In the Guardian today, Chris McGreal has a sensationalist treatment of an episode in Israeli-South African relations from 1975. “Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons,” screams the headline! Subhead: “Exclusive: Secret apartheid-era papers give first official evidence of Israeli nuclear weapons.”
The four documents that serve as the basis of the story describe a negotiation over ballistic missiles, among other weapons. The South African side also wanted nuclear weapons to go with the missiles. The first document — which appeared previously with Peter Liberman’s article Israel and the South African Bomb in the Summer 2004 issue of the Nonproliferation Review — is an internal South African memorandum expressing interest in “nuclear warheads manufactured in [the Republic of South Africa] or acquired elsewhere.”
The third document is an excerpt from a South African memorandum of conversation between the two Defense Ministers:
Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet provide the correct payload could be provided, Minister Peres said that the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice.
On the strength of these two documents in particular, McGreal is moved to proclaim, “Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime.”
Friend of Blog Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and the forthcoming The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb provides this assessment:
The headline, sub-headline, and lede of Chris McGreal’s story are erroneous and misleading.
Nothing in the documents suggests there was an actual offer by Israel to sell nuclear weapons to the regime in Pretoria. To the contrary, the conversation amounted to a probe by the South Africans, which ultimately went nowhere.
As Defense Minister, Shimon Peres would not have had the authority to sell nuclear devices to another country, even if he had wanted to. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would have had to decide upon any such transaction. I believe that both Rabin and Shalheveth Freier, the head of the nuclear program, would have opposed the sale of nuclear weapons, technology, or even components — not just to South Africa, but to anyone. And note that this was 1975, when nonproliferation norms had yet to take shape fully.
Peres’s reply to the South African feeler was opaque, and Israel, in the end, did the right thing. One of the reasons that Israel should find a way to come clean about its nuclear program is because it has already proven itself a responsible nuclear custodian.
Here I’ll assert the blogger’s privilege of having the last word. Israel has a record of selling weapons to problematic regimes on three continents, but as far as can be determined, they have all been conventional weapons. The truth suffices.
Late Update | 12:50 am, May 27. The export of tritium to South Africa in 1977, which is discussed at some length in the comments, is enough, in my judgment, to put an asterisk on Avner’s conclusion. Israel may have been a more responsible custodian of its nuclear technology than many nuclear-armed countries, and perhaps more than most. But its record is not perfect, either.