It wasn’t even a blip on the evening news but early this summer, in a display of fancy footwork on the diplomatic high wire, Barack Obama came close to mentioning in public a subject on which every president since Lyndon Johnson has been strictly mum: the fact, unacknowledged for more than four decades now, that the United States knows Israel has nuclear warheads. On the basis of a secret “understanding” struck by Richard Nixon and Golda Meir in 1969, the established practice has been to abide by Israel’s policy of maximum coyness and ambiguity on the subject even when—or especially when—it conflicts with Washington’s long-flaunted goal of pressing aspiring nuclear powers that long ago signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Iran, for example (under the Shah), or Iraq (before Saddam Hussein), to abide by it and allow international inspection of their nuclear facilities.1
Israel is a nonsignatory and not the only one that Washington finds it inexpedient to press, just the only one on which it has maintained a vow of silence. India, thanks to the last Republican administration, now gets the sort of American help building reactors from which it was supposed to be forever barred as a result of its decision to go nuclear. Pakistan—arguably the worst proliferator on record, having boosted the nuclear programs of Libya, North Korea, and Iran—is one of the largest recipients of US military assistance because its cooperation is deemed indispensable so long as we’re fighting next door in Afghanistan. It’s a hard world out there and policy contradictions are not easily avoided; sometimes influence has to be bought. So goes the thinking of so-called “realists” in foreign policy circles.
New to office, Obama determined to put life and muscle into the flagging nonproliferation drive, in part to justify the effort to squeeze Iran and keep it from going the way of North Korea, and, in the much longer run, to work toward regional agreements that might eventually include the Middle East. So, when after four weeks of discussion, a UN conference of 189 nations reviewed the nonproliferation regime and reached a twenty-eight-page agreement on new steps to be taken toward halting the spread of weapons and promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the Obama administration hailed it as “forward-looking and balanced.”
There was, however, a catch, making fancy footwork by the President unavoidable. The agreement his administration had hailed in May didn’t mention Iran, which had attended the conference, its delegation headed briefly by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it did mention Israel, which had not, calling on it to sign the nonproliferation treaty and take part in a conference in 2012 on turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Lurking between the lines seemed to be a wispy hope that Iran might be persuaded to forswear nuclear weapons if Israel could be drawn into discussion of the circumstances under which it might consider giving up the two hundred or so nuclear warheads it has long been rumored to possess. Who then was being squeezed and how could the United States, which had yet to acknowledge Israel’s nuclear status, dance around that tangle at a time when it was simultaneously trying to mend fences with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and persuade it to get serious about peace talks with the Palestinians?
Netanyahu was standing next to the President at the White House on July 7 when, speaking elliptically, carefully avoiding words like “nuclear” or “weapons,” Obama came closer to an on-the-record acknowledgment of the Israeli deterrent—and, by any reasonable reading, putting an American stamp of approval on it—than the previous eight presidents. (A quickly corrected verbal slip left a lingering impression that the President privately understood that Israeli weapons might also serve American interests.) Here is his actual language:
We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us—against it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unswerving in our commitment to Israel’s security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.
Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister to Netanyhu, instantly interpreted this as an endorsement of Israel’s policies and, therefore, an assurance that Washington would not press Israel to sign the nonproliferation treaty it has refused to sign for forty years. “I think this entire presentation,” Meridor told Reuters, “gives a clear picture of the understanding between Israel and the United States.”
In other words, gotcha. The United States might now be on record as favoring the transformation of the region into a nuclear-free zone but it was simultaneously on record as saying this could happen only after the dawning of a peace so profound that its one existing nuclear power felt secure enough to surrender its arms. Which was what everyone who has thought about the matter for more than three minutes had assumed before the conference Obama had championed. If American non-proliferation policy was not exactly contradictory, when translated into plain language, its logic was strained and its practical application obscure.
For students of such issues, there is nothing new in the idea that the line between diplomacy and hypocrisy can be a fine one; that nations can have conflicting goals, especially nations playing for high stakes by holding or seeking nuclear weapons. Israel itself is not exactly pure in this arena, as we are reminded by The Unspoken Alliance, a survey somewhat undersold by its subtitle: “Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.” What makes the book, written by a young editor at Foreign Affairs, more than a little tantalizing isn’t its account of Israel’s readiness—sometimes even eagerness—to soften its stand on the apartheid regime’s race policies and, overlooking a United Nations embargo on arms sales to South Africa, find a rich market for its own growing arms industry. It’s the flashes of new insight it provides on the extent of nuclear dealings between embattled Israel and a pariah state whose circumstances increasingly could be said to parallel its own.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky took advantage of an enlightened freedom of information act passed in the liberal atmosphere that existed in South Africa in the first flush of majority-rule government. Despite formal representation by Israel that the release of the classified documents he sought might compromise its national security, he procured more than seven thousand pages from the defense and foreign affairs ministries in Pretoria, now under the control of an African National Congress with few reasons to fret about the sensitivities of the apartheid government’s silent partner. He doesn’t tell us how many of these pages really sizzle but he provides a list of aging officials he interviewed from the old days of white rule who once knew the details of their country’s effort to go nuclear; he met them over coffee in suburban malls, on their farms, or in assisted living quarters. These included a long-time defense minister, General Magnus Malan. The son of South African Jews, Polakow-Suransky made similar efforts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but, not surprisingly, got no documents and, especially when it came to nuclear issues, more guarded responses there.
The documents—the presumably small portion of the seven thousand pages dealing directly with nuclear issues—don’t convict Israel of nuclear proliferation to South Africa (notwithstanding a sensational report in the Guardian on May 24 asserting that “Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime,” based on this material). But they can hardly be said to fully exonerate Israel on the proliferation charge, as South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, dutifully tried to do in March 1993 in the usual elliptical language, a year before the handover of power and two years after South Africa, under American prodding, finally signed the nonproliferation pact.
Acknowledging for the first time that South Africa had developed nuclear weapons, de Klerk said that they had now all been dismantled under international inspection. “At no time did South Africa acquire nuclear weapons technology or materials from another country, nor has it provided any to any other country, or co-operated with another country in this regard,” he said without once mentioning Israel, the only possible supplier that there could have been reason to suspect.
It’s the last clause of that sentence that appears to be undermined by the incomplete evidence Polakow-Suransky has managed to unearth. Citing an interview with the manager of the plant where the South African warheads were manufactured, he tells us that it wasn’t only the weapons that were destroyed but “all proliferation-sensitive records associated with the program.” De Klerk’s assurances, he says, “artfully sidestepped the truth” and used “clever semantics” to obscure the cooperation that did occur. (The suggestion, attributed in a footnote to the plant manager, was that Israel was careful to cover its tracks by providing what were arguably “dual-use” technologies with peaceful applications, though it was fully aware, on the basis of extensive military and scientific exchanges, of the real nature of South Africa’s interest.)
This was nothing so crude as an offer to sell warheads but Israel was deep into a shadowy area where the exact location of the line between proliferating and not proliferating could be hard to draw. Like a driver going ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit, Israel’s main concern, it seems, wasn’t to abide by the law but not to get caught—in this case, by its primary ally, the United States.
It’s possible but unlikely that American officials got a glimpse of any “proliferation-sensitive records” that may have been destroyed by the old management in Pretoria. From the start of Israel’s serious military engagement with South Africa, secrecy was the name of the game. It was also a fundamental principle of the first formal agreement, a pact signed in April 1975 by P.W. Botha (the future South African president, then defense minister) and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres (a future prime minister and, now, a president himself). As summarized in The Unspoken Alliance, the agreement provided that it would remain in force indefinitely and couldn’t be terminated unilaterally by either country. “It is hereby expressly agreed,” it said, “that the very existence of the Agreement…shall be secret and shall not be disclosed by either party.”
Polakow-Suransky isn’t the first to write about nuclear collaboration between the two countries, let alone their widening arms trade and intelligence cooperation over the next decade and more; or Israel’s readiness to help Pretoria evade the arms embargo by serving as what amounted to a beard; or about consultations between the two governments that eventually reached the subject of domestic security, in which they compared notes on ways of suppressing the insurgencies they faced. (Seymour Hersh, for one, delved into the nuclear side of the expanding relationship in The Samson Option, his 1991 book on Israel’s nuclear program.) But he’s the first to uncover the actual agreement Botha and Peres signed, showing that the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid was more right than it could have known when in 1983 it outraged Israel’s supporters by sponsoring a conference in Vienna on “the alliance between Israel and South Africa.”
According to an article in the current (September–October) issue of Foreign Affairs by Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller, the United States promised to "tolerate and shield Israel's nuclear program" in exchange for Israel's pledge to avoid public disclosure of its existence and testing.↩
According to an article in the current (September–October) issue of Foreign Affairs by Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller, the United States promised to “tolerate and shield Israel’s nuclear program” in exchange for Israel’s pledge to avoid public disclosure of its existence and testing.↩