guardian report, the alleged nuclear deal did not go ahead, partly because of the cost.
Speculation about Israeli-South African nuclear cooperation was raised in 1979 when a U.S. satellite detected a mysterious flash over the Indian Ocean.The U.S. television network CBS reported it was a nuclear test carried out by the two countries. But the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in a document written in 1980 and released in 2004, said the United States could not determine "with certainty the nature and origin of the event." South Africa completed its first workable nuclear device in 1979. It eventually had six nuclear devices, which were dismantled by June 1991.
The report in The Guardian is connected to an offer that Peres apparently made to South Africa concerning the sale of ballistic Jericho missiles (see picture). This is what Polakow-Suransky wrote earlier in Foreign Policy (quoted on this blog):
'The Israel-South Africa alliance began in earnest in April 1975 when then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres signed a secret security pact with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha. Within months, the two countries were doing a brisk trade, closing arms deals totaling almost $200 million; Peres even offered to sell Pretoria nuclear-capable Jericho missiles. By 1979, South Africa had become the Israeli defense industry's single largest customer, accounting for 35 percent of military exports and dwarfing other clients such as Argentina, Chile, Singapore, and Zaire.'
And this is what The Guardian reports:
''The documents show both sides met on 31 March 1975. (...) Among those attending the meeting was the South African military chief of staff, Lieutenant General RF Armstrong. He immediately drew up a memo in which he laid out the benefits of South Africa obtaining the Jericho missiles but only if they were fitted with nuclear weapons.
The memo, marked "top secret" and dated the same day as the meeting with the Israelis, has previously been revealed but its context was not fully understood because it was not known to be directly linked to the Israeli offer on the same day and that it was the basis for a direct request to Israel. In it, Armstrong writes: "In considering the merits of a weapon system such as the one being offered, certain assumptions have been made: a) That the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in RSA (Republic of South Africa) or acquired elsewhere."
But South Africa was years from being able to build atomic weapons. A little more than two months later, on 4 June, Peres and Botha met in Zurich. By then the Jericho project had the codename Chalet.
The top secret minutes of the meeting record that: "Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available." The document then records: "Minister Peres said the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice." The "three sizes" are believed to refer to the conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Botha did not go ahead with the deal in part because of the cost. In addition, any deal would have to have had final approval by Israel's prime minister and it is uncertain it would have been forthcoming.
Peres' denial does not sound very convincing to me. Does it?