TEL AVIV (Oct. 26)
Israel’s Defense Ministry has vigorously denied an NBC News report Wednesday night that Israel and South Africa are collaborating in the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“There is no truth whatsoever to NBC’s report made last night on the alleged links between Israel and South Africa in the nuclear field,” the ministry said in a statement issued Thursday.
But The Washington Post reported Thursday that “knowledgeable U.S. officials” have confirmed the essence of NBC’s story.
The report, broadcast on the “NBC Nightly News” program, said that Israel has shared advanced missile technology with South Africa in exchange for a steady supply of uranium for its nuclear weapons program.
NBC credited unnamed Pentagon sources and a U.S. intelligence document for information that “Jerusalem is in ‘full-blown partnership’ with Pretoria to produce a nuclear-tipped missile for South Africa.”
NBC also claimed that the first long-range missile built with technology acquired from Israel was launched and flown by South Africa on July 5.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Thursday, “We’ve seen the reports of that involvement, and we are looking into the facts and issues raised by these reports as best we can.”
Fitzwater, pointing out that Israel has denied the reports, said, “We don’t have any conclusions at this point.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said, “We do not comment on intelligence reports.”
U.S. DENIES BAKER KNEW OF DEAL
Nor would she comment on NBC’s story, except to say that its allegation that Secretary of State James Baker “has full knowledge of the missile deal” is not true.
Noting that the U.S. ambassador in Israel, William Brown, has discussed similar reports on missile and nuclear proliferation with the Israeli Defense Ministry, Tutwiler said she assumed this latest report would also be raised by Brown.
Both the State Department and the White House strongly reiterated U.S. opposition to the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and nuclear weapons.
NBC described Urdan Industries Ltd., an Israeli firm outside Tel Aviv, as “the front company transferring the missile technology” to South Africa.
Urdan denied Thursday that it had any connection with South Africa or any other country in the production of missiles.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other ministers on Thursday repeated Israel’s longstanding assertion that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.
Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon told Israel Radio that the Inner Cabinet had an exhaustive discussion of Israel’s nuclear policy and was also united in its commitment not to do business with South Africa.
Facing the possibility of sanctions from the U.S. Congress, Israel’s Inner Cabinet agreed in March 1987 to phase out military cooperation with South Africa, but said it would not abrogate existing contacts.
The Defense Ministry reiterated Thursday that Israel is adhering to that decision, “which states that no new defense contract between Israel and South Africa shall be signed.”
Sharon, meanwhile, accused advocates of sanctions against South Africa of hypocrisy.
He claimed on Israel Radio that most countries vocally in favor of boycotting South Africa are, in fact, dealing with it clandestinely.
The hard-line minister also seemed to be saying that South Africa is a truly loyal friend of Israel.
“We must remember who our friends are: those who stood by us when the going was tough, while some of those countries which claim to be our greatest friends have let us down in the past,” he observed.
(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)