On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Washington, D.C., and appeared before a joint session of Congress — not the Knesset — to give a speech on the dangers of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu declared, poses a clear and present danger not just to the Jewish state he heads, but to the entire region, and the United States, too. In stern tones the implied “Senator from Tel Aviv” warned Congress that the nuclear deal being cobbled together by Washington and Tehran in order to ward off war between them was a bad deal that would leave Iran unacceptably close to possessing a bomb.
By his calculations, with the in-place nuclear infrastructure Washington’s deal would likely allow Iran to keep, Netanyahu estimated Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon in a year or less.
“This is a bad deal — a very bad deal,” intoned Netanyahu. “We’re better off without it.”
It’s not exactly clear who the “we” Netanyahu referred to was – assuming, of course, that one sees some degree of difference between the interests of the U.S. and Israel. Yet the message the prime minister was trying to convey was easy enough to understand: Iran is a cheat and a liar that cannot under any circumstances be trusted.
The 200-kiloton elephant in the room
Israel’s Sorek nuclear reactor center near the central Israeli town of Yavne.
Left totally unmentioned by Netanyahu and nearly all discussion of the speech in the U.S. media is any note of, no matter how slight, Israel’s own nuclear weapons program. Indeed, although Israel’s nuclear arms are undeclared and the state is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its possession of these weapons has been an open secret since the 1980s, when a low-level Israeli nuclear technician by the name ofMordechai Vanunu leaked details of the program to a British newspaper. Vanunu was arrested, tried in a secret court and convicted. He would ultimately serve 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.
What Vanunu revealed to the public was widely known in official circles for years, and in 1987 the U.S. Defense Department noted that, “as far as nuclear technology is concerned, the Israelis are roughly where the U.S. was in the fission weapon field circa 1955-1960.” The DOD went on to say that U.S. intelligence believed Israel was also well on its way to developing the technology it would need to produce hydrogen bombs, which are also now widely believed to be present in the Israeli arsenal. Although estimates of the size of the Israeli inventory vary, minimum calculations place it at 75 weapons and maximum at 400, with most placing it somewhere between 100-200 warheads.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute provides perhaps the best guess, which is that Israel has 80 intact nuclear weapons, with enough material for many more. Of that 80, it says, 50 are deployed on Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles and the remaining 30 are aircraft-delivered gravity bombs. There is also speculation that some of Israel’s weapons are based at sea on its new Dolphin submarines, which means that Israel has not only nuclear weapons, but a fully functioning deterrent triad of missiles, bombers and subs. Israel, in other words, not only has a nuclear force as big as or bigger than North Korea’s, Pakistan’s or India’s, but one that possibly approaches the United Kingdom’s in terms of size and sophistication.
The story of the Israeli bomb
While there is debate over the size of Israel’s stockpile, how Israel got the bomb in the first place is far better known. Starting shortly after the birth of the Israeli state itself, David Ben-Gurion gave his country’s scientific establishment the mission of creating what was termed at the time “the bomb in the basement” – a last-resort option that would stave off final defeat by Arab armies, or at least make achieving that hideously costly. Funds gathered from overseas, including Jewish contributions to the State of Israel, were in part funneled to this project, and Israeli scientists and intelligence officials were directed to acquire information from foreign sources on how to build a bomb.
The best efforts to achieve this came in France, where a close relationship between the Israeli and the French defense establishments gave Israeli scientists access to French nuclear research sites. This relationship also eventually led to the purchase of the Dimona reactor complex. Indeed, during the late 1950s over 2,500 French technical experts were present at the reactor site and operated behind a veil of secrecy so thick that the workers were forbidden to write directly to relatives lest they give away their location. When questioned by the British and Americans, Israelis claimed Dimona was a grasslands research institute or a manganese processing plant. After Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1959, however, the Franco-Israeli nuclear alliance chilled — but not before Israel was able to acquire enough material and expertise to begin a full-fledged, independent weapons program of its own.
To succeed, though, Israel would have to overcome what was probably its greatest obstacle to acquiring nuclear weapons: the U.S. It should be remembered that in the early years of the Cold War Israel and the U.S. were not as close as they are today. At best Israel was seen as a nuisance and an electoral prop for Democrats like Harry Truman, and under Dwight D. Eisenhower the U.S. was often actively hostile. Indeed, Eisenhower opposed not just Israeli participation in the Suez Crisis of 1956 but forced Israel as well as Britain and France to retreat from their assault on Egypt with their tails tucked firmly between their legs.
Although not as skeptical of the utility of Israel as an ally as Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy nonetheless put the screws to Israel over its nuclear ambitions due to the experience he gained during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Seeing a need to push back against the threat of nuclear war after the close call over Cuba, Kennedy offered the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the world and pushed for countries to sign. Among the requirements, of course, were vigorous inspections to ensure that existing nuclear facilities in non-nuclear states would not be used to build weapons.
Although the U.S. was aware of Israel’s Dimona reactor by 1958, when U2 flights and on-the-ground assessments observed what the Israelis were doing, inspections of the type Kennedy was championing would expose just exactly what the Israelis were up to — drawing the wrath of the proliferation-phobic Kennedy and handing a propaganda coup to the Soviets and Moscow’s Arab allies. The Israelis did eventually give in and allow inspectors, but what ensued as U.S. technical experts poked and prodded Dimona was a kabuki-esque affair, wherein the American teams were stymied in almost every way via tactics any contemporary U.N. weapons inspector would recognize as an attempt to obfuscate, distract and cheat.
Acceptance of the Israeli bomb
This song and dance went on for the remainder of the Kennedy administration, only waning under the far more pro-Israel Lyndon Johnson, who, like Truman, used his support of Israel as a political prop. What’s more, as Moscow made inroads in Egypt and Syria and the likelihood of war between Arabs and Israelis increased, the decision was made in the U.S. and other Western countries to look the other way and, in effect, allow the Israelis to build their bomb. By 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, it is believed that this acquiescence allowed the Israelis to secretly accumulate enough fissile material to build a crude nuclear bomb prior to the outbreak of hostilities on June 5 of that year.
Although Israel’s crushing victory in that war assured its bomb would not be used, the frightening encounter between Israel and its enemies led Israel to a crash program geared toward mass-producing nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. As in the 1950s resources were leveraged, the biggest obstacle to physically increasing Israel’s stockpile was overcome in 1968 via an audacious covert operation that stole up to 200 tons of yellowcake uranium from a Belgian mining company that the Mossad, in a complex operation, had shipped from Antwerp to Genoa and thence on to Israel.
Indeed, the Belgians weren’t the only ones who were robbed. In a memo on Israeli nuclear activities prepared for President Richard Nixon by Henry Kissinger himself, Kissinger noted that Israel’s nuclear program “is one where the Israelis have persistently deceived and may even have stolen from us.” Here, this was further implied when in 1976 CIA Deputy Director Carl Duckett informed officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the agency suspected some 200-600 pounds of highly enriched uranium had been stolen by Israel from a processing plant in Pennsylvania owned by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation. It was, according to one of the officials privy to the secret at the time, one of the most glaring cases of diverted nuclear materials in history.
Eventually acknowledging their failure, the White House under Johnson and then Nixon created the present regime of official lies about Israeli nuclear capabilities by getting the Israelis to pledge to be the first to “not introduce” nuclear weapons to the Middle East — which the Israelis defined as agreeing to not officially test weapons or state officially that they possessed them. This concordant became a foundation of U.S.-Israeli relations when Nixon met Golda Meier after U.S. intervention in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which itself may have been forced by Israeli desperation and Israel’s implied threat to use their bombs to stave off imminent battlefield defeat.
A rogue is a rogue is a rogue
In the context of the Cold War, when Israeli actions against a Soviet client could have forced a nuclear response by Moscow — a response which would lead inevitably to an exchange with the U.S. and its other allies — it made eminent sense to protect Israel so it would not be forced to use its weapons and so cause that chain of events to occur, which came close to actually happening in 1973. It may have unfairly privileged Israeli interests over nearly everyone else in the Middle East in official Washington circles, but it nonetheless kept an unstable region and its nuclear powder keg under wraps for the remaining duration of America’s conflict with the Soviet Union.
But does this same logic hold sway today? To be sure, relations between Russia and the U.S. are frosty, but the degree to which American and Russian security interests are tied to the fates of their client states in the Middle East is far less than what it once was. Furthermore, American guarantees of security have profited the U.S. very little. In exchange for providing carte blanche protection for Israel in exchange for its nuclear silence, the U.S. has received little but Israeli intransigence on the issue of Palestine and next to no help on other important regional issues. Indeed, America’s very protection of Israel makes the U.S. widely hated in the region. The U.S. alliance with Israel is thus for the most part a one-way street from which America derives very little benefit.
So when you click on the news and see Netanyahu talk about the dangers of a bad deal and the threat of a rogue nuclear state, understand that he knows what he is talking about. After all, his country is experienced in fooling inspectors and lying to the U.S. about its nuclear intentions. It, too, has stolen nuclear materials and broken numerous international laws to build a secret nuclear weapons lab and stockpile. If the emerging narrative about what actually happened in 1973 is correct, it has even engaged in nuclear blackmail to get its way. Given all this, one wonders if maybe Israel couldn’t teach Iran a lesson or two in this particular area of statecraft.