Avner Cohen: Yitzhak Rabin would have opposed sale of nuclear weapons

Tuesday 25 May 2010 00:00
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The discussions between Israel and South Africa referred to in the documents seem to me authentic and refer, I believe, to nuclear weapons, even if euphemisms like "correct payload" were used. That even in a conversation between two defence ministers, PW Botha and Shimon Peres, such euphemisms were considered necessary is a reflection of the depths of the taboo in Israel surrounding its nuclear weapons programme.

But nothing in the documents suggests there was a formal offer by Israel to sell nuclear weapons to Pretoria. The conversations amounted to a probe that seems to have gone nowhere.

Mr Peres, the defence minister at the time, is 85 years old and has built his reputation as a man of peace, an international statesman. But the context 35 years ago was very different. The Israelis were seeking funding for the Jericho 2 missile programme and I believe while the initial approach in this case probably came from the South Africans, Mr Peres was apparently probing a deal that involved selling a small amount of Jericho One. The norms surrounding non-proliferation were very loose in 1975. The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was only a few years old and Israel was not a signatory. The world was a lot less regulated than it is now, so it is perhaps unfair to judge Israel with hindsight.

It is important, too, to remember that Mr Peres would not have had the authority to sell nuclear devices to another country. Ultimately, the minister who would have been in charge of this was the prime minister, and I believe that both the then head of the Israeli nuclear programme, Shalhevet Freier, and Yitzhak Rabin would have opposed the sale of nuclear weapons, not just to South Africa, but to anyone.

Many questions remain unanswered but what the documents tell us is that this was a period when Israel showed some nuclear adventurism. It was not as responsible a nuclear weapon state as it is today. That changed over time. We know, for example, that the Shah of Iran was seeking nuclear weapons technology in 1977 but got nothing from Israel. And with South Africa too, Israel in the end, did the right thing. That's why I don't think these claims should affect the current debate on Iran. In the long run, Israel should find a way to come clean about its own nuclear programme. It has already proved itself a responsible nuclear custodian.

The writer is author of Israel and the Bomb. His new book, The worst kept secret: Israel's bargain with the bomb, is to be published by Columbia University Press in October

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