3. Israel: Security and status

The French were willing to share their nuclear knowledge with others, and once Joliot-Curie had been sacked it became easier to accept French help without fear of seeming to embrace some side project of the Comintern. Perhaps the chief beneficiary of French openhandedness was Israel. Born into conflict, Israel had security concerns from the start of its existence in 1948. Its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was haunted by the Holocaust, and he feared the genocide against Jews would be continued by Arabs in the Middle East. If Israel had a nuclear weapon, or if other nations thought it did, enemies would refrain from attacking the Jewish state out of concern for their preservation. Ben-Gurion was also aware that Jews had played a key role in nuclear physics and chemistry before and during the war, and he hoped to collect a world-class scientific community in Israeli universities and institutes. Avner Cohen, who has written the definitive history of Israel’s nuclear project, says that Ben-Gurion began thinking seriously about a nuclear reactor (at least) during the 1948 War of Independence, as the Israelis called it. (Israelis fought Arab armies in part with a wildly inaccurate mortar nicknamed the Davidka, the shell from which created a small, mushroom-shaped cloud when it landed in the desert; the Arabs insisted the Israelis were using nuclear weapons against them.) The Israeli government sent six young physicists abroad in 1949, expecting them to learn some sophisticated nuclear science, and combed the Negev Desert in a futile search for uranium. Reasoning that expertise might eventually be traded for resources, Israeli scientists explored innovations in the production of heavy water and the refinement of uranium.

Ben-Gurion’s interest in the pursuit of nuclear power, and ultimately a nuclear weapon, was joined in the mid-1950s to the willingness of other nations to assist him in at least the first quest. The Americans’ Atoms for Peace program, announced by President Eisenhower in December 1953, soon brought an offer to the Israelis of a small research reactor. Better still, in mid-1956 the French, seeking Israeli help with their plans to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt, dangled as payment a reactor complete with uranium fuel. This was not exactly a purchase of Israel’s cooperation but an ‘implicit incentive’, according to Cohen, sweetening the deal for an Israeli government inclined to join the Suez expedition anyway. Forced by US pressure to back off from its aggression (with Israel and Britain), France resolved, as noted, in late 1956 to speed its nuclear-weapons program, and also grew more sympathetic to Israeli security concerns. (Britain, too, evidently got in on this act, funneling heavy water and small amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium to Israel from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.) France and Israel negotiated an agreement providing French help with building a nuclear compound in Dimona, in the Negev. Signed a year after the Suez fiasco, the deal provided Israel with a reactor capable of yielding up to 15 kilograms of plutonium a year, and evidently (the agreement is still classified) added a reprocessing facility wherein plutonium could be extracted. What the French gained from the arrangement, aside from Israeli gratitude, was not obvious. And, when de Gaulle became premier in the spring of 1958, he tried to put a stop to French-Israeli collaboration, holding hostage further shipments of uranium until Israel agreed to limit itself to peaceful uses of nuclear power and to permit inspection of its plant by the International Atomic Energy Commission. But by then Dimona was fully under construction, and other benefactors had been found: the British, through the Norwegians, sold Israel heavy water, and Jews in the United States, almost certainly knowing what they were doing, sent Israel money directly for the project. The French also permitted an Israeli scientist to watch an early nuclear-weapon test in the Sahara.

The American government only slowly acknowledged to itselfthat Israel intended to develop nuclear weapons at Dimona. In part this was because Ben-Gurion misled the United States about the purposes ofIsraeli research, denying publicly and privately that Israel sought to make a bomb. US diplomats were inclined to accept at face value Ben-Gurion’s denials: it was easier to hope that Ben-Gurion was telling the truth, and it may have been that the Americans were not altogether unhappy to have doubts about Israeli military capabilities creep into the minds of the Arabs and the Russians. Nevertheless, when incoming President John F. Kennedy asked Eisenhower’s Secretary of State Christian Herter about nuclear ‘proliferation’ in January 1961, Herter replied: ‘Israel and India.’ Thus informed, Kennedy insisted that Israel allow US inspectors into Dimona, and he noted his nation’s ‘deep commitment to the security of Israel’ as an alternative to Israeli development of a nuclear-weapons capability. Ben-Gurion’s response was to allow American ‘visitors’ (not inspectors) to come briefly to Dimona over several years and otherwise to continue delay and prevarication with regard to the weapons issue. The ‘visits’ started in early 1964. The Americans’ hosts at Dimona were friendly and seemed cooperative, but never once allowed the visitors to see the plutonium-reprocessing operation, which would have revealed clearly Israel’s intentions. The CIA nonetheless concluded, by 1963, that such activity was probably going on. (The CIA was later accused of having supplied Israel with enriched uranium during this period.) Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy following the latter’s assassination in November 1963, was less inclined than his predecessor to pressure the Israelis on the nuclear weapons’ issue. He compromised: in exchange for an Israeli pledge not to ‘introduce’ the weapons into the region, the United States would supply Israel with conventional arms sufficient in number and sophistication for the Jewish state not to need atomic bombs. By ‘introduce’ the Americans may have meant ‘create’. The Israelis meant ‘use’. It suited both sides to avoid clarifying the matter.

This calculated ambiguity about its nuclear program—Cohen calls it ‘opacity’—allowed the Israelis to proceed with weapons development under the assumption that Arab states would worry about what might happen to them unless they avoided direct confrontation. Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, threatened to attack Israel should it become apparent that the Israelis were building atomic weapons, but he also denigrated nuclear weapons as unlikely to be useful or decisive in war and suggested that Israel might just be trying to intimidate his people by pretending to develop a bomb. For the most part, Nasser and other Arab leaders thought it best to keep quiet about the issue, perhaps hoping that the Israelis would be less likely to build nuclear weapons iftheir adversaries seemed unconcerned about them. If so, the strategy failed to work. The Israelis feared an Egyptian air strike on Dimona. In May 1967, as armies mobilized and tensions rose in the Middle East, Egyptian MIGs twice flew reconnaissance missions over the nuclear facility. After the first overflight, on the 17th, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol called up thousands of reserves and told aides: ‘It is war, I am telling you, it is war.’ Following the second overflight, Ezer Weizman, the military’s chief of operations, concluded that an Egyptian attack on the nuclear base was imminent, and urged Eshkol (writes Cohen) ‘to preempt immediately or at the latest the next morning’. Both sides stayed their hands, but only temporarily; on 5 June the Israeli air force struck Egyptian planes on the ground, initiating the Six Day War. Israel won decisively. But, whatever the outcome, the Israelis’ perception of the threat that preceded—in their view, induced—the war convinced them that a nuclear weapon belonged in their arsenal. Indeed: at the time war broke out, it was already there, though it had not been tested and, short of a catastrophic event that put the existence of the Jewish state in doubt, it could not be used. Maintaining an air of mystery about its capabilities and intentions allowed Israel to keep its enemies in a salutary state ofuncertainty about what it might do.

Israel’s ‘opacity’ concerning the bomb persisted. On 1 July 1968 sixty-five nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel was not among them. Article Two prohibited signatory nations from working toward the acquisition or manufacture of‘nuclear devices’, and the Israelis were unready to make this pledge. The Johnson administration pressed Eshkol to sign; the Prime Minister demurred. Meanwhile, the Americans sought clarification of Israel’s enigmatic promise not to ‘introduce’ nuclear weapons to the Middle East. The Israelis, through their ambassador in Washington Yitzhak Rabin, played coy, but, when pushed by the American negotiator, Paul Warnke, Rabin declared that (as Warnke put it) ‘an unadvertised, untested nuclear device is not a nuclear weapon’. Because Israel had not admitted having a nuclear weapon and had not tested one, it had no nuclear weapon. The public disclosure of the bomb in Israel’s basement, made by Hedrick Smith in the New York Times in July 1970, seemed neither to shock anyone nor to change the Israeli position. Virtually everyone continued to abjure talking about the Israeli nuclear weapon. Perhaps they felt there was nothing to be done about it. Perhaps they hoped it would go away.6

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