Home / General / Israel Offered to Sell Nukes to South Africa?

Israel Offered to Sell Nukes to South Africa?


Seems like rather a big deal:

Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state’s possession of nuclear weapons.

The “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa’s defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”. The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret.

The documents, uncovered by an American academic, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, in research for a book on the close relationship between the two countries, provide evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of “ambiguity” in neither confirming nor denying their existence.

The Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa’s post-apartheid government declassifying the documents at Polakow-Suransky’s request and the revelations will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week’s nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East.

They will also undermine Israel’s attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a “responsible” power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted.

This isn’t completely new; see here for a good run-down of Israeli-South African cooperation on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The evidence of an offer to sell nuclear warheads isn’t a 100% clear smoking gun, but it’s fairly close:

The top secret minutes of the meeting record that: “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available.” The document then records: “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” are believed to refer to the conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons.

The use of a euphemism, the “correct payload”, reflects Israeli sensitivity over the nuclear issue and would not have been used had it been referring to conventional weapons. It can also only have meant nuclear warheads as Armstrong’s memorandum makes clear South Africa was interested in the Jericho missiles solely as a means of delivering nuclear weapons.

Emphasis mine. “Correct payload” could conceivably mean something other than a nuclear warhead, but it’s fair to say that the inference is likely correct. It should also be emphasized that the sale would have required Prime Minister Rabin’s approval, although there’s little reason to think that Peres would have made the offer without Rabin’s knowledge. Let’s put it this way; if this sort of evidence emerged about a potential deal between North Korea, Syria, and Iran, the Israeli response could hardly be characterized as tepid. The fact that the chief negotiator in the deal is the sitting President of Israel also means that this can’t legitimately be described as a “youthful indiscretion.” Moreover, it’s difficult to reasonably argue that the sale was necessary to the maintenance of the Israeli-South African nuclear relationship, and consequently to Israel’s ability to develop a nuclear deterrent. The premise of the sale is that Israel already possessed nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles capable of carrying them; it didn’t, at that point, have to sell them to anyone.

We should also be clear that this isn’t what could be characterized as “good” proliferation, whatever that means. South Africa was obviously not a democracy in 1975; rather, it was a brutal, repressive police state that systematically crushed the freedom of the vast majority of its population. If you think that domestic repression has implications for foreign policy (realists don’t, but some do), then obviously it’s not ideal to sell nukes to this kind of state. Moreover, the same “what if the state collapses” concerns that apply to Iran apply to South Africa; there were ample concerns in the 1970s that freedom fightersdirty communist terrorists would overthrow the Pretoria regime, which would then have led to obvious “loose nuke” issues.

The larger issue is obviously this: Evidence that a chief proxy of the United States offered to sell actual, functioning nuclear warheads on actual, functioning ballistic missiles to an autocratic, unstable state somewhat undermines US “moral authority” to undertake anti-proliferation efforts in nuclear and ballistic missile technology. Iran is enriching uranium? Well, Israel offered to sell nukes to apartheid South Africa. North Korea is selling ballistic missile parts and know how? Well, Israel offered to sell Jericho missiles, complete with nuclear warheads, to South Africa. In short, a US proxy offered to engage in behavior that was by several degrees worse than any behavior that Pakistan, North Korea, Syria, Libya, or Iran have ever been credibly accused of engaging in.

That’s kind of a problem. The best we can say, perhaps, is that there’s no indication as of yet that the United States was involved. Indeed, the United States mildly sanctioned Israel for past bad behavior after much of the Israeli-South African relationship became known in the wake of the end of apartheid.

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  • merl

    I once read a book by Harry Turtledove where South Africa had Israeli nukes. I forget which one.

  • Observer

    SA was an abhorrent society, thankfully and predictably part of the dustbin of history.


    They were never an expansionist government. Which countries around them did they even need nukes? SA already outclassed the *entire continent* in conventional arms.

    Contrast that now to the current anti_Israel line of thinking that Iran is perfectly safe to have nukes. The Daniel Larison’s of the world aside, Iran’s desire for a nuclear umbrella over their proxy terrorism and regional aims is a genuine issue to be genuinely evaluated in terms of global balance.

    Pakistan? Their proliferation? Their enablement of North Korea? Iran and Jordan with Hamas and Hezbollah? Damn the Israelis for firing on the human shields propped up by the Hamas terror mafia.

    All good in Farley’s world. No, the thing we need to focus on is Israel’s potential “Iran-Contra” deal in the dying days of the cold war.


    Because… well because exactly why Mr. Farley.

    Is this related to Judge Goldstone’s willingness to play the stooge for his latest paycheck, regardless of who suffered torture and death by brown people against brown people? The blacks he sentenced before, the whites he absolved later?

    • Robert Farley

      Is this related to Judge Goldstone’s willingness to play the stooge for his latest paycheck, regardless of who suffered torture and death by brown people against brown people? The blacks he sentenced before, the whites he absolved later?

      Well, it is probably worth noting that the Israeli government apparently offered to sell ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads to the government that Goldstone worked for. But more to the point, I don’t think that Nork/Iranian/Syrian/etc. proliferation is “good”. Rather, I think it’s quite “bad”, much in the same way that I think the apparent offer to sell ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads to South Africa was “bad.”

      Hope that clears things up.

      • herr doktor bimler

        I was struck by the timeliness of Observer’s comment, having just read Blumenthal’s article in Nation on the sequence of attacks on Goldstone’s character and credibility (starting with ‘A May 6 “expose” from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot‘ and followed by ‘Israeli government officials and their hardline American proxies’). Blumenthal’s point about the focus on Goldstone’s South African citizenship was that it reminds us, as a salutary side-effect, that back when the South African government was “one of the most racist regimes in the world”, it was also Israel’s most reliable ally and vice versa. It is hard to confine the moral contamination to Goldstone.

        Observer’s comment seemed to be informed by this backstory.

    • Ed Marshall

      Do you really believe this bullshit, or would you just feel guilty if you didn’t write it and let down the state of Israel by not saying anything.

      • dave

        Give ’em credit, it slightly beats out “Israel can do what it likes! Because… Hitler!!”

        • Kal

          Really? I think that last line about Goldstone’s mixed record under apartheid is sub-Godwin in its sheer mindlessness; note that not only is the smear totally irrelevant, it’s pretty much been discredited too, given what everyone who ever actually had a stake in the struggle against apartheid has said about Goldstone.

    • AJ

      South Africa may not have been an expansionist government but they were notably paranoid about potential invasions from communist neighbors, especially when armed factions of the opposition stationed themselves just over the border. They “needed” nukes just like everyone else “needs” them.

    • wengler

      They were never an expansionist government?

      You really need to crack open a history book dealing with Angola or Namibia.

      Israel is a state. Treat it as such, rather than a religious dividing rod. Just because it claims to be a Jewish state doesn’t give you the right to be hyperdefensive and take leave of common sense.

      I’ve seen otherwise calm, normal good progressives go apeshit whenever Israel is brought up. I understand it after the millions of dead, but the Israeli government has done and continues to do very bad things with the claim that it is for the defense of the Jewish people and to prevent another Holocaust. At least come to terms with that.

      • DocAmazing

        What Wengler said. The SADF sharpened its teeth on its neighbors on a regular basis for a decade or more. They were also responsible for subverting the governments of their neighbors. They also tested weapons for the IDF, though those of us who bring that up are dismissed as anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists, and the IDF trained and helped organize many of their military units.

        Bad, bad history with Israel and SA, and there is no excuse possible.

        • I assume they wanted nukes for two reasons – 1, the North Korean option. We’re crazy and evil and we promise to do something even crazier and more evil if anyone looks like seriously threatening us.

          2, deterrence against the United States – we’ve got the Bomb, we can look after ourselves, and you wouldn’t like us if we cut all remaining ties and just sat here cuddling our bomb.

    • hv

      Google “NPT” if you don’t understand why this matters.

      • Doneldon

        Nuclear (non)Proliferation Treaty, National Pipe Thread or National Public Radio???

    • John

      This is rather puzzling. South Africa intervened rather actively in the affairs of its neighbors, most notably in Angola. Iran hasn’t started an aggressive war in a very, very long time. Its most recent war was against Iraq, with which it now has a friendly relationship.

      • witless chum

        And the Iranians didn’t even start that one.

  • wengler

    The joint nuclear tests between the apartheid government of South Africa and Israel are believed to have happened in the South Indian Ocean in September 1979.

    The American elite’s positive attitude towards Israel is at times perplexing. Back during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration there was at least some attempt to inspect the nuclear facilities built with US assistance in Israel to make sure they weren’t building weapons with them. The Israelis went to great effort to deceive the inspectors at the Dimona site, including bricking up elevator entrances that accessed the nuclear manufacturing plant. Israel is not a signatory to the NPT, yet the US continually defends Israel’s interests against Iran which is a signatory.

    There is really no common sense when it comes to defending Israel in this country which probably pushes Israel to take more maximalist positions and empowers the religious conservatives to be more provocative in inciting Palestinians through settlements and land grabs.

  • AJ

    This is “rather a big deal” for US and everyone else who wants to “prove” that Israel has and has had nukes. It is much less of a big deal for Israel who will skirt the “payload” term. The burden of proof lies with the accuser and Israel is a pro at plausible deniability.

    • wengler

      Israel has had no plausible deniability of nukes since they kidnapped and tried the whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu back in 1986. The only question is whether they had them back during the Six Day War.

      It is clear they had them during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The world was probably closer to a nuclear exchange then(the Soviets had nukes in Egypt) than at any other time during the Cold War(since the two sides were actually fighting unlike during the Cuban Missile Crisis).

      • AJ

        my point is that the party line is and will be “nukes? we don’t know what you are talking about” no matter how sure we are based on mounting evidence.
        It is going to take something unmistakably spelled out for Israel to fess up.

        • wengler

          And the US government and press will go along with it because facts and common sense don’t apply when talking about Israel. But the “neutrals” on the issue don’t have a stake in remaining ignorant and stupid.

        • hirst

          Is there any reason to care whether Israel “fesses up”? Everyone knows they’ve got nukes, and plans accordingly.

  • Daragh McDowell

    I wonder how much this will be an ‘issue’ at all in the US as I’m fairly certain the media will largely ignore it.

  • David G.

    Simply stated, the problem for the people of the USA is that the most powerful lobby that controls our Congress and our government represents the State of Israel.

    There is no corporation or government that can ever survive when its leadership has such conflicted outside interests and priorities.

    We must remove outside money from all politics and campaigning and in its place establish government funding and volunteerism as the backbone of our elections.

    • Huss

      the strongest lobby in the US is the Pentagon, not the AIPAC. If the Pentagon says Israel is harming US interest, we would take their advice over the AIPAC. But the AIPAC and other Israeli institutions (including those congressman/senators with dual US/Israeli citizenships) are still second most influential group in this country.

      • DPT

        Didn’t Petraeus actually say something along these lines?


        Of course AIPAC hasn’t been particularly happy about our policy as of late, either.

      • elm

        Are there any members of Congress who are dual citizens? I was actually curious because I had never heard of this and a bit of googling suggests that a lot of anti-semitic, neo-nazi (like Stormfront), and xenophobic sites claim they do, and one lists every singe Jewish American in government as a dual citizen, but no reputable source suggests it, so I’m skeptical.

      • Barry

        “. If the Pentagon says Israel is harming US interest,…”

        Considering the influence of right-wing evangelical rapturists in the military, that will be when h*ll has frozen over.

    • Kal

      This is sheer nonsense, unless you place it within an anti-semitic framework. AIPAC doesn’t “control” the government. Do you want to try to explain the details of political decisions on food subsidies or health care or bank bailouts on the basis of Israel’s interests? Good luck.

      You can get slightly more plausible if you say that the Israel lobby controls US Middle East policy, but even there you’ll have problems. Maybe it’s in the interest of Israel’s rulers for the US to threaten Iran – though note that nothing concrete has come of it, yet – but what about Afghanistan, what stake does Israel have there?

      You can do a lot better, and avoid letting US imperialism off the hook, if you put the Israel lobby in a larger structural context. If the US wants to maintain effective military domination of the Middle East – which our rulers do – a reliable ally, whose regime has a strong basis in a colonial-settler population rather than being an unpopular family dictatorship, is very useful. All the expensive lobbying talent in the world won’t get you far without the power to pose a systemic threat (not just one to individual, replaceable politicians), or genuine commonalities of interest.

      • DocAmazing

        Afghanistan’s not in the Middle East.

        • Kal

          Christ. Middle East / Central Asia then. Doesn’t really affect the argument unless you think that US policy in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan is largely independent, which I’m pretty sure the OP doesn’t.

  • Simple Mind

    Gee and we spent all this time worrying about a battered suitcase somewhere in the Caucasus.

  • Dr, Farley:

    I’m not surprised. In Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, Jeffrey T. Richardson offers the American intelligence community’s conclusions about Vela and the “double flash”. Intelligence might not have proven a relationship between the two states definitively, but the US had enough information at least to take the issue to Israel and force it to reveal its actions. I’d call that passively enabling Israel.

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  • Ginger Yellow

    My suspsicion is that this will blow over pretty quickly. I mean, the basic thrust was already common knowledge – the only real news is the documentary evidence, which as mentioned above has a degree of plausible deniability.

  • The Lion

    One must realise the dilemna this puts the United States in now, up until this document was produced there was Plausible deniability that Israel had Nuclear Weapons. Now that denibility is negated the US laws that the US cannot supply any weapons delivery systems to a Nuclear State that isnt a Member of the NPT is in fact a Problem in that the US can no longer sell (give) Israel such Aircraft as the F15 or F16 or even supply parts or allow it be sold parts from other countries that have such aircraft. Also that includes the A4 which is still used by Israel as it was originally conceived as a Nuclear Weapons atteck system.

    • mds

      One must realise the dilemna this puts the United States in now

      Yeah, impose additional sanctions on Iran no matter what they do before or after the joint Congressional resolution once more hailing Israel as our bestest friend ever? Bibi publicly pissed all over the Vice President of the United States, and Congressional Democrats scrambled to be the first to denounce Joe Biden for merely attempting to remove his piss-soaked tie. And even if someone in our government does try to call the kettle black, are we therefore going to un-transfer all that nuclear technology we recently provided to India? The US gave up its NPT credibility a while ago, and its treatment of Iran makes it clear that it’s uninterested in getting it back. What are the other signatories going to do, nuke us?

  • Jon H

    “Well, Israel offered to sell Jericho missiles, complete with nuclear warheads, to South Africa.”

    I blame Tony Stark.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    1. On the *entire* African continent Egypt probably has had stronger forces than the SADF.

    2. The SADF had to contend with Cuban (and hence Soviet) backed forces as well, and didn’t have nearly as cozy relationships with international arms dealers like the Cubans did with the Sovs.

    3. Is this really a surprise? Its always been strongly hinted that SA and IS did a joint test in 79, and this would fit nicely into that timetable.

    • DocAmazing

      didn’t have nearly as cozy relationships with international arms dealers

      …if you don’t count the Israelis.

      • Barry

        And I’d be really, really surprised if SA wasn’t able to buy quite a lot of goodies on the international black market, and quite a lot on the international governments-look-the-other-way market.

  • Jon H

    I guess the bright side is that Israel apparently didn’t offer a small nuke and call it the “township size”.

  • rea

    They were never an expansionist government.

    Nukes are defensive weapons, not offensive weapons, which is why countries like N. Korea, Israel, Iran and the old S. Africa wanted them.

    • wengler

      Their only use in war has been as offensive weapons.

      Nukes are civilization-ending weapons.

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  • Better DEAD then don’t have NUKES, period ! Your sweet fellow terrestrian, Lou.

  • Hey, you know what: Don’t comment anymore; lets just sit and wait for the world to BURN. Period !

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  • Human

    You can take the NIGGER out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the NIGGER!

  • Anti-Negro

    The only good NIGGER is a dead NIGGER!

  • Malaclypse

    But, but – Donalde just told us racism was over! How could Donalde have been wrong?

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