Time to Confront the Taboo
Israel’s Open Secret
By Akiva Orr
In July 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. This was a major event in world politics—and history. It led to a fateful nuclear collaboration between France and Israel.
Anthony Eden’s government in Britain and Guy Mollet’s government in France saw the nationalisation of the canal as a huge blow to their prestige and interests. They decided to invade Egypt, overthrow Nasser, seize the canal and hand it back to the Suez Canal Company, in which they were major shareholders. Most British and French citizens opposed this policy. They did not want their sons to risk their lives in a war for a colonial empire in which they no longer believed. After the Second World War, the era of empires and colonies was over. The people of the colonies had the information, and ability, to become free, and struggles for national liberation started in every colony of Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium.
The United States, too, opposed an invasion of Egypt. It wanted Egypt to join the Baghdad Pact directed against the Soviet Union. But Moscow provided arms and political support to many liberation struggles against colonial powers. It financed and helped build the high dam in Aswan in southern Egypt. Nasser didn’t want to antagonise Moscow. He refused to join the Baghdad Pact.
The United States wanted to change his policy by economic pressure, not by force. So Eden and Mollet decided to disguise their war as a “peace-keeping operation”.
They agreed with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister, that Israel would invade Egypt, seize the Sinai Peninsula and approach the Suez Canal from the east. Then Britain and France would issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt to withdraw ten miles from either side of the canal to “ensure freedom of passage in the canal to ships of all nations”. They knew Nasser could not accept this ultimatum while Egypt was under invasion, but Ben-Gurion would accept it, as it invited him to annex the Sinai.
Ben-Gurion flew to Paris on 22 October 1956 and signed this secret pact with Eden and Mollet. In Israel he denied he had done so, and kept denying it until his death in 1973. Shimon Peres, too, persistently denied the existence of the pact, only admitting it thirty years later, in 1986.
Israel, itself a product of British imperial politics in the Middle East during the First World War, always depended on the political, financial, and military support of foreign powers dominating the region. The presence of the British army in the Middle East enhanced Israel’s security. Ben-Gurion opposed the departure of the British from Egypt, Iraq, Cyprus, and Jordan, and of the French from Algeria and Tunisia. The Israeli secret service used contacts with Jewish communities in north Africa to help the French in their war against the liberation movements in Algeria and Tunisia.
Quid pro Quo
Most Israeli citizens did not know about these clandestine operations and would have opposed them had they known. Ben-Gurion was aware of this and therefore withheld the truth from them. In 1956, most Israelis opposed collaboration with the colonial powers. So Ben-Gurion sent Shimon Peres—who was not a member of the cabinet or of the Knesset—as his personal messenger to France to bypass both bodies and the press. One of the bonuses France offered Israel for its collusion on Suez was the construction of a nuclear reactor in Israel capable of producing plutonium for nuclear bombs.
Ben-Gurion was afraid the majority in the Knesset and in his cabinet would oppose his decision to invade Egypt, and likewise his decision to produce nuclear weapons in Israel. He kept both decisions secret. Peres never informed the cabinet or the Knesset about his negotiations in Paris. He commuted between Paris and Jerusalem to negotiate the military agreement between Ben-Gurion, Mollet and Eden, and reported only to Ben-Gurion.
On 29 October 1956, Israeli paratroopers commanded by Ariel Sharon landed in the Sinai. Israel seized the peninsula as planned and reached the Suez Canal. Eden and Mollet issued their ultimatum and their troops invaded the Suez Canal zone. It seemed as if the plan was going to succeed. But President Dwight Eisenhower of the United States was outraged and forced Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw from Egypt. The war ended in a fiasco. Britain and France ceased to be counted among the four great powers. The era of the two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—had begun.
Eden and Mollet had to resign but Ben-Gurion stayed in power, presenting his war to the Israelis as a “preventive war” that prevented an Egyptian attack on Israel. Actually, Nasser had offered Ben-Gurion peace rather than war. He did this in a public statement at the Bandung Conference in 1955.
Despite being forced by the United States to withdraw from the Sinai (and from the Gaza Strip), Ben-Gurion (and Peres) considered the (French-assisted) construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona to be a major achievement, well worth the losses of the Suez war. They did not say this to the families of the soldiers killed in the campaign.
Israel’s Prime Mover
The decision to build nuclear weapons in Israel was never discussed or debated in the Knesset, in the cabinet, in the army, in the press, or in the security services. The decision was taken by one man alone—Ben-Gurion. In 1956, the Israeli population stood at about 1.5 million. The surrounding Arab states had many millions of citizens, their armies were much bigger than Israel’s, and they had plenty of Soviet weapons. Ben-Gurion feared that a combined attack by Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan could destroy Israel. He decided to build atomic bombs as an insurance against such a possibility.
In 1956, France agreed to sell Israel a nuclear reactor of the type it had just installed at Marcoule, near Avignon. Built in 1952, the G1 reactor in Marcoule was France’s first plutonium-production reactor. It used natural uranium, was graphite moderated, and gas-cooling. Its first plutonium-separation plant was known as UP1. Two reactors were built, one in Marcoule, the other in Dimona, Israel. The Israeli reactor began to produce plutonium in the early 1960s. The French G1 reactor was dismantled after forty years of service. The one in Israel has continued to work for the past fifty years and has become a health hazard, causing many deaths by cancer to its workers. So far, the Israeli government has refused to compensate them.
Ben-Gurion knew that the United States was opposed to nuclear proliferation, and mindful of Israel’s dependence on US support he denied that Israel was producing nuclear weapons. Israel’s official policy is neither to deny nor to admit that it has—and builds—nuclear weapons. This policy of “ambiguity” (amimut) is presented in Israel as profound wisdom. Actually, it fools no one. Its only purpose is not to embarrass the United States, where in 1961 Senator Stuart Symington introduced an amendment forbidding the United States to provide aid to countries that produce clandestine nuclear weapons. This policy was never applied to Israel.
Of course, the United States knows very well what Israel’s nuclear capabilities are. But an open admission by Israel that it has nuclear weapons would embarrass the United States and expose the duplicity of its nuclear non-proliferation policy. In fact, as early as the 1960s, the U2 spy planes of the CIA photographed the Dimona reactor as it was being built, and President Eisenhower knew about it in 1960. However, the United States did nothing to stop construction of the reactor, nor did it force Israel to accept international inspection of it. Israel has always refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or to allow any international inspection of its nuclear facilities, and continues to do so to this day.
Israel’s nuclear capability forced many Arab states to seek weapons of mass destruction—mostly biological and chemical ones—to counter the Israeli arsenal. Israel is thus responsible for starting an arms race for weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Ben-Gurion did not consider the possibility that an Arab country might acquire nuclear weapons. He knew that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would give such weapons to an Arab state. He did not believe the Arabs were capable of building nuclear weapons themselves. The collapse of the Soviet Union (raising the possibility that nuclear weapons might become available for money) and the production of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and conceivably Iran were eventualities he failed to foresee.
The Soviet collapse and the advent of the “Muslim bomb” changed the situation completely. Israel’s nuclear deterrent changed from an asset into a liability. Israel’s small size and high population density, especially in the urban areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa, mean that Israel can in effect be destroyed by just two H-bombs—one on each centre. The destruction of these two urban centres would amount to the destruction of Israel.
The Iranian Bogey
These cities are where most of Israel’s economy and population are concentrated, and after a nuclear attack they would be uninhabitable for years. Iran, with its vast mountainous territory, cannot be destroyed like this and is far less vulnerable. Even if Israel launched a second strike after being attacked it could not destroy Iran. Israel’s second-strike capability, recently achieved by acquiring two nuclear submarines from Germany, would not repair the damage caused to Israel by just two H-bombs, nor would it deter Iranian religious fanatics. It is therefore essential for Israel to change its nuclear policy from one of threatening Iran and continuing the nuclear arms race to one of seeking to make the entire Middle East a nuclear-free zone under international supervision. This policy-shift does not seem imminent.
A stark estimation of the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear threat has been given by Dr Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset foreign and defence committee, as reported in the Israeli daily Maariv: “Iran plans to set up fifty-four thousand centrifuges for enriching uranium. This means that it wants to become a nuclear world-power capable of producing twenty to thirty bombs per year, not two or three bombs that will make it a regional power.”1
There is a growing concern among Israelis about Iranian long-range missiles, which are capable of reaching Israel, and about Iran’s eventual ability to build nuclear weapons. These concerns were reflected in the political campaigning for Israel’s general elections in March 2006, with candidates proposing various nuclear policies to attract voters. The quotations that follow, culled from Maariv on just one day (5 December 2005), indicate the importance Iran’s nuclear capability has assumed in the Israeli political debate.
Thus, a month before being incapacitated by a stroke, Ariel Sharon, founder and leader of the new and ultimately victorious Kadima Party, warned that Israel would not accept a situation in which Iran has nuclear weapons. We act with Europe and the United States. The correct expression on this matter was [US president George W.] Bush’s statement in which he said that he did not think this matter can be left without treating its foundations. I hope the Security Council will soon decide to impose sanctions on Iran to stop the process.
But Israel’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz commented that the diplomatic efforts to stop the process would fail. He raised a second possibility, that of applying physical, or military, pressure against Iran: “Who will apply military options? This is not a question I shall answer. When will this option be applied? I shall not answer this either. But there are options.”
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “I intend to lead the next government to stop this [Iranian] threat. This includes all operations necessary to stop Iran from threatening us with nuclear weapons.”
Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Labour Party, said: “I hope the Israeli government will do whatever is required, ignoring foreign considerations.”
Minister of Defence Shaul Mofaz called the flurry of statements on the Iranian nuclear issue “irresponsible” and urged that it should not be part of the election campaign. His plea was in vain. Iran’s nuclear capability figured prominently in the electioneering, with most candidates seeking to demonstrate their toughness and “resolve” on the issue
The crucial—and revealing—point is that no Israeli politician, journalist, or academic, has proposed the simple option of an Israeli policy of support for a nuclear-free Middle East under international control. This omission exposes Israel’s intransigence and the hypocrisy of the US stance on this issue. Why does the United States refuse to pressure Israel to sign the NPT and allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities?
The honesty of US nuclear policy in the Middle East is proportional to the pressure it puts on Israel to sign the NPT and support a nuclear-free Middle East. As long as the United States fails to apply any such pressure its policy cannot be accepted as honest.
A recently published US report (funded by the Pentagon) proposes that Israel change its nuclear policy. Its authors, Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, say in their 314-page book that Israel should be encouraged
to initiate a Middle East nuclear restraint effort that would help isolate Iran as a regional producer of fissile materials. Israel should announce that it will unilaterally mothball (but not yet dismantle) Dimona, and place the reactor’s mothballing under IAEA monitoring.2
The authors make clear that they are not suggesting that Israel unilaterally renounce its nuclear weapons, merely that it take a first, reversible, step towards nuclear de-escalation, with a view to prompting similar moves by other Middle Eastern states. But Israeli officials dismissed the idea that Israel would lead a regional nuclear-disarmament process in response to a “nuclear-ready” Iran. Israel’s position, an official said, is that a nuclear-free Middle East could be achieved only through comprehensive regional peace treaties.
Witness of Conscience
In 1986, Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu provided technical proof to the London Sunday Times that Israel had some two hundred nuclear warheads. Today, the number is much higher.
Vanunu joined the so-called Nuclear Research Centre at Dimona in 1978 as a technician. At the time, he was a follower of the religio-nationalist, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Like every applicant for a job in Dimona, Vanunu was checked by the Israeli secret service. His support for Kahane was not seen as an obstacle to his being employed at the centre. After a few years, while still holding down his job at Dimona, Vanunu became a student of philosophy at Beersheba University. For a project for a master’s degree he chose the subject, “Moral Issues in the Nuclear Era”. His reading on this subject gradually convinced him that nuclear weapons are immoral since their main use is against civilian populations. They are weapons for destroying whole cities.
Vanunu also discovered that in Israel there had never been a public debate or a democratic decision to build nuclear weapons. That decision was the private choice of one man—David Ben-Gurion. Vanunu therefore decided to resign from his job in Dimona and protest in the Israeli press about the secret—and illegal—activity at the centre.
To prove his claim he took some photos of his workplace before leaving his job (he resigned in 1985). He soon realised that if he informed any Israeli newspaper he would be arrested. He therefore decided to leave Israel.
For a few months he travelled in Europe, passed through the Soviet Union, and finally reached Australia, where he converted to Christianity. He never approached any foreign embassy to offer the photos he had taken in Dimona. After a few months in Sidney, he was persuaded by a friend to offer them to the Sunday Times. He did so, and the newspaper invited him to London to check the reliability of his information. He was interviewed by nuclear specialists who scrutinised his photos and examined his account of the work carried out at Dimona. They concluded that Vanunu’s story was reliable and that Israel had produced some two hundred nuclear bombs.
Vanunu was not paid for this information. His aim was to warn the world and Israel’s citizens about the illegal production of nuclear weapons in Israel—illegal because it was never endorsed by any majority representing Israeli citizens. The Sunday Times published Vanunu’s account in October 1986 and the Israeli secret service began to hunt him down. It lured him to Italy, kidnapped him and took him to Israel. He was tried behind closed doors—no journalist was allowed into the courtroom—and was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.
In 2004, Vanunu was released after serving the full sentence (of which he spent eleven years in solitary confinement). He was forbidden to leave Israel or to talk to journalists.
The Vanunu trial was a travesty of justice, since Israel does not admit it has nuclear weapons. How can a government that does not admit it has nuclear weapons punish someone for revealing something whose existence it denies?
From a nationalistic perspective, Vanunu rendered Israel a service. As Israel’s nuclear weapons are supposedly needed to deter Israel’s enemies from destroying it, these enemies must be made aware that Israel has such weapons. For they will not be deterred without proof of Israeli possession. Whoever provides such proof does Israel a service. For this reason some observers in Israel, like general-turned-historian Meir Pail, insisted that Vanunu was an agent of the secret service and that it had organised his revelations. But the fact that Vanunu was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, and served the entire sentence (unlike criminals who get a remission of one-third of their term), raises questions about the treatment of secret service agents by their own government. To reward a man who rendered a service to his country by imposing upon him an eighteen-year prison term is unusual, to say the least.
An Ignoble Award
Those who really want to create a nuclear-free Middle East must apply international pressure, including economic sanctions, on all Middle East governments to accept international inspection of their nuclear research facilities. Economic, political, and public-relations pressures must be applied to every country that opposes such inspection. This is a minimal demand since “inspection” is not “disarmament”.
Israel has persistently and emphatically opposed any international inspection of its nuclear facilities. So far, no one has put any pressure on Israel to sign the NPT and declare its support for a nuclear-free Middle East, though such a declaration alone would still be a long way from dismantling nuclear weapons.
The latest egregious dereliction of duty in this regard was the awarding of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. This went to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, for their “efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way”.3
Why did the Norwegian Nobel Committee prefer ElBaradei to Mordechai Vanunu, who spent eighteen years in Israeli jails for informing the world’s press about Israel’s nuclear weapons? Awarding the Peace Prize to Vanunu would have been a bold step against nuclear proliferation. It seems that the Nobel Committee is afraid of antagonising the Israeli government—or of being branded anti-Semitic.
Yet what are the facts?
1. Israel was the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East and thus started the nuclear arms race in the region.
2. For forty years, Israel has refused to sign the NPT.
3. Israel refuses to allow IAEA inspection of its Dimona nuclear reactor.
Those who really want to stop the nuclear arms race in the Middle East must take active steps, such as economic sanctions, political pressure, the severing of diplomatic relations, etc., to compel Israel to sign the NPT and allow an IAEA inspection of Dimona. This would indicate to all other governments in the region that the efforts to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone are not biased.
If Israel persists in its refusal to sign the NPT and allow inspection of its nuclear facilities, if it refuses to return to Norway the thirty tons of heavy water it was lent for nuclear research on condition that it was not used for the production of nuclear weapons, then the same measures the United States and the IAEA applied to Iraq must be applied to Israel.
What did ElBaradei do about Israeli nukes? Nothing. What did he say about Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT? Nothing. What did he say about Vanunu’s being jailed for eighteen years for informing the world about Israel’s nukes? Nothing.
ElBaradei visited Jerusalem and refused to meet Vanunu lest he antagonise the Israeli government. No wonder Israel congratulated ElBaradei and the IAEA on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The IAEA applied to Israel a very different policy from the one it applied to Iraq.
The IAEA tries to solicit co-operation on nuclear disarmament from a state that for forty years has refused to co-operate. Why continue with a policy has failed for forty years? Why reject applying any pressure to such a state to make it change its nuclear policy?
The United States, the IAEA, and the Nobel Committee know very well that Israel has nuclear weapons, keeps building them in Dimona, refuses to join the NPT, and prohibits IAEA inspection of Dimona. Yet the United States, the IAEA, and the Nobel Committee adamantly refuse take any step against Israel’s nuclear policy. This makes them accomplices in that policy. Israel persists in its refusal to sign the NPT, ElBaradei and the IAEA fail even to criticise this refusal—and yet they get the Nobel Peace Prize.
Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Hans Bethe, Linus Pauling, and Niels Bohr—Nobel laureates all—would have denounced this as duplicity.
The Threat of Armageddon
The Middle East doomsday clock is ticking. Today, the danger of nuclear war in the Middle East is greater than ever before, though some seek to deny this. Dr Ephraim Kam, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, argues that deterrence and the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” will prove as efficacious in the current Middle East as they were during the Cold War:
We must not forget that even when Iran does have nuclear weapons it will live under major constraints, mainly American deterrence. If Israel succeeds in making the United States declare that it will consider a nuclear attack on Israel tantamount to an attack on the United States this will improve the deterrence of Iran. But even without such a declaration, the Iranians know that by launching a nuclear attack on Israel they risk a US attack on them. They will also take into account an Israeli retaliation that will destroy Tehran. During the Cold War, mutual deterrence prevented war between the United States and the Soviet Union.4
But this is to ignore the profound differences between world politics and regional, Middle East, politics. Middle East politicians lack the sense of responsibility for humanity as a whole that weighed on Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The American and Soviet leaders knew that nuclear war between their countries was likely to result in a catastrophe of such magnitude as to imperil the survival of the human race.
Middle East leaders operate under no such burden of responsibility. They are motivated by considerations of honour, nationalism and religion, rather than by concern for all humanity
If outside pressure is not applied to all governments in the Middle East, a nuclear war in the region will be unavoidable. But its consequences will not be confined to the Middle East.
1. Maariv, 9 October 2005 (all extracts from the Hebrew press have been translated by the author).
2. Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, eds., Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2005), p. 16.
3. Ole Danbolt Mjøs, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, presentation speech, Oslo, 10 December 2005
Akiva Orr is a member of the Israeli Committee for a Middle East Free of All Weapons of Mass Destruction.
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Labels: Jewish Threat