Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
– William Hughes Mearns, 1899
One of the most uncommented on ironies today is that Israel is threatening military action to prevent Iran from continuing the same clandestine route to nuclear weapons that Israel took; just as Israeli planes destroyed nuclear reactors in Syria and Iraq to prevent those countries from following Israel’s lead.
A parallel irony: President Obama champions an economic embargo to force Iran to back off its nuclear program. Yet, for more than half a century one American president after another declined to sound any alarums over Israel’s secret drive for nukes. Indeed, U.S. leaders refused to even officially acknowledge the foreboding intelligence about Israel’s intentions that American analysts were providing. That flimflam continues to this day.
[Perhaps the most incisive chronicle of this official deception is “The Samson Option,” written in 1991 by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Most of the following is drawn from that book.]
The charade began in the early 1950’s during the Eisenhower administration. Worried about Israel’s survival in the face of massive Arab opposition, and unable to get assurances from Eisenhower that the new Zionist state would be protected by America’s nuclear umbrella, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion set out clandestinely to provide Israel with its own nuclear weapons.
The secret facility would be constructed at Dimona in the Negev desert. The mammoth project would be off the books, paid for by wealthy Jews from around the world. France would also play a key but secret role, engineering a sophisticated reprocessing plant deep under the reactor at Dimona.
The Israeli leader who oversaw the clandestine program was Shimon Peres. These days, as President of Israel, Peres talks darkly of Iran’s nuclear deception. For decades however, he repeatedly lied to American officials about Israel’s nuclear intentions, claiming that Israel was working on a small reactor for peaceful purposes.
It was impossible however to hide the massive new construction from America’s high-flying U2 spy plane. In late 1958 or early 1959, CIA photo intelligence experts, spotted what looked almost certainly to be a nuclear reactor being built at Dimona. They rushed the raw images to the White House, expecting urgent demands from the Oval Office for more information. This was, after all, a development that could initiate a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
But there was absolutely no follow-up from the White House. As one of the analysts later told Seymour Hersh “Nobody came back to me, ever, on Israel.” Though the analysts continued regular reporting on Dimona, there were no requests for high-level briefings. “ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘this isn’t going to be disseminated is it?’ It was that attitude.”
“By the end of 1959,” writes Hersh, “the two analysts had no doubts that Israel was going for the bomb. They also had no doubts that President Eisenhower and his advisers were determined to look the other way.”
The reason was evident: Eisenhower publicly was a strong advocate of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If he was formally to “know” of Israel’s nuclear program, he would be obliged to react–against Israel. Which, in the U.S. could mean serious political consequences.
It was only in December 1960, that the Eisenhower administration, nearing its end, leaked word about Dimona and France’s involvement to the New York Times. The administration hoped that, without having to make any official accusations itself, it could oblige the Israeli government to sign the NPT.
But Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times report. He assured American officials –as well as the Israeli Knesset–that the Dimona reactor was completely benign. French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).
The Eisenhower administration, however, had no stomach to take on Israel and its American lobby. Despite the reports of CIA analysts, Ben Gurion’s denials went unchallenged. That hypocrisy would remain official America’s policy–even as U.S. presidents decried the attempts of countries like India, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya and Iraq to themselves develop the bomb.
Even John Kennedy, who also felt strongly about nuclear proliferation, was forced for domestic political reasons to back off his demand for full-scale nspections of Dimona by the U.N.’s IAEA. Instead he agreed to a charade: inspections would be carried out only by Americans, who would be required to announce their visits well ahead of time, with the full agreement of Israel. No spot checks were allowed. The inspectors also were never shown some of the key intelligence that CIA analysts had gathered on Dimona.
In April 1963, when Kennedy asked Shimon Peres point blank about Israel’s nuclear intentions, Peres replied with the prevarication that remains to this day: “I can tell you forthrightly that we will not introduce atomic weapons in to the region. We certainly won’t be the first to do so. We have no interest in that. On the contrary, our interest is in de-escalating the armament tension, even in total disarmament.”
Five years later, however, in 1968, Dimona began producing four or five warheads a year. But when Lyndon Johnson received a CIA report of that fact, he ordered CIA director Richard Helms to bury the estimate. No one else was to be informed, not even Secretary of State Dean Rusk nor Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Later, though Israel was still refusing to sign the non-proliferation treaty, Johnson agreed to supply that country with high-performance F-4 Fighters capable of carrying a nuclear weapon on a one-way mission to Moscow.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to power in 1969, with an even more sympathetic attitude towards Israel. Its nuclear ambitions, they felt, were fully justified. They had only contempt for the NPT. As Kissinger’s deputy Morton Halperin later told Hersh, “Henry believed that it was good to spread nuclear weapons around the world… He felt it inevitable that most major powers would get nukes and better for the United States to be on the inside helping them, than on the outside futilely fighting the process.”
In fact, Israel’s real nuclear intentions were hair-raising: They would target their nukes not on Egypt or Syria, but the Soviet Union. And they would make sure that Moscow understood that. The calculation was that Egypt and Syria, would never dare launch a war against Israel without the support of the Soviets, at the time their principal ally and arms provider. But if the men in the Kremlin realized they might face nuclear immolation themselves, they would never permit their Arab clients to drive Israel into the sea.
Indeed, that calculation may have worked in 1973. According to Hersh, after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack overwhelming Israel’s defenses, an alarmed Gold Meir gave the order to prepare the nukes for imminent use. Alerted to Israel’s action, the Soviets immediately cautioned the Egyptian’s to back off. At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger —informed by the Israelis themselves of the nuclear deployment —agreed to a massive emergency airlift to replace Israel’s depleted arms and ammunition.
But even after those near- catclysmic events, Kissinger kept the lid on the entire matter. And when Egyptian President Sadat claimed that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, Shimon Peres again categorically denied the charges. He accused Sadat of “gathering information of his own making”
And so it went with the administration of Jimmy Carter. On September 21, 1979, when an American spy satellite picked up a brilliant double flash over the South Indian Ocean, some American analysts concluded that it was the product of a nuclear explosion-a test conducted jointly by Israel and South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Once again, the discovery presented the White House with a terrible dilemma, President Carter was also brandishing the banner of non proliferation. If he were obliged to formally recognize Israel’s nuclear status, and didn’t seek tough sanctions against the Jewish state, he would be roundly criticized as a hypocrite. But, as always, punishing Israel could also mean serious domestic political trouble.
Once again, the administration shielded the Oval Office from the truth. Wrote Hersh, “it was important that an American president not know what there was to know.”
But then, in 1986 the London Sunday Times published an extraordinary account of Dimona. It was based on extensive interviews and pictures furnished by Mordecai Vanunu, a thirty-one year old Moroccan Jew who had been working inside Dimona. He claimed that Israel’s nuclear stockpile totaled more than two hundred warheads.
[Even before the report was published, Israeli’s leaders discovered Vanunu’s apostasy. He was enticed by a female Mossad agent to fly to Rome for a few days; then was drugged, kidnapped and returned to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately sentence to eighteen years in a maximum security prison, spending eleven of those years in solitary confinement. Even today, in Israel he is still being harassed, forbidden from speaking with any foreigners, reporters, or attempting to leave the country.]
American intelligence experts were floored by the Times account and the evident sophistication of Israel’s clandestine program. Officially, however Washington still went along with the fiction that Israel was not a nuclear state.
Yet again in 1991, Israel made use of its stockpile, deploying missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons facing Iraq: a terrible warning of retaliation to Saddam Hussein if he were to fill the Scud missiles he was firing at Israel with chemical weapons. He never did.
‘Which makes our case!’ defenders of Israel’s nuclear program will exclaim. Faced with the implacable Arab hostility, Israel was obliged to get the bomb. And thank God they did.
The problem is that other embattled regimes, make the same argument. Since the days of the Shah, for instance, Iran’s leaders, feeling threatened first by the Soviet Union, then after 1979, by the United States, have pushed for nuclear weapons. And not without reason. To this day, the American president—not to mention rabid Republican primary candidates—openly discuss the option of attacking Iran.
But wait, we are assured, Israel is different—an ally, not governed by crazies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who have sworn to wipe Israel from the map.
Not to defend the tyrants running Iran, but many experts convincingly dispute that Ahmadinejad actually threatened nuclear annihilation of Israel. In addition, the Zionist state has had its own share of crazies who have long advocated using force to create a “Greater Israel.” Ariel Sharon, for instance, who precipitated a bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in a futile attempt to wipe out the PLO. He also openly talked about overthrowing King Hussein to turn Jordan by force into a Palestinian State.
Officially, however, Washington and Israel continue the ridiculous pretence that Israel has no nuclear weapons. To this day, Israel reporters can only write about their country’s nuclear capacity if they cite foreign publications as the source. And in the U.S., Washington’s official silence seems curiously contagious: how often, in the current flurry of media reports about the threat from Iran is there any mention of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal?
The bottom line is this—whatever your view about Iran or Israel’s right to nuclear weapons–how can statesmen or reporters or anyone seriously discuss the current crisis over Iran when a key part of the dispute is officially hidden from view? How can the U.S. and Israel deal with proposals for a nuclear free Middle East when they still refuse officially to acknowledge that the region is not nuclear free—and hasn’t been for the past fifty years?
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. His latest book is “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.” Lando is currently completing a novel, “The Watchman’s File”, concerning Israel’s most closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb.) He can be reached through his blog.