Israel and the South African Bomb

Recommended citation: Peter Liberman, “Israel and the South African Bomb,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol 11, No. 2 (Summer 2004): 46–80.

Abstract: A newly declassified, 1975 South African Defense Force document, recommending the acquisition of nuclear-armed Jericho missiles, sheds new light on Israeli-South African nuclear collaboration and South Africa’s nuclear decision-making. The document corroborates prior interview-based accounts of an Israeli offer to sell Jericho missiles to South Africa around this time, and raises the credibility of claims in these accounts that warheads were offered as well. A review of the fragmentary and widely scattered evidence about Israel-South African collaboration shows that there is also firm evidence on nuclear materials and delivery systems collaboration, while the evidence on collaboration on nuclear weapons technology and on nuclear testing remains circumstantial. The 1975 memorandum also demonstrates that there was high-level South African military interest in nuclear weapons as early as 1975, and possibly political interest as well. The strategic rationale for going nuclear was rather paranoid and crude, and notably different from the one that has been given for subsequent steps towards building nuclear arsenal. This provides circumstantial evidence for the hypothesis that South African leaders may have been emulating Israel in their pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.