Israel’s Nuclear Program

By |2019-10-01T11:43:52-08:00October 1, 2019|

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The State of Israel is considered to be the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, but has refused to confirm or deny this assertion. The author Ofer Israeli explains: “This approach is called amimut in Hebrew, which translates into ‘ambiguity’ or ‘opacity’. Accordingly, Israel has de-emphasized the existence of its nuclear capability, despite the fact that this approach is arguably incompatible with the norms and values of a liberal democracy.”[1] However, there is little ambiguity left about Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.

Early nuclear development

When the British Mandate of Palestine came to a close in 1948, the State of Israel was officially recognized by the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which called for the withdrawal of the colonial occupation of Palestine by the British. The Plan imposed the delineation of boundaries between an Arab and Jewish State, together with the internationalization of Jerusalem. Inspired by the bombing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fuelled by nationalism, the Prime Minister of the newly created State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the development of a nuclear program. Shimon Peres, who served as Minister of Defense, was Prime Minister twice, and then became President of Israel, declared that Ben-Gurion had believed that “Science could compensate us for what Nature has denied us.”[2] Ben-Gurion firmly believed that the nuclear bomb could back up his commitment to Zionism, the political movement that sustains the creation of an independent Jewish nation. In sum, the nuclear bomb was seen as a defensive tool in response to what the Jewish people endured during the Holocaust.

Even before the 1948 Declaration of the State of Israel, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion had recruited some Jewish scientists from abroad with the mandate to develop a nuclear program. In 1949 the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Science Corps – the Hemed Gimmel – were ordered to conduct a geological survey of the Negev desert with the aim of finding sources of uranium, located in phosphate deposits in very small amounts. Also, a few Israeli students were sent abroad, including one who was sent to the University of Chicago to study under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, the creator of the first nuclear reactor. In 1952, the Hemed Gimmel was moved from the IDF to the Ministry of Defense, where it became the Emet, the Division of Research and Infrastructure. In this year, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) was secretly established and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion appointed Professor Ernst David Bergmann as its Chair.[3]

As scientific works progressed, diplomatic relations between Israel and other countries followed suit. Pivotal for this purpose was Minister of Defense Shimon Peres, who was able to reinforce cooperation with France on the nuclear front since the early 1950s. Israel and France were close allies. In fact, France was the principal arm supplier for Israel, which, in turn, provided intelligence when instability spread in the French colonies in North Africa. Moreover, Israeli scientists helped build the G1 plutonium production reactor and the UP1 reprocessing nuclear plant in Marcoule (France), and earned in exchange the possibility that Israeli scientists could observe the development of the nuclear programs at French nuclear facilities.

On July 12, 1955 Israel became part of the U.S. Atoms for Peace framework and signed a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, which allowed the U.S., two years later, to assist Israel with the construction of a small research reactor in Nachal Soreq. This site would later be used by Israel to conceal the construction of its clandestine nuclear reactor at Dimona.

In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. His decision prompted Israel, France and the United Kingdom to invade the Sinai with the aim to seize it. Israel was promised by France a nuclear reactor for its support, which it accepted. However, following the invasion of Suez on October 29, 1956, the Soviet Union threatened intervention. This, in turn, prompted the United States to exercise enormous pressure on its allies to induce them to retreat. Through diplomatic cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for preventing the latter to retaliate, France and the United Kingdom were forced to withdraw within a week, while Israel left only in March 1957. Feeling humiliated, France reinforced its decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program. In October 1957, both France and Israel finalized their relationship thanks to which Israel was able to obtain from France a larger heavy-water reactor (a 24 megawatt EL-102 reactor) together with a reprocessing plant. Israel agreed, in exchange, that the reprocessing of plutonium would only be for peaceful purposes through an agreement that remained secret, as both countries didn’t want to deal with international pressure. It was, therefore, decided that the construction of the Negev Nuclear Research Centre would start at the end of 1957 in the Negev Desert near Dimona, an operation that, since its very beginning, remained shrouded in extreme secrecy. To help with the building of the nuclear site, 2,500 Frenchmen had been secretly living in Dimona. In 2004, The Guardian reported: “In Dimona, French engineers poured in to help build Israel a nuclear reactor and a far more secret reprocessing plant capable of separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel. This was the real giveaway that Israel’s nuclear programme was aimed at producing weapons.”[4] To avoid further scrutiny, the French living in Dimona were forbidden to write directly to family members and friends in France. Instead, they had to send their mail to a mailbox in Latin America.[5]

The rise of nationalist President Charles de Gaulle in 1959 put the cooperation between Israel and France at risk. President de Gaulle requested that Dimona be open to international inspections, and imposed as a condition for future collaborations that Israel would stop reprocessing plutonium. Through a two-year negotiation between Shimon Peres and the French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, Peres secured France’s cooperation until 1966, but the supply of uranium ended in 1963. Due to this, Israel decided to buy uranium from other countries, such as Great Britain and Norway. In 2006, BBC Newsnight[6] reported that the United Kingdom made hundreds of shipments of restricted materials to Israel during the 1950s and 1960s. These shipments included uranium-235 and plutonium, despite the British Intelligence warning the British government that the deal could help Israel build a nuclear bomb. Ignoring the warning, Great Britain also shipped 20 tons of heavy water to Israel via a Norwegian company called Noratom, using the company as a front.[7]

Israel reached out to Argentina, in addition to Great Britain, which agreed to sell the country 100 tons of uranium oxide, otherwise called yellowcake,[8] that was shipped to Israel between 1963 and 1966.[9] The relationship with Norway went so far that, in 1960, Norway repurchased 20 tons of heavy water it had originally sold to the U.K. and exported it directly from the U.K. to Israel.[10] Israel obtained fissile material from the U.K. and Norway on the promise that it would be used only for peaceful purposes, although, once again, intelligence warned that that could not be the case. Finally, in 1965, Israel received from South Africa 10 tons of yellowcake under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreements. It is estimated that this is the year when Dimona’s reactor became operational. The trading relationship between Israel and South Africa continued over the years, and was subject to yearly inspections by the South African Atomic Energy Board. Inspections lasted until 1976, when the two countries agreed to remove the bilateral safeguards through which Israel obtained 500 tons of uranium for plutonium production at the Dimona’s reactor, and gave South Africa, in exchange, 30 grams of tritium.[11]

Although Israel has never publicly acknowledged that its nuclear program was aimed at building the atomic bomb, it is nonetheless believed that it managed to assemble enough material to build rudimentary nuclear devices during the crisis leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, otherwise known Third Arab-Israeli War, which began on June 5, when Israel bombed Egyptian airfields and launched a ground invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. Historian Avner Cohen estimated that Israel had planned to give a demonstration of the bomb as a last resort on this occasion, but it turned unnecessary considering the overwhelming victory that Israel achieved at the end of the war, on June 10.[12] The following year, the Mossad secretly purchased 200 tons of yellowcake from the Belgian company Union Minière. Through this operation, known as Operation Plumbat, the Belgian company shipped the uranium from Antwerp to Genoa (Italy). However, on its way to Genoa, the uranium was transferred to another vessel directed to Israel.[13] In this period of time, although Israel’s nuclear capability could not be understood publicly and precisely, its policy of “nuclear opacity” became more prominent, especially when, in 1968, Israel refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even if subjected to intense U.S. pressure. It must be said, however, that the pressure the United States exercised on Israel has always been very controversial. I will touch on this point more extensively later in this paper.

An unconfirmed nuclear test

During the 1970s, Israel is believed to have enlarged its nuclear arsenal considerably, producing at least 10 nuclear weapons, as well as aircraft and missiles for their delivery.  Historians believe that Israel was close to deploying its first nuclear-capable ballistic-missile in 1973,[14] the year when Israel was involved in the Yom Kippur War, otherwise called the Ramadan War. [15] On this occasion, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack on Israel to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The attack was launched on Yom Kippur (October 6), the holiest day in Judaism, which also occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Although the possibility of resorting to the use of a nuclear device was an option, Prime Minister Golda Meir did not believe Israel’s survival was at stake and declined dropping the nuclear bomb. This war ended, once again, with Israel’s victory.

Maintaining its politics of ambiguity, Israel has never conducted a publicly recognized nuclear test. However, there are speculations that on September 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite detected a double flash of light in the Indian Ocean, off the cost of South Africa. As Nuclear Threat Initiative explains: “Double flashes are associated with nuclear detonations, where the initial fireball of a nuclear explosion is ‘rapidly overtaken by expanding hydrodynamic shock wave,’ which hides the fireball.”[16] It is believed to have been a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test, but both governments have denied any connection to it.

U.S.-Israeli relationship

The policy adopted by the United States towards Israel is of paramount importance for understanding the development of Israel’s nuclear program and the possibility for it to maintain its opaque and destabilizing position over the possession of nuclear weapons. Galen Jackson explains: “Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons […] has been ‘a core, long-standing, and driving goal of U.S. grand strategy,’ one that Washington has pursued ‘since the start of the nuclear age, pursued across presidential administrations despite important changes in the international system.”[17] However, this approach has certainly not been adopted equally across the globe. As Jackson elucidates, President Dwight D. Eisenhower intended to arm NATO allies with nuclear weapons, while his successor, President John F. Kennedy, sought to establish a nuclear relationship with France. Europe wasn’t the only partner in the nuclear arena. Indeed, President Richard M. Nixon, together with his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, did not oppose China, Pakistan and India reinforcing their nuclear weapons programs, hoping that they could serve as a counterbalance against the Soviet Union.

President Eisenhower believed that the spread of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes could be beneficial to U.S. global influence and a way to ensure victory in the Cold War. In this framework, Israel, by signing on to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, could obtain a small research reactor and start its own nuclear program. The safeguards intended to prevent the misuse of nuclear resources were inadequate and poorly enforced. In addition to the endemic dysfunction of the Atoms for Peace program, U.S. domestic politics was highly influenced by American Jewish organizations and voters, which largely affected the development of an acquiescent attitude toward Israel. In this regard, Long and Shifrinson write: “In an environment where policy guidance on nuclear issues was mixed and U.S. leaders faced domestic incentives not to unnecessarily antagonize Israel, intelligence on the Israeli program was limited,”[18] or discounted.

Even thought President Eisenhower pressured Israel to abandon the Egyptian territory during the Suez Crisis in 1956, he dismissed, in the following years, the intelligence that assessed that the ongoing close cooperation between France and Israel was capable of providing Israel with nuclear weapons. Likewise, President Eisenhower left uncirculated a CIA report indicating that Norway had finalized the selling of heavy water to Israel, and dismissed photographic evidence of the secret nuclear reactor that was being built at Dimona. Only following media reports about a secret nuclear reactor being built in Israel, did Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion publicly announce on December 21, 1960 that Israel was building a reactor at Dimona. Although Ben-Gurion stated that Israel nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, the secrecy surrounding the construction of the Dimona’s reactor left doubts over the veracity of his statement.

President John F. Kennedy seemed to be more oriented to upholding non-proliferation policies. According to historians Avner Cohen and William Burr, Kennedy wanted to prevent Israel from getting the nuclear bomb, and considered this requirement “central to his efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.”[19] They notice that since the very first moment of his presidency, Kennedy insisted that regular inspections take place at Dimona. However, he did virtually nothing to make this a reality. When inspections took place, they never challenged the suspicions that the Israelis were pursuing nuclear weapons capability. In fact, the inspections at Dimona were strictly controlled by the Israelis, and could only be conducted at the first floor of the nuclear facility. Moreover, U.S. inspectors could not use their technical instruments, or take measurements, or see the control room. Therefore, they couldn’t produce any evidence related to nuclear weapons activities. It was later acknowledged that, in order to cover up the real activities at the Dimona reactor, the Israelis had walled up elevator banks down to the underground reprocessing facility to evade discovery of plutonium production activities.[20] Galen Jackson comments on this point: “Aside from the fact that the visit, as is widely recognized, had been tightly controlled by the Israelis, the mission given to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) scientists who had visited Dimona, as Cohen points out in his book, had been “not to challenge what they were told, but to verify it.”[21]  Further in his paper he explains the reason behind the U.S. unwillingness to challenge Israel’s secret nuclear program:

[T]he prime minister [Ben-Gurion] had regularly made the point that Israel could not afford to give up its nuclear program without getting something in return from the Americans. His successor, Levi Eshkol, was even more forthright on the matter. “[T]he question of whether or not nuclear weapons appear in the [Middle East],” he candidly told a British representative in July 1963, “depends on the Great Powers and their willingness to provide Israel with the security assurance it seeks.” The prime minister’s basic approach to the matter was to tell Kennedy, “If you want it, there will be no [nuclear weapons]. [But] give us something else which will deter [the Arabs].” Indeed, his position seems to have been quite clear: “[W]e have Dimona … . If you are opposed to that, what can you promise? If you can [give a security guarantee] please [tell us] how and why.” In any case, it was the Kennedy administration’s assumption by the spring of 1963, when the White House did finally turn its attention to the nuclear question, that to keep Israel nonnuclear the United States would need to grant it such an assurance. Washington’s “hole card with Israel,” National Security Council (NSC) staffer Robert Komer explained, was Jerusalem’s “desire for a US security guarantee; if possible we should tie this not only to Jordan but to Israeli agreement not to develop nuclear weapons.” Kennedy, Assistant Secretary of State Phillips Talbot wrote on 20 May, felt “it important to give serious consideration to Israel’s strong desire for a more specific security guarantee.” It was the president’s belief, he added, that “only through allaying Israel [sic] fears about the long-range threat to its existence that leverage to forestall possible Israel [sic] preventive warfare and to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons can be maintained.” Kennedy, however, was deeply reluctant to make such a bargain, fearing it would undercut Washington’s ability to maintain a balanced policy between the Arabs and Israelis. “Each matter arising in our relationship with Israel,” the State Department stressed, “is carefully weighed in terms of its effect on our policy of impartiality as between Israel and the Arabs and of its effect on Israel’s security.” If the United States were to align itself more closely with Israel it “[w]ould constitute a direct challenge to the Arabs by the US” and “destroy growing Arab confidence in our impartiality.” Probably of even greater concern to Kennedy, an alliance of this type would “render the US responsible in Arab eyes for every Israeli military venture” and “encourage the more fanatical Arabs to seek a similar relationship with the Soviet Union.”[22]

It is, therefore, important to understand how much weight the geopolitical context and the legacy of the Holocaust had in defining Kennedy’s policy towards Israel, as well as Dwight Eisenhower, who preceded Kennedy, and Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, subsequently. During this period of time, in addition to the emergence of the Soviet Union as a rival nuclear power, the U.S. also feared West Germany’s potential nuclearization,[23] and the possibility that China also could acquire the atomic bomb.  However, with the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty by the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union in 1963, the West German and Chinese nuclear questions became less stringent. For this reason, Kennedy released some pressure. He adopted the policy through which he made sure that the Israelis could at least project the image of not wanting to pursue nuclear capability, while reassuring them that the U.S. would not protest Israel’s nuclear development.

Lyndon Johnson, who became President of the United States in 1963, adopted a much subtler attitude toward Israel’s nuclear ambitions. In his paper, Jackson, states: “The president, it seems, only used tough language during his formal meeting with Eskol [then Israeli Prime Minister] to appease his subordinates and thereby neutralize them.”[24] Following the 1965 negotiations over Dimona, where the U.S. and Israel discussed the need to pursue inspections at the Israeli nuclear reactor, Israel simply reiterated that the nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes, and the Johnson administration deployed a very limited scope of technical intelligence resources. To this point, Long and Shifrinson clarify that:

Between on-site inspections, U.S. insight into Israeli nuclear operations was constrained. Furthermore, since the inspections were subject to Israeli whims, Israeli leaders could stymie U.S. collection efforts. Indeed, contemporary U.S. analysts worried that Israel would simply obtain fissile material by running fuel through the reactor between U.S. visits. Second, the IC [intelligence community] continued to play catch up with the Israeli program and often missed or only belatedly recognized subsequent developments that might have provided further warning that a nuclear weapon stockpile – more than just a breakout capacity – had become the Israeli objective.[25]

The year 1965 also marks a pivotal event that depicts how loose the intelligence was around Israeli nuclear ambitions. Known as the 1965 Apollo Affairs, it refers to the stealing of approximately 200 kg of highly-enriched uranium from a nuclear reprocessing plant in Pennsylvania, which was owned by Zalman Shapiro who had close ties with the government of Israel. What reinforces the speculation around Israel’s responsibility in this matter is that the evidence collected by the FBI was barely analyzed, and the coordination between the FBI, the Department of Energy, and the CIA was very limited.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty

Two years later, in April 1967, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow wrote to President Johnson:

Israel has never leveled with us on its nuclear intent. Our intelligence people have scattered – but as yet unconfirmed – evidence that Israel is quietly but steadily placing itself in a position to produce nuclear weapons on short notice. We also know that Israel is investing large sums in a French built surface-to-surface missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. I must emphasize that we do not know exactly what Israel is doing or what its position on the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] will be. But we know enough to be seriously concerned. [26]

Apart from confirming the seriousness of the situation, predominantly induced by Israel’s ambiguity around its nuclear program, Rostow’s words also refer to another important element: that is, the refusal by Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was in the making at the time of Rostow’s report to Johnson, and became open for signature from 1968. As briefly mentioned before, on this point, the United States always succumbed to the refusal by Israel to be part of the Treaty, and kept its conventional arms trade open with Israel. For example, in 1968, the U.S. sold 50 F-4 Phantom aircrafts that Israel desperately wanted.[27] The U.S. could have used this occasion, like many others, as a lever against Israel to induce it to a) allow more thorough inspections, and b) sign the NPT. But it chose not to. Indeed, the U.S. attitude of ‘hear nothing, see nothing’ constituted tacit assurance of alliance against Soviet ambitions in the region. Jackson comments on this point:

The administration feared that if the United States intervened, it would wreck its position in the Arab world—thereby polarizing the Middle East along Cold War lines—and potentially spark a region-wide war that could escalate to the superpower level. Moreover, because the United States was already involved militarily in Southeast Asia, Johnson lacked the necessary support at home for a major US operation in the Middle East. [28]

Moreover, he adds:

“The existence of a large, well-organized group of Israel sympathizers within the U.S. body politic,” one State Department paper noted, “obviously puts a limit on the degree to which the [United States government] might contemplate a different policy.”[29]

Allowing Israel to become nuclear would therefore spare the United States the need to intervene in a future conflict to protect both Israeli and American interests.

U.S. President Richard Nixon did not divert from the policy of subordinating nonproliferation goals to other political interests, as long as Israel maintained secrecy on its achievement, namely the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Once again, the reason was to not “spark Soviet nuclear guarantees to the Arabs, tighten the Soviet hold on the Arabs and increase the danger of US-Soviet nuclear confrontation.”[30] Allowing Israel to publicly declare its possession of nuclear weapons, would have prevented, or largely complicated, an Arab-Israeli settlement, and exposed the United States to a “charge of complicity in helping Israel go nuclear […].”[31] Concern for nonproliferation wasn’t a priority. A final condition that explains U.S. policy toward Israel is the feeling, by many American élites, that the legacy of the Holocaust had somehow legitimized Israeli nuclear ambition, giving them “every right to acquire weapons that could prevent its destruction.”[32] It is for this reason, that on September 26, 1969, President Nixon had a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in which they agreed that Israel could pursue its nuclear ambition without any interference by the U.S. with the only condition being that Israel would refrain from testing its nuclear devices and going public about their possession. In exchange, the U.S. would not press Israel to sign the NPT. The documents proving the discussion that Nixon and Meir had during this meeting – known as the Nixon-Meir Agreement – were kept secret until they were declassified by the Obama administration.[33]

Hypocrisy

This mode of thinking takes the United States to the brink of hypocrisy, as it implies that Israel, unlike Iran, for example, had the special “privilege” to base its sense of security on the manufacturing of the nuclear bomb without being questioned. In this fashion, all the evidence supporting the assembly of nuclear weapons by Israel in the context of the Yom Kippur War; the acquisition of uranium and plutonium via clandestine channels through the years; and the likely 1979 nuclear test off the coast of South Africa were dismissed or downplayed.

Israel, with the compliance of the United States, adopted an aggressive policy toward Iraq on June 7, 1981, by carrying out a preemptive strike on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor, arguing that it had been designed for the construction of nuclear weapons. For Israel the strike was legitimate as it served to preempt future threats to its very existence. The government issued a statement on the strike: “On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel. We shall defend the citizens of Israel in good time and with all the means at our disposal,”[34] thus outlining what would become part of Israel’s counter-proliferation policy, known as the “Begin Doctrine.”[35] Contrary to Israel’s expectations, the strike reinforced Iraq’s nuclear ambition, and contributed to render even more clandestine its own nuclear program. In a snowball effect, Israel’s action contributed to Iran’s desire to pursue its nuclear ambition during the 1990s, which, in turn, propelled Israel’s decision to develop a sea-based second-strike capability. Israel would commission its first submarines from Germany at the end of the 1990s.[36]

Israel’s aggressiveness in relying on ambiguity around its nuclear program would also be evident with regard to the proposal – advanced on the occasion of the 1995 NPT Review Conference – to establish a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ). At this time, the assurance that the Israeli government had obtained during Nixon’s presidency was no longer tenable under President George H. W. Bush. The Israeli government took the MEWMDFZ framework as an occasion to state that peace in the Middle East was a precondition to the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, while the Arab states were sustaining that peace would only be possible with the renouncing of nuclear weapons by Israel.[37] The same entitlement to a level of superiority and abuse that Israel has adopted through the years against the Palestinians – with more serious consequences for them – is directed, in nuclear matters, toward the rest of the Arab world.

Everything that so far in this paper has been treated as speculation regarding Israel’s nuclear program came to light in 1986, when a nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, revealed to the British Press that Israel had produced at Dimona dozens of kilograms of plutonium each year between 1980 and 1986, and was also producing fuel which could have been used for boosted fission or fusion weapons, with Israel possessing between 100-200 nuclear weapons.[38] Following his revelations, the Mossad managed to lure Vanunu to Italy, where he was kidnapped and taken to Israel. He was sentenced to eighteen years of prison, eleven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He still faces restrictions today, notably of speech and movement. Daniel Ellsberg has defined him “the preeminent hero of the nuclear era.”[39] Moreover, in 1987, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for “his courage and self-sacrifice in revealing the extent of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.” Vanunu’s declarations exposed Israel’s nuclear program, supplemented by the underestimation of evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence by different U.S. administrations: General Ford, in charge when Israel crossed the nuclear threshold following the Yom Kippur War; Jimmy Carter, in charge when the Vela incident took place; and Ronald Reagan, who, following Vanunu’s revelations, didn’t change U.S. policy toward Israel.

With regards to his policy toward Israel, President George H. W. Bush is credited for creating opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to happen. His foreign policy, with regard to Israel, aimed at stopping the growth of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He didn’t restrain Israel’s nuclear program because its policy toward Iraq constituted a reassurance for the United States during the 1991 Gulf War. His successor, President Bill Clinton, reportedly engaged in correspondence with the Israeli government to reassure “the Jewish state that no future American arms-control initiative would “detract” from Israel’s “deterrent” capabilities […].”[40] Under Clinton, Israel signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but didn’t ratify it, and refused to participate in the negotiations that led to the drafting of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. As had happened in previous U.S. administrations, Israel was spared any pressure. President George W. Bush didn’t adopt a different policy either, but, apart from explicitly denying Israel an arrangement of peaceful nuclear assistance (as the U.S. did with India in 2005), he never effectively constituted an obstacle for Israel. Under Bush, Israel pursued Operation Orchard in 2007, a preventive strike launched by Israel as part of the Begin Doctrine on a facility in Syria suspected to be a nuclear reactor, without sparking any outcry within the U.S. administration.

During the Obama years, Iran’s nuclear program became Israel’s number one security issue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often referred to Iran as an unacceptable threat to the region and to the very existence of Israel. There are also allegations that Israel was behind the assassination of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists.[41] As reported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, even though Netanyahu has called for military action against Iran,[42] many within the Israeli establishment were against attacking Iran in the same fashion as Iraq and Syria were attacked.  They feared that both the Islamic Republic and its proxies, namely Hamas and Hezbollah, could retaliate against Israel. In this regard, President Barack Obama always declined Israel’s call to declare a “red line” over Iran’s nuclear program, which would have resulted in an open military confrontation on many fronts. Moreover, President Obama never agreed to attacking Iran because the latter never manufactured an atomic weapon. It goes without saying that the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States + Germany) and Iran on June 14, 2015 was not welcomed by Israel.

All this said, and even though President Obama had a frosty relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he never used U.S. aid and military assistance as a leverage to force Israeli concessions on either the nuclear front, nor on the advancement of the Israeli settlements on Palestinian Territories, despite the U.S. renewed call for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East during the 2010 NPT Review Conference. However, Israel’s refusal to join has, once again, gone unchallenged. As reported by The New Yorker:

Ahead of a nonproliferation conference in 2010, Netanyahu became concerned, once again, that Israel could come under international pressure to disarm. In response, Obama made a public statement that echoed the contents of [some] secret letters [between the U.S. and the Israeli government], without revealing their existence. “We discussed issues that arose out of the nuclear-nonproliferation conference,” Obama said, after meeting with Netanyahu on July 6, 2010. “And I reiterated to the Prime Minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against . . . it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.”[43]

President Donald Trump kept this condition of exclusivity intact. Moreover, he withdrew from the 2015 JCPOA on May 18, 2018, and from the INF (the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty)[44] on August 2, 2019, thus wiping away thirty years of efforts to reduce the nuclear race between the two countries that, together, retain more 90% of nuclear power in the world. On the Israeli front, President Trump has also reportedly signed a secret letter – a legacy stemming from Reagan, who initiated it in an oral form referred to in the above quotation – that pledged not to put Israel under pressure and induce it into relinquishing its nuclear weapons program.[45] It is obvious how the protection surrounding Israel’s nuclear program is undermining the project to realize a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and the possibility that Israel could join the NPT. It also further increases division amongst the attendants at the NPT Review Conference scheduled to take place in 2020, and reduces the possibility that one of its stronger members – the United States – would finally decide to exercise its power over Israel. Finally, it diminishes even further the hope that both Israel and the United States could ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted at the United Nations in July 2017. The TPNW is the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination. Specifically, “it prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities.”[46] The TPNW will enter into legal force once 50 countries have signed and ratified it. As of August 29, 2019, seventy states have signed it and twenty-six[47] have ratified it. The U.S., like all other nuclear states, including Israel, refuses to sign and ratify it. More precisely, following the treaty’s adoption, the permanent missions of the United States, the United Kingdom and France issued a joint statement indicating that they did not intend “to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.”[48]

In its last report, issued in June 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) claimed that Israel is likely to possess nearly one hundred nuclear weapons,[49] comprising 30 gravity bombs capable of being delivered by fighter jets; an additional 50 warheads that can be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles; and an unknown number of nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missiles that would grant Israel a sea-based second-strike capability. As previously mentioned, other authors, such as Long and Shifrinson, quantify Israel’s nuclear arsenal between 100 and 200 warheads. Without access to Israel’s nuclear facilities, unfortunately, it is impossible to achieve an exact quantification in the same way that it was difficult, for historians and inspectors in the past, to measure the development of Israel’s nuclear program. To achieve quantification of Israel’s nuclear power, historians can only rely on limited access to U.S declassified government documents and on the testimonies of those who have inside knowledge of Israel’s nuclear program. What seems to be clear is that Israel, supported by the U.S. in its ambiguity, does possess nuclear weapons. On the occasion of a visit to the Dimona nuclear reactor in August 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “Those who threaten to wipe us out put themselves in a similar danger, and in any event will not achieve their goal.”[50]

In addition to the danger posed by the retention of nuclear weapons by Israel, there have been revelations that the Dimona nuclear facility has leaked radioactive waste. It is very plausible, that, because of its ambiguous position, Israel can only rely on the clandestine market to acquire outdated nuclear technology. The reactor is located only thirty miles from Tel Aviv. But the most serious concern is for the city of Dimona, only eight miles from the nuclear site. These warnings haven’t prompted the Israeli government to fix the leaks, allegedly because Dimona is predominantly populated by North African Jews – a marginalized community – and is surrounded by the Negev Desert, home to many Palestinian Bedouin villages,[51] which Israel considers illegal and subject to cultural and physical annihilation.

The possession of nuclear weapons, and, prior to that, their testing, is inherently genocidal, and racist. Some of the most powerful nuclear countries, namely France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have repeatedly conducted their testing, dropped their atomic bombs and deployed uranium-enriched munitions on lands inhabited by indigenous, non-white populations; thus, polluting the environment, and condemning to death and disabilities people living in the Pacific Islands, Africa, South-East Asia, Iraq, and others, for generations to come. As Hayley Ramsay-Jones points out: “[N]uclear weapons are problematic because by nature they are genocidal. If we think about the idea of the willingness of a group of people, or a nation, to destroy in whole, or in part, another group of people, or another nation; to obliterate their culture, their way of life; to destroy their religious, ethnic, racial identities.  This is the very definition of genocide and that’s xenophobic and racist.”[52] The choice to adopt amimut – as Israel does – is only possible because of the protection the Israeli government receives from a structure of power that privileges some at the expense of others, as the intermittent opposition Israel received, particularly from Washington, since its inception demonstrates. The case of Israel is emblematic and revealing at the same time. In fact, at its very core, amimut demonstrates symmetry between Israel’s nuclear thinking and its internal policies. Both are nothing but racist and genocidal.

Footnotes

[1] Israeli, Ofer (2015) “Israel’s nuclear amimut policy and its consequences,” Israel Affairs, Vol 21, no 4, p. 542.

[2] Cohen, Avner (1998) Israel And The Bomb, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 11.

[3] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[4] Borger, Julian, “The truth about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal,” The Guardian, January 15, 2014. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/truth-israels-secret-nuclear-arsenal).

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Meiron, Jones, “Secret sale of UK plutonium to Israel,” BBC Two – Newsnight, March 10, 2006 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/4789832.stm).

[7] Cohen, Avner and William Burr, “How Israel did its secret nucelar weapons program,” Politico, April 15, 2015 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/israel-nuclear-weapons-117014_Page2.html).

[8] https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/israeli-nuclear-program (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[9] “Argentina sold Israel yellowcake uranium in 1960s,” The Jerusalem Post, July 2, 2013 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.jpost.com/International/Report-Argentina-sold-Israel-yellowcake-uranium-in-the-1960s-318432).

[10] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[11] Polakow-Suransky, Sasha (2010) The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, New York: Vintage Books. See also: McGreal, Chris, “Israel and apartheid: a marriage of convenience and military might,” The Guardian, May 23, 2010 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/23/israel-apartheid-south-africa-nuclear-warheads). Tritium is one of the most valuable substances in the world per weigh, costing almost $30,000 per gram, approximately. Only Plutonium is within the list of most expensive material, costing $3,000 per gram, approximately (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/05/18/the-most-valuable-substances-in-the-world-by-weight/tritium/). Uranium-235 is not even close, costing $60 per kilogram ($0,066 per gram), approximately, at the time of writing (https://sightlineu3o8.com/2019/02/uranium-is-it-a-dead-market/).

[12]  Cohen, Avner (1998) Israel And The Bomb, New York: Columbia University Press.

[13] Zoellner, Tom (2009) Uranium. New York: Penguin.

[14] Jackson, Galen (2019) “The United States, the Israeli Nuclear Program, and Nonproliferation, 1961–69,” Security Studies, Vol. 28, no 2, pp. 360-393. See also Long, Austin G. & Joshua R. Shifrinson, (2019) “How long until midnight? Intelligence-policy relations and the United States response to the Israeli nuclear program, 1959–1985,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 55-90.

[15] The war is known to the Israelis as the Yom Kippur War, and to the Arabs as the October War. The root causes of this war were set six years prior, when in 1967 Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria, unleashing the June War. The June War resulted in the Israeli occupation of what remained of historic Palestine, as well as the Egyptian Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights for Syria. Read more from “The October Arb-Israeli War of 1973: what happened?,” Aljazeera, October 7, 2018 https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/arab-israeli-war-of-1973-what-happened-171005105247349.html (Accessed on Septemebr 12, 2019).

[16] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[17] Jackson, Galen (2019) “The United States, the Israeli Nuclear Program, and Nonproliferation, 1961–69,” Security Studies, Vol. 28, no 2, p. 361.

[18] Long, Austin G. & Joshua R. Shifrinson, (2019) “How long until midnight? Intelligence-policy relations and the United States response to the Israeli nuclear program, 1959–1985,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, no. 1, p. 66.

[19] Cohen, Avner and William Burr, “How the Israelis hoodwinked JFK on going nuclear,” Foreign Policy, April 26, 2016. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/26/how-the-israelis-hoodwinked-jfk-on-going-nuclear-dimona-atoms-for-peace/).

[20] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[21] Jackson, Galen (2019) “The United States, the Israeli Nuclear Program, and Nonproliferation, 1961–69,” Security Studies, Vol. 28, no 2, p. 369.

[22] Ibidem., pp. 370-371.

[23] Ibidem., p. 374.

[24] Ibidem., p. 378.

[25] Long, Austin G. & Joshua R. Shifrinson, (2019) “How long until midnight? Intelligence-policy relations and the United States response to the Israeli nuclear program, 1959–1985,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, no. 1, p. 73.

[26] Ibidem., p. 75.

[27] Rodman, David, “Phantom Fracas: the 1968 American sale of F-4 aircraft to Israel,” Middle Eastern Studies, November 2004, Vol. 4, no. 6, pp. 130-144.

[28] Jackson, Galen (2019) “The United States, the Israeli Nuclear Program, and Nonproliferation, 1961–69,” Security Studies, Vol. 28, no 2, p. 383.

[29] Ibidem., p. 384.

[30] Ibidem., p. 387.

[31] Ibidem., p. 388.

[32] Ibidem., p. 391.

[33] Oren, Amir, “Newly declassified documents reveal how U.S. agreed to Israel’s nuclear program,” Haaretz, August 30, 2014 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-how-the-u-s-let-israel-go-nuclear-1.5262274).

[34] Reuters, “Israeli and Iraqi statements on raid on nuclear plant,”, The New York Times, June 9, 1981. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/09/world/israeli-and-iraqi-statements-on-raid-on-nuclear-plant.html).

[35] The Begin Doctrine is a term referred to Israel’s preventive strikes against potential enemies as a counter-proliferation policy toward their capability to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD), particularly nuclear weapons. It took its name from the Prime Minister of Israel Manachem Begin who adopted in 1981 against Iraq.

[36] Cohen, Avner (2010) The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, New York: Colombia University Press, p. 83.

[37] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019)

[38] Long, Austin G. & Joshua R. Shifrinson, (2019) “How long until midnight? Intelligence-policy relations and the United States response to the Israeli nuclear program, 1959–1985,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 80-81.

[39] Ellsberg, Daniel, “Nuclear hero’s crime was making us safer,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2004. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-apr-21-oe-ellsberg21-story.html).

[40] Entous, Adam, “How Trump and Three Other U.S. Presidents Protected Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret: Its Nuclear Arsenal,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-trump-and-three-other-us-presidents-protected-israels-worst-kept-secret-its-nuclear-arsenal).

[41] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[42] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for military action against Iran, for the only fact that the Islamic Republic is allegedly capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons, not for having actually made one. In this regard, the Nuclear Threat Initiative states: “Israeli officials argue that a “red line” should be drawn at a nuclear capability – defined vaguely in terms of “a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross.” (See https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/israel/nuclear/ Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[43] Entous, Adam, “How Trump and Three Other U.S. Presidents Protected Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret: Its Nuclear Arsenal,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-trump-and-three-other-us-presidents-protected-israels-worst-kept-secret-its-nuclear-arsenal).

[44] The INF was a treaty signed between the U.S. signed with the Soviet Union on December 8, 1987, which banned the United States and the Soviet Union from possessing, testing and deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

[45] Staff, Toi, “Trump signed secret pledge to safeguard Israeli nukes – report,” The Times of Israel, June 19, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.timesofisrael.com/trump-signed-secret-pledge-to-safeguard-israeli-nukes-report/). See also Entous, Adam, “How Trump and Three Other U.S. Presidents Protected Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret: Its Nuclear Arsenal,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-trump-and-three-other-us-presidents-protected-israels-worst-kept-secret-its-nuclear-arsenal).

[46] http://www.icanw.org/the-treaty/ (Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[47] The 26 states that have already ratified the Treaty are: Austria; Bolivia; Cook Islands; Costa Rica; Cuba; El Salvador; Gambia; Guyana; Holy See; Kazakhstan; Mexico; New Zealand; Nicaragua; Palau; Palestine; Panama; St Lucia; St Vincent & Grenadines; Samoa; San Marino; South Africa; Thailand; Uruguay; Vanuatu; Venezuela; Vietnam.

[48] “Joint Press Statement From the Permanent Representatives to the United Nations of the United States, United Kingdom, and France Following the Adoption”, July 7, 2017, NYC (Retrievable at https://usun.usmission.gov/joint-press-statement-from-the-permanent-representatives-to-the-united-nations-of-the-united-states-united-kingdom-and-france-following-the-adoption/?_ga=2.6023674.872746484.1568326853-1959156917.1568326853 Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[49] SIPRI Yearbook 2019. Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. (Retrievable at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-06/yb19_summary_eng_1.pdf Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[50] Williams, Dan, “At Dimona reactor, Netanyahu warns Israel’s foes they risk ruin,” Reuters, August 29, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-nuclear/at-dimona-reactor-netanyahu-warns-israels-foes-they-risk-ruin-idUSKCN1LE270). See also: Webb, Whitney, “Speaking in front of Israel’s nukes Netanyahu says IDF will hit Iranian forces in Syria with “all its might,” MPN News, August 30, 2018 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.mintpressnews.com/speaking-in-front-of-israels-nukes-netanyahu-says-idf-will-hit-iranian-forces-in-syria-with-all-its-might/248498/).

[51] Webb, Whitney, “Israel’s secretive nuclear facility leaking as watchdog finds Israel has nearly 100 nukes,” MPN News, June 17, 2019. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.mintpressnews.com/international-watchdog-finds-israel-has-nearly-100-nuclear-weapons/259274/).

[52] Robinson, Tony, “By definition, nuclear weapons are genocidial, xenophobic and racist,” Pressenza, November 11, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.pressenza.com/2018/11/by-definition-nuclear-weapons-are-genocidal-xenophobic-and-racist/).