Israel, Obama & The Bomb
Dispatches From The Edge
By Conn Hallinan
Submitted to portside by the author
December 14, 2010
This past July, a nuclear-armed nation, in violation of an
international treaty, clandestinely agreed to supply uranium
to a known proliferator of nuclear weapons. China and North
Korea? No, the United States and Israel.
In a July 8 article entitled 'Report: Secret Document Affirms
U.S. Israeli Nuclear Partnership,' the Israeli daily Haaretz
revealed that the Obama Administration will begin
transferring nuclear fuel to Israel in order to build up Tel
Aviv's nuclear stockpile.
There is profound irony in the fact that while the U.S. and
some of its allies are threatening military action against
Iran for enriching uranium, Washington is bypassing the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while aiding Israel's
nuclear weapons program, the only country in the world that
has actually helped another nation construct and test a
The saga starts with a box of tea that arrived in South
Africa in 1975.
This past May, researcher Sasha Polakow-Suransky uncovered
declassified South African documents indicating that in 1975
the Israeli government offered to sell nuclear warheads to
the apartheid regime. Israeli officials apparently tried to
block the declassification of the documents, but failed.
According to the British Guardian, then Israeli Defense
Minister Shimon Peres-currently president-negotiated with
Pretoria to supply South Africa with nuclear warheads for
Israel's Jericho missile. Peres dismissed Polakow-Suransky's
book-'The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship
With Apartheid South Africa'-as having 'no basis in reality
for the claims.'
But according to Allister Sparks in Business Day (South
Africa), the Israeli offer 'to sell nuclear warheads to SA
during apartheid is almost certainly correct-despite denials
by key figures in both countries.' Sparks should know,
because he was told what was in that box of tea by the Rand
Mail's lead investigative reporter, Marvyn Rees.
'I can state this because the disclosures closely corroborate
information I was given 32 years ago when the late Echel
Rhoodie, then secretary of information, told the Rand Daily,
of which I was then editor, how he and Gen. Hendrik van den
Bergh, head of the South African Bureau of State Security,
had brought what he called ‘the trigger' for a nuclear bomb
from Israel,' Sparks writes.
Sparks has remained silent all these years because he made a
promise to Rhoodie not to reveal the conversation, and
because he was afraid of the 'draconian Defense Act' that
would have subjected him to prosecution. But since Rhoodie
and the general are dead, the Act repealed, and the story
revealed, he felt it was time to come in from the cold.
According to Polakow-Suransky the warhead offer fell through
because the parties were worried that Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin would not go along. But Sparks argues that the
'more likely explanation' was that Israel offered a
'trigger,' which was cheaper, and ultimately more useful to
Pretoria because it would allow the South Africans to produce
their own nuclear weapons.
Apparently the Israelis also supplied South Africa with
tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that enhances the
explosive power of nuclear weapons.
According to Sparks, the South African general and Rhoodie
packed the trigger into a tea box and put it on a South
African Airways plane as hand luggage.
Jump ahead four years to Sept. 22, 1979, when an American
Vela 6911 satellite, designed to detect atmospheric nuclear
tests, is streaking over the South Atlantic. At 53 minutes
after midnight Greenwich Mean Time, near South Africa's
Prince Edward Island, it picked up the telltale double flash
of a nuclear weapon detonation. Compared to the 15 kiloton
Hiroshima bomb the explosion was small, about 3 kilotons. It
was also 'clean'-that is, it produced very little radiation,
although enough for radioactive Iodine-131 to turn up in the
teeth of Australian and Tasmanian sheep several months later.
The Vela and the sheep were not the only confirmations. The
U.S. Navy also picked up an acoustic signal indicating a
large explosion at or under the sea at the same time and
place as the Vela had detected.
The Carter Administration tried to cover up the test, but,
according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in 'The
Samson Option,' the explosion was a joint Israeli-South
African low-yield 'neutron' bomb.
The key to the test was the trigger in the tea box. According
to Sparks, South Africa knew how to make a nuclear weapon,
but only of the 'gun' variety, the same design as the
Hiroshima bomb. The 'gun' uses an explosive to fire a uranium
bullet at a uranium target. When the two converge, the fuel
goes critical and the weapon explodes. But while the 'gun'
design is simple and largely error-proof, it is too big and
clumsy to be mounted on a missile.
For a small warhead or a neutron bomb, you need a 'trigger,'
a finely engineered explosive device that wraps around a
uranium core. However, triggers are devilishly tricky and a
tiny miscalculation in timing results in a dud. In the 1998
round of testing by India and Pakistan, both countries
produced some misfires, as did North Korea.
The Israelis were willing to exchange a trigger for something
they needed: uranium yellowcake, the raw material for making
weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
According to declassified documents uncovered by Polakow-
Suransky, Israel also saw South Africa as an ally. In a Nov.
22, 1974 letter to the South African defense ministry, Peres
wrote about the importance of co-operation between Tel Aviv
and Pretoria. 'This co-operation is based not only on common
interests and on the determination to resist equally our
enemies, but also on the unshakable foundations of our common
hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.'
At the time, South Africa was widely reviled for racist
policies that denied full citizenship to the vast bulk of its
While Peres denies that Israel ever negotiated with South
Africa, the Nov. 22 letter concludes by saying that he looks
forward to meeting Rhoodie when the latter visits Israel. It
was during a meeting four months later that Peres made the
warhead offer. Peres-with significant help from France-was a
key figure in the establishment of the Israel's nuclear
The U.S. media has focused on the warhead charge, while
ignoring the far more destabilizing proliferation issue. The
warheads were never sent, but the box of tea was, and the
result was a nuclear explosion by a renegade regime. Since
the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa has
foresworn its nuclear weapons program.
Israel refuses to sign the NPT-indeed, refuses to admit it
has nuclear weapons at all-thus making it ineligible to buy
uranium on the world market. Article I of the Treaty
explicitly forbids supplying nuclear material to a non-
signatory country, which in the case of Israel makes the U.S.
in violation of the NPT.
But in Washington's efforts to line up allies against China,
the U.S. has agreed to supply fuel for India's nuclear power
industry, even though India also refuses to sign the NPT. In
theory, the U.S. uranium is only supposed to fuel India's
civilian sector, but in practice it will allow India to
redirect all of its modest domestic uranium supplies to
weapons systems. Pakistan's request for a similar deal was
rebuffed. Thus the U.S. has put aside its treaty obligations
in the interests of pursuing allies in the Middle East and
Sparks argues that, 'mutual collaboration' between Israel and
South Africa 'enabled both countries to develop nuclear
weapons.' Now the U.S. has replaced South Africa in aiding
Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal-thought to be around 100
warheads-and in the process has undermined the NPT.
Not only is the U.S. in clear violation of Article 1, the
Treaty's Article VI requires member states to end the nuclear
arms race, but the Obama Administration has just committed
$85.4 billion to 'modernizing' its nuclear arsenal. This is
not what the Treaty's designers had in mind, and, while it
may not violate the letter of the NPT, it certainly runs
against its spirit.
U.S. actions around Israel and India not only weaken the NPT,
they make a mockery of Washington's concern about
'proliferation' and bring into question President Obama's
pledge to seek 'peace and security of a world without nuclear
weapons.' Diplomatic chess moves are check mating a noble
Conn Hallinan's writings can be found at
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