Nuke Nation

Israel's weapons of mass destruction

by John Steinbach

CovertAction Quarterly, April / June 2001


In the first months of 2001, efforts to secure peace in the Middle East were hit by two dangerous developments. Right-winger Ariel Sharon was elected to power in Israel, the world's neglected nuclear nation. And President George W. Bush's first foreign policy adventure saw Iraq bombed by U.S. and British forces, in what was justified as a "defensive" act.

Since the Gulf War in 1991, much attention has been Lavished on an alleged threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while the major culprit in the region, Israel, has been largely ignored.

With between 200 and 500 thermonuclear weapons and a sophisticated delivery system, Israel, population 6 million, recently supplanted Britain as the world's 5th Largest nuclear power. It may now rival France and China in the size and sophistication of its nuclear arsenal.

Possessing chemical and biological weapons, an extremely sophisticated nuclear arsenal, and an aggressive strategy for their actual use, Israel provides the major regional impetus for the development of weapons of mass destruction, and represents an acute threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.

The hypocrisy inherent in the condemnation of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the obsessive focus on "rogue states" such as North Korea, while totally ignoring Israel's provocative arsenal, is breathtaking.

The existence of the Israeli nuclear program is a serious impediment to meaningful nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The time is long overdue for citizens concerned about sanctions against Iraq, peace with justice in the Middle East, and

nuclear disarmament, to confront directly the issue of Israeli weapons of mass destruction.


The Israeli nuclear program began in the Late 1940s. It was established at the Department of Isotope Research at the Weissman Institute of Science under the direction of Ernst David Bergmann, "the father of the Israeli bomb," who in 1952 established the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission.

From the very beginning the U.S. was heavily involved in developing Israel's nuclear capability, training Israeli nuclear scientists and providing nuclear-related technology, including a small "research" reactor in 1955 under the "Atoms for Peace" program.

It was France, however, that provided the bulk of nuclear assistance to Israel, culminating in construction


of Dimona, a heavy water-moderated, natural uranium reactor and plutonium reprocessing operation situated near Bersheeba in the Negev desert.

Israel had been active in the French nuclear weapons program from its inception, and provided critical technical expertise. Dimona became operational in 1964 and plutonium reprocessing began shortly thereafter. Despite Israeli claims that Dimona was "a manganese plant, or a textile factory," the extreme security measures employed belied the bogus claims.

In 1976, Israel shot down one of its own Mirage fighters, and in 1973 shot down a Libyan civilian airliner that approached too close to Dimona, killing 104.'

There is substantial credible speculation that Israel may have exploded at Least one, and perhaps several, nuclear devices in the mid-1960s in the Negev near the Israeli-Egyptian border, and that it participated actively in French nuclear tests in Algeria.

By the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel possessed an arsenal of perhaps several dozen deliverable atomic bombs and it went on full nuclear alert.

Possessing advanced nuclear technology and top nuclear scientists, Israel was confronted early with a major problem-how to obtain the necessary uranium.

Israel's own uranium source was the phosphate deposits in the Negev, totally inadequate to meet the need of a rapidly expanding program. The short-term answer was to mount commando raids in France and Britain to successfully hijack uranium shipments, and in the 19673 "Plumbatt Affair," to collaborate with West Germany in diverting 200 tons of yellow cake (uranium oxide). These clandestine acquisitions of uranium for Dimona were subsequently covered up by the countries involved.

There was also an allegation that a U.5. corporation, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), diverted hundreds of pounds of enriched uranium to Israel from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.4 Despite an FBI and CIA investigation, and congressional hearings, no one was ever prosecuted, although most other investigators believed the diversion had occurred.

In the late 1960s, Israel solved the uranium problem by developing close ties with South Africa in a quid pro quo arrangement whereby Israel supplied the technology and expertise for the "Apartheid Bomb," while South Africa provided the uranium.

SOUTH AFRICA AND THE US In 1977, the Soviet Union warned the U.S. that satellite photos indicated South Africa was planning a nuclear test in the Kalahari desert. The apartheid regime backed down under pressure from the Carter administration.

On September 22, 1979, a U.S. satellite detected an atmospheric test of a small thermonuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean off South Africa, but because of Israel's involvement the report was quickly whitewashed by a carefully selected scientific panel, kept in the dark about important details. Later it was Learned through Israeli sources that there were actually three tests of miniaturized Israeli nuclear artillery shells.

The Israeli/South African collaboration did not end with the bomb testing, but continued until the fall of apartheid, especially with the developing and testing of medium range missiles and advanced artillery. In addition to uranium and test facilities, South Africa provided Israel with Large amounts of investment capital, while Israel provided a major trade outlet undermining the international economic sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime.

Although the French and South Africans were primarily responsible for the Israeli nuclear program, the U.S. deserves a Large part of the blame.

An observer remarked the Israeli nuclear program "was possible only because [emphasis in original] of calculated deception on the part of Israel, and willing complicity on the part of the U.S." Beginning with the provision of a small reactor in the mid-1950s, the U.S. played a critical role in Israel's nuclear plans.

Israeli scientists were trained largely at U.S. universities and were generally welcomed at the nuclear weapons Labs. In the early 1960s, the controls for the Dimona reactor were obtained clandestinely from a company called Tracer Lab, the main supplier of U.S. military reactor control panels, purchased through a Belgian subsidiary apparently with the acquiescence of the U.S. intelligence community.

In 1971, the Nixon administration approved the sale to Israel of hundreds of krytons, a type of high speed switch necessary to the development of sophisticated nuclear bombs. And in 1979 President Carter provided Tel Aviv ultra-high resolution photos from the KH11 spy satellite, which were used two years later to bomb the Iraqi Osirak reactor. Throughout the Nixon and Carter administrations, and accelerating dramatically under Reagan, U.S. advanced technology transfers to Israel continued and continue to the present.


Following the 1973 war, Israel intensified its nuclear program, while continuing its policy of "nuclear opaqueness." Until the mid-1980s most intelligence estimates of the Israeli nuclear arsenal were of the order of two dozen, but the explosive revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician working in the Dimona plutonium reprocessing plant, changed everything overnight.

A leftist supporter of Palestinian rights, Vanunu believed that it was his duty to humanity to expose Israel's nuclear program to the world. He smuggled dozens of photos and valuable scientific data out of Israel and in 1986 his story was published in London's Sunday Times.

Rigorous scientific scrutiny of the Vanunu revelations Led to the disclosure that Israel possessed as many as 200 highly sophisticated, miniaturized thermonuclear bombs. His information indicated that the Dimona reactor's capacity had been expanded manifold, and that Israel was producing 1.2 kilograms of plutonium a week, enough to make 10 to 12 bombs per year, and that it was producing advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist and scholar on U.S. intelligence, commenting on the Vanunu data said: "The scope of this is much more extensive than we thought. This is an enormous operation."

Just prior to the publication, Vanunu was Lured to Rome by an Israeli-American Mossad "Mata Hari", and was beaten, drugged and kidnapped to Israel. following a campaign of disinformation and vilification in the Israeli press, Vanunu was convicted of treason by a secret security court and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He served over 12 years in solitary confinement in a 6 by 9 foot cell, according to Amnesty International, the longest known modern solitary imprisonment.

After a year of modified release to the general prison population-he was not permitted contact with Arabs-Vanunu has been from the year 2000 subject to punishment spells in solitary and faces more than three years' further imprisonment. The Vanuatu revelations were largely ignored by the world press, especially in the United States, and Israel continues to enjoy a free ride regarding its nuclear status.





There is little doubt that Israeli nukes are among the world's most sophisticated and are largely designed for "war fighting" in the Middle East.

A staple of the Israeli nuclear arsenal are neutron bombs, miniaturized thermonuclear bombs designed to maximize deadly gamma radiation while minimizing blast effects and long-term radiation-in essence designed to kill people while Leaving property intact. Weapons include ballistic missiles and bombers capable of reaching Moscow, cruise missiles, Land mines-in the 1980s Israel planted nuclear Land mines along the Golan Heights-and artillery shells with a range of 45 miles.

The Sunday Times (London) reported in June 2000 that an Israeli submarine had launched a cruise missile, hitting a target 950 miles away. Israel had become only the third nation after the U.S. and Russia with this capability. It will deploy this year three of these virtually impregnable submarines, each carrying four cruise missiles. The nuclear bombs themselves range in size from "city busters" Larger than the Hiroshima bomb to tactical mini-nukes.

Regardless of its size and scope- and it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Israeli capabilities- the Israeli arsenal of weapons of mass destruction clearly dwarfs the actual or potential arsenals of all other Middle Eastern states combined, and is vastly greater than any reasonable need for "deterrence."

Israel also possesses a comprehensive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. According to the Sunday Times, Israel has produced both chemical and biological weapons with a sophisticated delivery system. A senior Israeli intelligence official acknowledged: "There is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical or biological weapon... which is not manufactured at the Nes Tziyona Biological Institute.'' The same report described F-16 fighter jets specially designed for chemical and biological weapon payloads, with crews trained to Load the weapons on a moment's notice.

In 1998, the Sunday Times reported that Israel, using research obtained from South Africa, was developing an "ethno-bomb." "In developing their ethno-bomb,' Israeli scientists are trying to exploit medical advances by identifying a distinctive gene carried by some Arabs, then create a genetically modified bacterium or virus... The scientists are trying to engineer deadly micro-organisms that attack only those bearing the distinctive genes."

Dedi Zucker, a Leftist Member of Knesset, the Israeli parliament, denounced the research saying: "Morally, based on our history, and our tradition and our experience, such a weapon is monstrous and should be denied."


In popular imagination, the Israeli bomb is a weapon of last resort, to be used only at the Last minute to avoid annihilation. This strategy, described by U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh as the "Samson Option," is backed by many supporters of Israel.

Whatever truth this formulation may have had in the minds of the early Israeli nuclear strategists, today the Israeli nuclear arsenal is inextricably linked to and integrated with overall Israeli military and political strategy. As Seymour Hersh says in classic understatement: "The Samson Option is no Longer the only nuclear option available to Israel.''

Israel has made countless veiled nuclear threats against the Arab nations and against the Soviet Union and by extension Russia since the official end of the Cold War. One chilling example comes from Ariel Sharon, now the Israeli Prime Minister: "Arabs may have the oil, but we have the matches."

In another example, Israeli nuclear expert Oded Brosh said in 1992, "...we need not be ashamed that the nuclear option is a major instrumentality of our defense as a deterrent against those who attack us."

Israeli academic Israel Shahak commented in 1997: "The wish for peace, so often assumed as the Israeli aim, is not in my view a principle of Israeli policy, while the wish to extend Israeli domination and influence is." He added: "Israel is preparing for a war, nuclear if need be, for the sake of averting domestic change not to its Liking, if it occurs in some or any Middle Eastern states... Israel clearly prepares... to use for the purpose all means available, including nuclear ones."

Israel uses its nuclear arsenal not just in the context of deterrence or of direct war fighting, but in other more subtle but no less important ways. For example, the possession of weapons of mass destruction can be a powerful lever to maintain the status quo, or to influence events to Israel's perceived advantage, such as to protect the so-called moderate Arab states from internal insurrection, or to intervene in inter-Arab warfare.

In Israeli strategic jargon this concept is called "non-conventional compellence" and is exemplified by a 1962 quote from Shimon Peres: "Acquiring a superior weapons system [read nuclear] would mean the possibility of using it for complement purposes-that is forcing the other side to accept Israeli political demands, which presumably include a demand that the traditional status quo be accepted and a peace treaty signed."

Robert Tucker asked plaintively in a 1975 Commentary magazine article in defense of Israeli nukes: "What would prevent Israel... from pursuing a hawkish policy employing a nuclear deterrent to freeze the status quo?"

Another major use of the Israeli bomb is to compel the U.S. to act in Israel's favor, even when it runs counter to its own strategic interests. As early as 1956 Francis Perrin, head of the French A-bomb project, wrote: "We thought the Israeli Bomb was aimed at the Americans, not to launch it at the Americans, but to say, 'If you don't want to help us in a critical situation we will require you to help us; otherwise we will use our nuclear bombs"'

During the 1973 war, Israel used nuclear blackmail to force Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon to airlift massive amounts of military hardware to Israel. At that time the then Israeli Ambassador,


Simcha Dinitz, is quoted as saying: "If a massive airlift to Israel does not start immediately, then I will know that the U.S. is reneging on its promises and... we will have to draw very serious conclusions..."

One example of this scenario was spelled out in 1987 by Amos Rubin, economic adviser to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "If Left to its own Israel will have no choice but to fall back on a riskier defense which will endanger itself and the world at Large... To enable Israel to abstain from dependence on nuclear arms calls for $2 to $3 billion per year in U.S. aid." Since then Israel's nuclear arsenal has expanded hugely, both quantitatively and qualitatively, while the U.S. money spigots remain wide open.


It is clear Israel has no interest in peace except that which is dictated on its own terms, and has absolutely no intention of negotiating in good faith to curtail its nuclear program or discuss seriously a nuclear-free Middle East.

Israel Shahak notes: "Israel's insistence on the independent use of its nuclear weapons can be seen as the foundation on which Israeli grand strategy rests.'' Seymour Hersh says "the size and sophistication of Israel's nuclear arsenal allows men such as Ariel Sharon to dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East aided by the implicit threat of nuclear force."

There is an abundance of evidence to Lend credence to this analysis. Ever Weizman, Israel's ex-President, said: "The nuclear issue is gaining momentum [and the] next war will not be conventional."

Ze'ev Shiff, an Israeli military expert writing in Ha'aretz, said: "Whoever believes that Israel will ever sign the UN Convention prohibiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons... is daydreaming." And Munya Mardoch, Director of the Israeli Institute for the Development of Weaponry, said in 1994: "The moral and political meaning of nuclear weapons is that states which renounce their use are acquiescing to the status of vassal states. All those states which feel satisfied with possessing conventional weapons alone are fated to become vassal states."

As Israeli society becomes more and more polarized, the influence of the radical right becomes stronger. According to Shahak: "The prospect of Gush Emunim, or some secular right-wing Israeli fanatics, or some of the delerious Israeli Army generals, seizing control of Israeli nuclear weapons... cannot be precluded... while Israeli Jewish society undergoes a steady polarization, the Israeli security system increasingly relies on the recruitment of cohorts from the ranks of the extreme right."

During a future Middle Eastern war -not at all unlikely given the ascension of Ariel Sharon, an unindicted war criminal with a bloody record stretching from the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Quibya in 1953 to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and beyond-the possible Israeli use of nuclear weapons should not be discounted.

Seymour Hersh warns: "should war break out in the Middle East again... or should any Arab nation fire missiles against Israel, as the Iraqis did, a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a last resort, would now be a strong probability."


Many Middle East peace activists have been reluctant to discuss, let alone challenge, the Israeli monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region, leading to incomplete and uninformed analyses and flawed action strategies.

But placing the issue of Israeli weapons of mass destruction directly on the table would have several salutary effects.

First, it would expose the primary destabilizing dynamic driving the Middle East arms race and compelling the region's states to each seek their own "deterrent."

Second, it would expose the grotesque double standard which sees the U.S. and Europe on the one hand condemning Iraq, Syria and North Korea for developing weapons of mass destruction, while simultaneously protecting and enabling the principal culprit.

Third, exposing Israel's nuclear strategy will help focus international public attention, resulting in increased pressure to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and negotiate in good faith.

Finally, a nuclear-free Israel could reasonably be expected to result in a Nuclear-Free Middle East, making a comprehensive regional peace agreement much more likely.

Unless and until the world community confronts Israel over its covert nuclear program, it is unlikely there will be any meaningful resolution of the Israeli/Arab conflict, a fact that Israel is apparently counting on as the Sharon era dawns.


John Steinbach is a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment. With his wife Louise Franklin-Ramirez, he is the co-author of the map and database "Deadly Radiation Hazards USA." He is active in the Washington, D.C.-area peace and justice movement

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