By Ryan Powers
A new book on the history of the relationship between Israel and South Africa appears to have confirmed the long-standing suspicion that Israel offered to sell nuclear arms to South Africa in the 1970s. While the sale didn’t pan out, Israel did provide South Africa with Tritium — the material they needed to kickstart their now-abandoned nuclear weapons program — in return for easing restrictions on how South African yellowcake Uranium could be used:
[A]fter the 1973 Yom Kippur war, African governments increasingly came to look on the Jewish state as another colonialist power. The government in Jerusalem cast around for new allies and found one in Pretoria. For a start, South Africa was already providing the yellowcake essential for building a nuclear weapon. …
“South Africa’s leaders yearned for a nuclear deterrent – which they believed would force the west to intervene on their behalf if Pretoria were ever seriously threatened – and the Israeli proposition put that goal within reach,” Polakow-Suransky says in the book. …
Polakow-Suransky establishes that the relationship was so intimate that in the mid-1970s, South Africa lifted the safeguards supposed to govern how the yellowcake was used to prevent nuclear proliferation.
In return, Israel sent South Africa 30 grams of tritium, which gives thermonuclear weapons the boost to their explosive power. The delivery was enough to build several atomic bombs, which South Africa did in the coming years.
In the years prior to this, Johnson and Nixon both fretted about Israel’s nuclear program. But the reports to date have suggested that the U.S. worried most about Israel using their nukes — not proliferating them.
Regardless, I think we should take this revelation as a reminder that Israel — as they have every right to do — will nearly always do what is best for Israel and, as such, U.S. foreign policy towards Israel needs to be calibrated accordingly. As Walt and Mearsheimer put it:
A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it sometimes does not act like a loyal ally. Like most states, Israel looks first and foremost to its own interests, and is has been willing to do things contrary to American interests when it believed (rightly or wrongly) that doing so would advance its own national goals. … Such behavior is neither surprising nor particularly reprehensible, because international politics is a rough business and states often do unscrupulous things in their efforts to gain an edge over other countries.