What of the recently declassified documents themselves? Are they the long sought-after 'smoking gun' that some would believe? The Guardian's Chris McGreal ("Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons") is convinced, but even author Polakow-Suransky doesn't seem to think so. In fact, a more careful reading of these documents (and admitting that only a few of the thousands of documents Polakow-Suransky obtained have been published) suggests a less confident interpretation.
Are P.W. Botha and Shimon Peres discussing Israeli nuclear missiles? Polakow-Suransky suggests that the code 'chalet' refers to the Jericho missile, a short-range (500km) ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload. He interprets the heavily corrected documents to read: "Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of unit of Chalet provide [sic] 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."
But the original documents clearly shows that the word 'provide' had been replaced (probably by Botha and Peres after reviewing a secretary's original version) with the phrase 'subject to.' The South Africans can use a Jericho missile, if they can obtain the desired payload. Peres, in a sentence also crossed out, informs Botha that the payload is available in three sizes; he does not say Israel can provide the payload in one of three sizes. He never identifies any payload as nuclear.
Imagine for a moment how the original sentences might have sounded before being reduced into concise notes:
Botha: Mr. Minister, we might be interested in obtaining a few - we've agreed to use the term Chalet, yes? - We can use Chalet, if we can also acquire from somewhere the correct payload for our needs.A follow-up memo by South African military chief of staff Lieutenant General R.F. Armstrong, titled "The Jericho Missile System" (not 'The Jericho Nuclear Missile System') corroborates this version of events.
Peres: Yes, of course. It's my understanding that the payload you're speaking of is available in three sizes.
Botha: I appreciate that information. I will obviously need to seek more advice on the subject.
"In considering the merits of a weapon system such as that offered, certain assumptions have been made...that the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in the RSA or acquired elsewhere." [emphasis added]The inclusion of this caveat seems unnecessary if Israel was providing a nuclear-armed missile. In any event, Armstrong confirms South Africa's own nuclear program.
There's an inherent risk in speculating on past events: they're often verifiable.
- Did Israel supply South Africa with nuclear missiles? No.
- Would South Africa have used nuclear weapons against an internal or external enemy? Nope. The country possessed six atom bombs, never used them, and destroyed them voluntarily.
- Did Israel give nuclear knowledge to a rogue state? Maybe, although it's unlikely South Africa used Israeli assistance in developing its nuclear devices, according to David Albright, who has written extensively on nuclear proliferation and South Africa. In any event, both countries were developing nuclear technology simultaneously. Israel surely knew this when it engaged in arms discussions. Not in dispute is the fact that both Israel and South Africa received nuclear know-how, technology and materials from the US, France, the Uk and West Germany.
- Would Israel use nuclear weapons against a neighbouring state? Well, if Israel possesses nuclear weapons, it failed to use them when 1800 Syrian tanks were pouring over the border into the Golan and tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were crossing into the Sinai; nor did Israel use these weapons in response to Iraqi rockets in 1991 or Hezbollah rockets in 2006. It seems evident that Israel's nuclear threat is a deterrent only to the use of WMD's and not conventional weapons. As such, Israel's policy of ambiguity has likely prevented the use of chemical weapons, which several of Israel's neighbours (including Syria, Egypt, Iran ) are known to possess; nuclear ambiguity, then, has added to regional stability, not the other way around, preventing minor disputes from escalating into a regional war.
What is particularly conspicuous is the shamelessly convictive attitude of some journalists: in this case, it is Israel's dealings with the apartheid state (not in question) to imply that the two were 'birds of a feather' with a shared ideology (out of the question).
But nothing was further from the truth; most Israelis were (and are) disturbed, even outraged, by the relationship but recognized the need for investment capital while Israel's debt was skyrocketing after the Arab-instigated 1973 Yom Kippur War. A year later, Israelis were paying the highest per capita taxes in the world. Israeli officials were also concerned with maintaining healthy relations with a state in which 130,000 Jew lived. When Israel had previously funded black liberation movements, the Pretoria government retaliated by blocking contributions to Israel from South Africa's wealthy Jewish population. (Time, 26 April 1976)
Even within South Africa, the relationship was seen as paradoxical. The daily Johannesburg Star described it as "an enigmatic embrace." Said one South African expert: "Politics make strange bedfellows and fear and loneliness even stranger ones." (Time, 26 April 1976)
The reality is that despite voluntary bans, most Western states continued to sell arms and do business with South Africa throughout the 70's. Only Israel, apparently, should be reprimanded for this moral oversight. (And it's worth noting that these same countries also trade with Muslim states that have yet to grant women the right to vote; what's the difference?)
Then there are allegations that Israel is an irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons, a charge critics of Israel use as a defence, albeit petty, for Iran's nuclear program. But was Israel flogging nuclear weapons or was South Africa probing about the availability of such weapons? There's a world of difference. Israel never sold nuclear weapons to anyone, and if it exchanged knowledge, so have many others. Again, only Israel should be censured for an act that has yet to be proven.
If these aren't double-standards, what are?
Armament and Disarmament: South Africa's Nuclear Experience, Hannes Steyn, Jan Van Loggerenberg, Richardt Van Der Walt
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1988
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1989
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 1994
Ebony Magazine, August 1976
Israel and Africa: the Problematic Friendship, Joel Peters
The Israeli Connection, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, 1988
Israel's Defense Line, I. L. Kenen, 1981
New Scientist, 12 Dec 1974
Nuclear Disarmament in International Law, Haralambos Athanasopulos, 2000
Nuclear non-proliferation and global order By Harald Müller, David Fischer, Wolfgang Kötter, 1994
Nuclear weapons and arms control in the Middle East, Shai Feldman, 1997
Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria's nuclear weapons experience By Roy E. Horton, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, August 1999
Relations between South Africa and France with Special Reference to Military matters, 1960-1990, Victor Moukambi, 2008
South Africa: Time Running Out, The report of the Study Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Southern Africa, 1981
The Samson Option, Seymour Hersh, 1991
Time Magazine, "ISRAEL: Into Africa via The Back Door," 26 April 1976
The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, 2010 (Excerpt can be read online here.)
Yearbook of the United Nations, 1985 By United Nations, Department of Public Information, United Nations Staff