Sunday, May 30, 2010

Secrets and Lies II

(read Secrets and Lies I)

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.

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.
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.
"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

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Secrets and Lies I

This week's disclosure of a nuclear tie between Israel and South Africa, as Sacha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, would have it, is nothing new. That hasn't stopped some from called the revelation "ground-breaking" and proclaiming with no uncertainty that Israel's nuclear program has, at long last, been revealed.

Rumours and allegations that Israel assisted South Africa's nuclear program have been floating around since the late 1970's. It was widely believed that a mysterious flash in August 1979 was a joint Israel-South Africa nuclear test. Further flashes were reported near South Africa on September 22, 1979 and December 16, 1980. Yitzchak Rabin, Prime Minister at the time, responded to the allegations then by saying, "There is not a grain of truth in the reports about nuclear cooperation with South Africa."

What is new is several declassified South African documents that Polakow-Suransky provides as proof that nukes were offered. The documents show that Shimon Peres (1923 - ), then Israel's Defense Minister met with P.W. Botha in 1975 to discuss a possible sale of Jericho missiles. Polakow-Suransky claims that the South Africans also believed that Israel would fit the missiles with nuclear warheads.

While not denying that the two men met to discuss conventional weapons, Shimon Peres, now Israel's President, has vehemently denied that nuclear weapons were offered. Former South African President F.W. De Klerk has called the allegations "simply ludicrous." De Klerk has flatly denied the story, saying, "I have no reason to question the information that was consistently conveyed to me by the relevant authorities that South Africa developed nuclear weapons on its own."

But what of the allegations? To really understand the complex rapport between Israel and apartheid South Africa, we need to go back and consider the context of mid-century realpolitik and international relations.

Long before allegations of cooperation began to circulate, South Africa was already pursuing its own nuclear agenda. By 1961 (two years before Israel's Dimona facility was activated) construction of SAFARI (SA Fundamental Atomic Research Installation), a nuclear research facility, had begun in Pelindaba with assistance from the US, France and West Germany. The Americans were also supplying enriched uranium to run the reactor.

Despite protests from some American quarters that Pretoria could utilize the enriched uranium for military purposes, the IAEA permitted a second reactor in Pelindaba, called SAFARI II. South Africa was also able to contract for the construction of two large nuclear power reactors with France (these two facilities didn't become operational until 1984 and 1985).

In 1970 South Africa announced that it had successfully achieved enriched (but not weapons-grade) uranium production on its own, and expressed an interest in "peaceful nuclear explosives" (PNE). According to Al J. Venter, author of How South Africa Built Six Atom Bombs (2008), Prime Minister John Vorster, in 1974, "approved the development of a limited nuclear explosive capability and the construction of an underground test site" at Vastrap, north of Upington. In 1975 work began on the two test shafts in the Kalahari Desert. The first nuclear device was completed in 1977.

In July 1977 both the USSR and the US (which according to some sources had been informed beforehand of the test) accused South Africa of preparing to detonate a device in the Kalahari desert. In a letter to President Carter, South Africa President Vorster pledged that "South Africa does not have nor does it intend to develop a nuclear explosive device... there will...not be nuclear testing of any kind in South Africa." The Kalahari test never happened.

But two years later, on 22 September 1979, a mysterious flash, similar to those seen during French and Chinese nuclear tests, was spotted over the south Atlantic Ocean near South Africa by a US VELA reconnaissance satellite. A commission established by President Carter concluded that the flash "was probably not from a nuclear explosion. Although we cannot rule out that this signal was of nuclear origin." But security agencies, in particular the CIA, were convinced that a joint Israel-South Africa nuclear test took place. Former President F.W. De Klerk has confirmed that South Africa had produced six bombs during this period but says they were voluntarily destroyed in the early 1990's.

According to the historical record, then, regardless of a meeting between South African and Israeli representatives, in 1975, when P.W. Botha and Shimon Peres met, South Africa was well on her way to testing an operational nuclear device.

This was also a period in which South Africa was feeling increasingly threatened by her African neighbours. In 1970 the International Court of Justice declared that South Africa's Mandate over Namibia, which it had held since the end of the First World War, was illegal. South Africa was particularly concerned with the influx of tens of thousands of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers into Angola who were intervening on behalf of Angola's Communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Party of Labour. South Africa, meanwhile, moved troops into Angola (Operation Savannah) to assist the pro-Western National Front for the Liberation of Angola. NFLA was receiving financial support from South Africa, the US and Israel, which also provided training and arms during the 1970's.

Around the same time, The Organization of African Unity (OAU) began to push the international community for sanctions against South Africa, specifically an arms embargo. A voluntary embargo, observed by the US and the United Kingdom, had been in place since the early 1960's. France had seized the opportunity to become South Africa's most important arms supplier; undoubtedly, Charles De Gaulle was also interested in obtaining South African uranium for France's own nuclear program.

In 1970 UN Security Council Resolution 232, a non-binding resolution, called "upon all States to strengthen the arms embargo." The US, France and the UK, all of whom had close economic ties to SA, abstained.

In the face of growing Soviet influence throughout Africa, the US was keen to push South Africa into anti-Communist interventionism. Despite the voluntary arms embargo, in 1975 the US would have likely given a sale of arms to Pretoria its blessing.

However, rising internal strife in South Africa a year later forced major powers to reconsider military and other economic agreements. From June to December 1976, a number of major protests, known as the Soweto riots, erupted in several major centers resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. France publicly announced that no new military contracts would be signed with the apartheid state. Several previous contracts were cancelled. West Germany, which had been supplying South Africa with experts and technical know-how also ended nuclear cooperation in 1976 (although production continued). In 1976 the OAU condemned France for its sale of nuclear technology to South Africa.

It was in this atmosphere of increasing conflict both within and outside South Africa, and in light of a tightening international arms embargo, that South Africa and Israel were undeniably pushed toward a closer military relationship. South Africa needed weapons and Israel, just two years after the Yom Kippur War, was desperate for money. A reluctant alliance was struck.

Such a relationship, however, should in no way suggest that Israel condoned Pretoria's racist internal policies, despite suggestions by some critics of Israel that these arrangements represented more than just a marriage of convenience between two ostracized states, that there were ideological similarities between Israel and South Africa. Premier David Ben-Gurion had previously condemned South Africa as a "deplorable regime of racial discrimination." Under Ben-Gurion Israel worked to establish relations with black African states, offering technical and economic assistance. After the 1973 October War, however, most of Israel's African friends broke off relations at the behest of the USSR and the Arab states (29 of the 33 black African countries that once had diplomatic ties with Israel broke them off at the time of the 1973 Middle East war) which consistently equated South Africa's racist policies with Zionism. Nevertheless, "Israel joined in UN resolutions condemning apartheid and voted for sanctions against South Africa." (South Africa: Time Running Out, pg 307)

To his credit, author Polakow-Suransky correctly concedes (in an interview at Middle East Analysis) a wide range of ideological thought by Israel politicians.

"[T]he founding fathers and mothers of the nation who were not just queasy but outright opposed and viciously critical of apartheid. These people spoke out against it, they allied with black African states," says Polakow-Suransky. But others, including Shimon Peres, "were willing to make moral compromises that the previous generation wasn't willing to make. It was strict realpolitik."

A third group, the Revisionists, were even more cynical. He adds, "In certain circles there was an ideological affinity. The correspondence between leading Israelis and their South African counterparts during this period bears this out. [Ariel] Sharon and [General Raphael] Eitan (1929-2004) were writing letters to their counterparts and saying we face a common threat and common enemy." [Note: Polakow-Suransky is not quite right about the political backgrounds of these two warriors; in 1948, both were members of Haganah, not the revisionist Irgun. Sharon was a Labor-Zionist. Eitan formed the Tzomet (Movement for Renewed Zionism) party and served as Agriculture and Environment Minister and also as a Deputy Prime Minister (1998-1999)]

In truth, while celebrated in the military establishment, in 1975, neither Sharon nor Raphael were in any position to influence government policy. After the near-disaster of the October War, a new government was established with Yitchak Rabin, a former Ambassador to the US and Chief of Staff, as the new Prime Minister and Shimon Peres, a former protégé of Ben-Gurion who had held a variety of cabinet positions, the Minister of Defense. Eitan was occupied with reorganizing the army in the North; Sharon had been elected to the Knesset in January 1974, but resigned in December of that year and returned to his farm in the Negev.

Tomorrow: The documents!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Big Story in a Small City

It's Yom Yerushalyim (Jerusalem Day) in Israel. I've written on Jerusalem a number of times on this blog:

On the Destruction of the Hurva Synagogue and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in 1948 here.

On Jerusalem's special status and international law here.

On the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, which includes links to a radio report by CBS reporter, Michael Elkins on the battle for Jerusalem, and audio of Israel Defense Forces entering the Old City of Jerusalem and reclaiming the Western Wall on June 7, 1967 here .

Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, has its share of issues. There's also no doubt that Israel inherited a lot of baggage from the British and the Turks.

Before 1918, anyone born in Palestine was a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Arabs complained that many Jewish newcomers did not apply for Turkish citizenship but attempted to retain their European passports. This was a fair complaint as it meant Jews could avoid military conscription and other obligations. The British, when they took over the region, did not grant British citizenship to those born in Palestine between 1918 and 1948 even though they were an occupying power. Instead they provided resident status to Arabs, but Palestinian citizenship to Jews, according to the British Mandate given by The Council of the League of Nations:
"ARTICLE 7. The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine."
In 1948, Palestinian Arabs found themselves scattered between various administrations. All those that remained in Israel were automatically given Israeli citizenship, if they so desired.

Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem (and the Old City) were given Jordanian citizenship when Jordan illegally annexed this territory on April 4,1950. (I'm actually not sure the status of those under Egyptian rule in Gaza between 1948 and 1967.)

In 1967, as a result of Jordan shelling Jerusalem during the first day of the Six Day War, Israel conquered these territories, and allowed an open border for the first time in decades between the formally divided city (against the wishes of mayor Teddy Kollek, incidentally. It was actually Moshe Dayan that insisted on this.)

Arabs in east Jerusalem were offered full citizenship when Jerusalem was reunified, but most refused at the insistence of the Arab League opting instead for Permanent Residence Status, an accommodation worked out with the Arab residents themselves. Every resident of Jerusalem can apply for citizenship at any time; Arabs who have been residents for years would be granted this almost automatically.

One might ask why Jerusalem's disassociated Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods even continue to exist. In fact, this was a policy inherited and maintained by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
"In 1971, four years after the reuniting of the city of Jerusalem in the Six-Day war, reporter Arnold Forster interviewed Teddy Kollek, then Mayor, for Dateline Israel . Kollek regarded the issues of the development of the newly formed city, which at the time received world attention and was highly controversial." -
You can listen to the Exclusive Teddy Kollek Audio Interview on IsraCast.