JERUSALEM (Oct. 29)
The government is seriously concerned by allegations in the American news media that Israel is collaborating with South Africa in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
The Cabinet on Sunday issued a firm denial of the reports.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was quoted officially as saying that Israel has not transferred military technology to South Africa, especially technology originating in the United States.
“There is no truth whatsoever” to reports about “alleged links between Israel and South Africa in the nuclear field,” Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein told reporters after the ministers concluded their weekly meeting.
He said it was also stressed to the ministers that no military hardware comprising or including American components has been exported to any country, including South Africa, without a U.S. license.
Allegations that Israel is helping South Africa develop ballistic missiles, in exchange for enriched uranium for its nuclear weapons program, surfaced Oct. 25, on the “NBC Nightly News.”
Later in the week, the network reported that Israel had provided Pretoria with American technology it obtained during joint efforts to produce the now-abandoned Lavi jet fighter.
The Defense Ministry has denied both reports. But Israel is worried about the their impact on U.S.-Israeli relations, which are currently in a delicate state because of differences over advancing the peace process.
REPORTS LEAKED INTENTIONALLY?
Rabin met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens before Sunday’s Cabinet session to assess the damage.
There is apprehension here that the issue will be raised at congressional hearings and erode Israel’s standing with American lawmakers.
Shamir said he believed the damaging reports were purposefully leaked by persons seeking to poison Israel’s relations with the United States.
That view is shared by Israeli officials and friends of Israel in the United States.
Some have speculated that the leak was engineered by the Pentagon to ensure there is no significant congressional opposition to a proposed U.S. sale of 300 advanced M1-A2 tanks to Saudi Arabia.
According to his theory, opponents of the sale would find it difficult to make a convincing argument about the threat to Israel’s security in the wake of reports about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear capability.
Sunday’s Cabinet meeting also was marked by bickering over charges that Shamir and Arens are not giving their colleagues a full account of their dealings with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on the peace issue.
Arens claimed he was reporting fully to the Inner Cabinet. But one member of that senior policymaking body, Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon, contested Arens’ assertion.
In any event, the full Cabinet got no detailed briefing on the situation Sunday, notwithstanding reports from Washington that Baker has drafted a response to the latest message from Arens.
The Israeli foreign minister cabled Baker last week that Israel accepted in principle his five-point proposal for a dialogue with Palestinians, but insisted on certain amendments.
Sharon, and his allies Yitzhak Moda’i and David Levy, said before the Cabinet meeting that if reports they heard of Baker’s response were accurate, they would urge its rejection.
Shamir promised a Cabinet discussion of the peace process in advance of his planned trip to Washington next month.
But the prime minister apparently intends to confine it to the 12-member Inner Cabinet, whose makeup of six Likud and six Labor ministers prevents the adoption of any decision opposed by either party.
Shamir prefers that forum to the 25-member full Cabinet, where the smaller coalition partners are represented and could give an edge to Labor’s position with respect to the Baker initiative.