Israel's nuclear weapons capacity


CONVINCING DOCUMENTARY evidence of the willingness of the Israeli government in 1975 to sell nuclear-armed missiles to apartheid South Africa has finally blown the lid on Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity on the existence of its nuclear weapons capacity. Although the revelation will not change the strategic reality in the Middle East, it should increase international political pressure, notably from the US, on the Israelis to sign up to the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT) whose review conference is currently debating the aim of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East.

The Guardian’sexclusive yesterday was based on the work of US academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky. But even the suggestion of such a nuclear deal was rubbished, not altogether plausibly, by Israel as “a selective interpretation of South African documents”. No Israeli document exists confirming the discussions, the statement insisted.

That Israel has had the Bomb since about 1968 is widely accepted – it is believed to have built between 100 and 200 atomic warheads at its Dimona reactor. Evidence of the programme emerged through the testimony of a former South African officer convicted of spying for the Russians, Dieter Gerhardt, and revelations by Israeli Mordechai Vanunu to the Sunday Timesin 1986. Speculation about Israeli-South African nuclear co-operation was also raised in 1979 when a US satellite detected a mysterious flash over the Indian Ocean. A US television network reported it as a nuclear test carried out by the two countries, although never confirmed.

At the NPT review conference in New York, now in its final week, the strand of discussions on regional issues is being chaired by Alison Kelly, an Irish diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Her first draft report reiterates the 1995 NPT aspiration for a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, while regretting the glacial progress on the issue. It reiterates previous calls on Israel to sign up to the treaty and to put its nuclear facilities under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The draft skates on thin ice in specifically naming both Israel and Iran, but has initially, reportedly, been well-received as balanced. Its call for a 2012 Middle East conference and a special UN co-ordinator to press on with implementation of a nuclear-weapons free zone appears likely to be agreed. But the mandate of the conference is still unclear.

Progress on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, of course, is inseparable from the broader peace process, although simultaneous reductions could de-escalate tensions and can be argued to be in the strategic interests of all in the region. But that would require a willingness, unlikely at present, on both Israel’s and Iran’s parts to move together in step in the same direction. What is certain, however, is that Israel’s ownership of nuclear weapons makes the persuasion of Iran to renounce its programme infinitely more difficult. At present, however, the best the NPT review can do is offer the possibility of incremental progress.