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Proof of Israel’s nuclear program may spark conflict at summit

The worst-kept secret in the world is, apparently, no longer a secret.

Newly declassified documents may prove what most observers and international officials have suspected for some time: that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. The Israeli government has never officially confirmed that fact, and has publicly maintained a policy of “ambiguity” about its nuclear program.

The Guardian reported on Monday that internal South African documents reveal details of a “top secret” meeting in the 1970s between Israeli and South African officials, in which the Israeli government offered to sell nuclear warheads to the then-Apartheid regime.

The current Israeli government issued a statement vehemently denying the report, without explicitly commenting on the general issue of whether it has nuclear weapons, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“Unfortunately, The Guardian elected to write its piece based on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts,” said the statement. “Israel has never negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa. There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place.”

The revelation comes at perhaps the worst time for international efforts to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons. Delegates from 189 countries are meeting in New York this month for a review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and one of the focuses of that summit is a proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The main hold-up to such a proposal, officials say, is Israel’s reluctance to confirm that it even has nuclear weapons, never mind discuss what to do with them.

Official confirmation that Israel does in fact have nuclear weapons could also spark instability in the Middle East. As Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department official and nuclear non-proliferation expert, told Need to Know earlier this month, moderate leaders in the Middle East may well feel pressure from hardliners in their countries to develop their own nuclear programs if it becomes clear that Israel has nuclear weapons:

“If Israel comes out and declares that they have a nuclear weapon, that puts a great deal of pressure on other countries in the region to match them. So if you think about it, if you’re Egypt, do you really want Israel to come out and say, ‘Here, look at our nuclear weapons?’ Because ‘the street’ is going to demand that Egypt throw together a nuclear weapon. And thoughtful people in leadership positions don’t want that.”

The non-proliferation conference has already been buffeted by the announcement last week that the world’s major powers had agreed to a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. The Iranian regime may well stir up trouble at the conference by pitting allies in the developing world and the Non-Aligned Movement against the West.

Already, Brazil and Turkey, which brokered a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran the day before the U.S. announcement, have said they are opposed to new sanctions. On Monday, they presented their fuel swap arrangement to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, in a last-ditch effort to avoid Security Council action on the sanctions proposal.

The revelation that Israel not only has nuclear weapons but that it offered to sell them could undercut arguments by the U.S., for example, that Iran is too unstable to have its own nuclear program, and could help Iranian officials gin up outrage among developing nations that have long accused the West of hypocrisy.

“If there are a lot of bitter feelings by Turkey and Brazil, they could make it so NAM remains opposed,” to a non-proliferation agreement, David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, told Need to Know last week. “And so that would be a problem, if you have a split between NAM and the Western group.”

He added: “I would expect there’s going to be trouble.”