The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 24 May 2010

Israel, South Africa and the Bomb

The Guardian claimed yesterday that in 1975 Israel - through its Defence Minister Shimon Peres - offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons. If this evidence (uncovered by American academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky) proves to be true then it has two implications: 1) it provides further confirmation that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of ambiguity; and 2) that it was previously willing to transfer this technology to a non-nuclear weapon state.

These claims come at an unfortunate time for Israel. Last week it found itself under increasing pressure at the Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT RevCon) and there have been reports today that another of its diplomats has been expelled from an allied nation - this time Australia. If the conclusions that have been drawn are true, then Tel Aviv will look hypocritical in claiming that Iran can not be trusted with nuclear weapons when Israel itself previously offered the bomb to apartheid South Africa.

But, at this stage at least, there is cause to question some of the article's conclusions. Although it's difficult without seeing the original documents, the information provided by the Guardian does not appear as conclusive as the article's headline suggests. There seems to be ambiguity as to whether Israel was actually offering South Africa Jericho missiles armed with nuclear warheads, or was simply offering them nuclear-capable Jericho missiles that South Africa could arm with its own nuclear warheads. Selling nuclear-armed missiles is not the same as selling nuclear-capable missiles.

However, when placed in the context of earlier claims made by Dieter Gerhardt, the South African naval commander who spied for the Soviets, it does seem more likely that there was some form of offer from Shimon Peres - albeit in code. If this is true then why did Peres do it? A more likely scenario would have been for Israel to assist South Africa in building its own nuclear weapon (there is evidence to suggest that it did do this).

Something else that should be remembered: the deal did not actually go ahead. As the article points out, "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." This last point is important as it isn't clear whether or not Peres had the backing of the Israeli Prime Minister or any other government ministers. If there is evidence to suggest that he did, then this revelation will be even worse for Israel.

In the context of the current NPT RevCon it is known and assumed by all parties that Israel does have nuclear weapons. However, it has been politically convenient for Israel not to confirm their existence. This latest revelation may lead to greater pressure being placed on Israel to be transparent about its nuclear weapons stockpile. Untill it does, it will be impossible to make progress on the Middle Eastern Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which has been a topic of discussion at the RevCon - although both Israeli transparency and progress towards a MENWFZ seem unlikely over the short-term.

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