Israel denies offering nuclear warheads to apartheid South Africa

Secret documents show Nobel prize-winner Shimon Peres met P W Botha in 1975 to talk about deal. Catrina Stewart reports

The Israeli President, Shimon Peres, discussed selling nuclear warheads to apartheid South Africa when he was defence minister in the 1970s, according to ground-breaking claims in a new book.

Secret South African documents show that Mr Peres met his counterpart, PW Botha, in 1975, when they discussed the sale of Jericho missiles to South Africa. The South Africans understood that Israel was offering to fit the missiles with nuclear warheads, US researcher Sasha Polakow-Suransky claims in his book The Unspoken Alliance.

The allegations, which were denied by Israel yesterday, are embarrassing for Mr Peres, a Nobel Peace prize winner, and have thrust unwelcome attention on Israel's nuclear weapons programme, the existence of which it has long refused to confirm.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli president said he had never discussed the sale of nuclear weapons to South Africa. "Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa," Ayelet Frisch said. "There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place." She did not deny, though, that the two men had discussed the sale of conventional missiles to South Africa. At that time, a UN Security Council voluntary arms embargo barring the sale of weapons to the South African regime was in place. It became mandatory in 1977.

Speaking by telephone from New York, Mr Polakow-Suransky said that the documents taken together make it clear that the subject of nuclear warheads was discussed in Mr Peres's meeting with Mr Botha.

"The topic of the Jericho missiles came up and three different types of warheads were said to be available by the Israelis," Mr Polakow-Suransky said. "The South Africans perceived the offer as an explicit offer for nuclear warheads." If true, the offer would appear to provide the first documentary evidence of a nuclear relationship with South Africa.

Many have long suspected that Israel enjoyed covert nuclear ties with South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. In September 1979, a US satellite spotted a flash of light in the South Atlantic, several hundred kilometers off the South African coast.

Intelligence at the time pointed to a nuclear test carried out by South Africa. Given that South Africa did not have the capability to test a nuclear weapon unaided, US intelligence agencies concluded Israel was involved. Other assessments concluded that the test was carried out solely by Israel, with South Africa present as an observer.

Israel reportedly stepped up its nuclear relations with South Africa in the late 1970s, after other Western powers cut off cooperation with the apartheid regime. While South Africa has always officially denied that it turned to Israel on nuclear issues, senior army officials have confirmed that there was cooperation.

Israel is universally believed to have nuclear weapons, but has refused to confirm the belief that the uncertainty has prevented a regional nuclear arms race and serves as a powerful deterrent to war in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Israel has aggressively called for sanctions against Iran prompting accusations of double standards from other Arab nations. Jerusalem has so far rejected calls for it to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits states to move towards nuclear disarmament.

Mr Polakow-Suransky first approached the South African government to declassify the secret documents in 2006, drawing Israeli objections. "They confirmed what I had long suspected," he said. On 31 March 1975, South Africa's military chief of staff, General RF Armstrong, stated in a memo that the weapons system offered would have to be armed by nuclear warheads made in South Africa or "acquired elsewhere".

Minutes from a meeting between Mr Peres and Mr Botha the same day, at which Gen Armstrong was also present, show that the South African minister was interested in buying missiles with the "correct payload", to which Mr Peres responded he had "three sizes". The three different sizes refer to conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons, according to Mr Polakow-Suransky.

A third document, signed by Mr Peres, states that the existence of any agreement entered into must remain secret. Mr Polakow-Suransky said the documents taken together and the deliberate use of ambiguous language make it clear that the two sides were discussing nuclear weapons. Less clear, he said, is whether Mr Peres carried the blessing of his prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

An Israeli official said the sizes referred to the three different ranges of missiles. In the end, the deal never took place. South Africa went on to develop six nuclear weapons which were destroyed before the advent of majority rule in 1994.

Desert facility

*Israel's nuclear facility near the town of Dimona operates in secrecy. Only when an Israeli technician revealed the truth behind the plant did the existence of its atomic weapons programme leak out. Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistleblower, paid the price for his indiscretion, serving 18 years for espionage and treason. Israel has still not officially confirmed that it has nuclear weapons; nor has it denied it. That ambiguity, so Israeli officials believe, is a deterrent to war against Israel.

Built with the help of French engineers in the late 1950s, Israel's nuclear plant secretly went up in the Negev Desert. It was several years before it came to the attention of the US, which insisted that Israel admit nuclear inspectors. But with Israel's nuclear processors buried deep underground, the inspectors left empty-handed.

In the 1960s, Israel's then-prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, admitted the plant's existence, but said it was a nuclear research facility built for "peaceful" purposes. In 1986, Mr Vanunu revealed data suggesting Israel possessed as many as 200 nuclear warheads. Former premier Ehud Olmert inadvertently revealed four years ago that Israel had nuclear weapons.