Revelations in Sasha Polakow-Suransky's book that talks between Israel and South Africa on the sale of missiles and warheads took place a generation ago have turned a harsh new spotlight on Israel's long-held policy of ambiguity over its nuclear arsenal.
But while they come just as Israel faces renewed pressure to come clean about its status as a nuclear military power at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York it would be a mistake to think that the game is yet up for that policy, which still enjoys wide, if not unanimous, acceptance in Israel itself.
Reaction in Israel suggests a media willingness to accept the denial by Shimon Peres, now the country's President, that Israel was trying to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa – and in the process arguably obscuring the undeniable – and to many abroad – highly embarrassing fact of the shadowy links between the two governments at the time.
Israeli journalists routinely refer archly to "foreign reports" that the country has long had a nuclear arsenal. In a recent such article, the prominent Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit articulated the views of many when he defended "the umbrella of opacity" protecting Israel. He argued that in the past at least the world – being then "moral rather than moralistic" – knew that having seen a third of Jews murdered in the Holocaust it could not do so again; and that it recognised that since Israel as a nuclear power had acted with "deliberation and composure" its nuclear reactor at Dimona had "stabilised the Middle East" by preventing Israel's many wars turning into an all out "catastrophe".
Yet the world was not always so sure. A fascinating article three years ago, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists revealed how Richard Nixon overcame the severe doubts of many in the US administration – shared by Nixon's predecessors Kennedy and Johnson – to allow Israel to proceed with its secret nuclear weapons programme. His own Defence Secretary, Melvin Laird, fearing among much else that it would encourage proliferation, warned him bluntly in March 1969 that the programme was "not in the US's interests and should... be stopped". Yet the deal under which Israel could proceed without admitting it was doing so was struck that September at a one-to-one meeting between Nixon and the then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, the exact details of which can only be guessed at till this day.
The authors concluded by arguing that it was time to revise the Nixon-Meir accord, which was "burdensome for the US not only because it is inconsistent with US values of openness and accountability but also because it provokes claims about double standards in its non-proliferation policy". And it pointed out that without open acknowledgement by Israel of its nuclear status it was impossible to include it in an updated NPT agreement, let alone discuss ideas like a nuclear-free Middle East.
There has long been speculation that Israel observed, if not jointly organised with South Africa, a test of a nuclear weapon in 1979. Perversely, that might have provided a motive for close military ties with the apartheid regime, since Israel's agreement not to test a weapon was part of its accord with the US.
But either way, and even if Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister at the time of Mr Peres's 1975 talks with PW Botha would not have signed off on a nuclear arms sale, the meetings reinforce the sense of a bond in those years between the governments of Israel and that of South Africa – whose apartheid regime Israel had rightly and roundly condemned in its early years. It was a dark period in Israel's foreign relations which it would do well now to acknowledge and disavow.Reuse content