Israel and former foreign minister Roelof “Pik” Botha are denying documentary evidence that the Jewish state offered apartheid South Africa complete nuclear weapons in 1975.
Botha, who served as foreign minister from 1977 to 1994, told the SA Press Association that it was highly unlikely that the Israeli government formally offered nuclear weapons to SA. “I doubt it very much,” he said. “I doubt whether such an offer was ever made. I think I would have known about it.”
He was reacting to a report published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday. It quoted minutes from a series of top-secret meetings in 1975 in which Israeli president Shimon Peres, who was then defence minister, allegedly offered his then South African counterpart PW Botha nuclear warheads “in three different sizes”. The Guardian said the declassified, officially released, documents provided evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of “ambiguity” in neither confirming nor denying their existence. The paper published some of the documents on itswebsite.
Botha said that at the time he was ambassador to the US and the UN, so he could not have been involved in such meetings. But as minister of foreign affairs from April 1977, and, towards the end of his term, as negotiator with the US on the signing of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, he had known “what was going on”. He added “I was very closely connected with our Atomic Energy Board and later Corporation. I would have known about it.” He had also known Peres and other senior Israeli leaders, SAPA added.
It was of course possible that an offer was made at a low level, between officials, SAPA continued.
But for it to have any significance, it should have been brought to the attention of the SA ministers connected with the country’s own weapon production. “As a serious offer of one government to another, my answer is no. Definitely not,” Botha said.
Israel has described the Guardian report as “baseless”. Reuters reports Israel is widely believed to have built more than 200 atomic warheads at its Dimona reactor but it maintains an official policy of “ambiguity” over whether it is a nuclear power. In an official response to the report, a statement from Peres’s office said: “Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa. There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place.” It said there was “no basis in reality for the claims” published in the Guardian and the newspaper’s conclusions were “based on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts.”
According to the Guardian report, a nuclear sale did not go ahead, partly because of the cost. South Africa completed its first workable nuclear device in 1979 and eventually had six nuclear devices, which were dismantled by June 1991.
Waldo Stumpf, the former head of South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Corporation who led the project to dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons program, said he doubted Israel or South Africa would have contemplated a deal seriously. “To even consider the possible international transfer of nuclear devices … in the political climate post the 1974 Indian ‘peaceful’ explosion, would have had very serious international complications,” he said, referring to India’s first nuclear test blast.
Speculation about Israeli-South African nuclear cooperation was raised in 1979 when a U.S. satellite detected a mysterious flash over the Indian Ocean. The US television network CBS reported it was a nuclear test carried out by the two countries. But the US Central Intelligence Agency, in a document written in 1980 and released in 2004, said the United States could not determine “with certainty the nature and origin of the event.”
Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it was well known that there had been cooperation between Israel and South Africa on ballistic missiles. “They paid, we developed them, then they bought,” said Brom, who served as defense attaché at Israel’s embassy in South Africa from 1988 to 1990. Brom said that Israel had also “probably” received uranium from South Africa, The Associated Press reports.
But he too said he had a hard time believing that Peres was trying to sell nuclear warheads to the South Africans in 1975.