NEW YORK (IPS) - A US author is standing by claims that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to South Africa during the apartheid regime, despite denials by Israel’s then-defense minister, now-president Shimon Peres, that the accusation has “no basis in reality.”
Published last month, Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, presents first-hand evidence of the nuclear warhead offer from Peres to South Africa’s defense minister P. W. Botha in 1975. Botha served as prime minister and was the first executive state president of South Africa from 1984 to 1989.
Suranksy, the senior editor of Foreign Affairs, combed through more than 7,000 pages of formerly secret documents from the South African government archive after filing the South African equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a Promotion of Access to Information Act.
The Israeli government attempted to block release of the documents to Suransky but was unsuccessful.
The substance of Suranksy’s claim is drawn from the minutes of a top-secret meeting between Peres and Botha on 31 March 1975. The transcript, published in late May of this year by the Guardian newspaper, reads “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available.” (Chalet was the code-name for Israeli Jericho missiles.)
The document continues: “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” of the “correct payload” are believed to refer to conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, although it is widely believed to have a substantial arsenal. The uncovered documents provide the earliest supporting evidence that the country is nuclear-armed.
Following the meeting, one of the attendees, South African military Chief of Staff Lieutenant General RF Armstrong, drafted a memo that detailed the benefits of South Africa obtaining nuclear warheads.
“In considering the merits of a weapon system such as the one being offered,” Armstrong wrote, “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.”
The combination of the meeting minutes and subsequent memo, Suranksy says, provides direct evidence of Israel’s offer to South Africa.
Peres refuted this claim, stating that because “there is no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place,” the accusation is fabricated. He added that Suranksy based his conclusion “on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts” and that “there exists no basis in reality for the claims.”
At a recent book release event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, Suransky told IPS that he stands by his position. “Until Peres can prove that he was not present at the meeting, I don’t think his claim has any basis in reality.”
In addition to the 31 March meeting minutes, Suranksy uncovered a top-secret military agreement, known as Secment, dated a few weeks prior. The document includes a clause stating that “the very existence of this agreement … shall be secret and shall not be disclosed by either party.” Both parties signed the agreement.
Although South Africa did not end up purchasing the warheads from Israel, in part due to cost, it did develop nuclear bombs and may have received assistance from Israel. The two countries’ military technology collaboration is well documented over several decades — “almost until the eve of Mandela’s inauguration,” according to Suransky. He asserts that cooperation continued despite Israel’s public statements denouncing the apartheid regime.
In fact, comparisons between South Africa’s apartheid government and current Israeli relations with its Palestinian inhabitants have been gaining momentum in recent years and will no doubt be exacerbated by the widely-criticized flotilla incident that occurred on 31 May.
Former US President Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book, Peace: Not Apartheid, fueled the debate comparing the states, and was met with vehement condemnation by pro-Israel supporters.
Suranksy draws this comparison as well, noting similarities in resettlement initiatives, redefined citizenship policies, and the creation of slum conditions. Most relevant, though, is his comment on the future implications of the disproportionate population increase of Palestinians in Israel.
Eventually, if growth continues at its current rate, Palestinians will become the majority group in Israel and Jews the minority. As was the case in apartheid South Africa, the minority will rule the majority.
Suranksy characterizes his comparison between the governments as “inexact,” but asserts “there are similarities”.
“Israeli officials should take this as a warning,” he says, “rather than a threat.”
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