Lifting the veil on how Israelis got the A-bomb
Press opens up on ill-kept secret
By Dan Ephron, Globe Correspondent, 11/11/2001
JERUSALEM - In the twilight of their lives, a few people who took part in one of the most ambitious and secretive ventures in Israel's history are suddenly feeling the urge to talk about it.
Some, like Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, seek credit for the role they played in the project, and hope it will secure their place in history. For others it's a more modest yearning, an almost obsessive need to unload secrets they have carried around for nearly 50 years.
The result has been a steady erosion of the taboo surrounding discussion of Israel's nuclear weapons program, a project so furtive and so sensitive that it has never figured in the discourse of this country, an otherwise feisty democracy.
In this age of increased concern over nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands, Israel neither confirms nor denies making atom bombs at a sprawling nuclear plant near the southern desert town of Dimona.
Israelis don't know basic things about their country's nuclear program, including where missiles are stored or how the nuclear waste is discarded. Journalists who write about the issue use a coded vernacular, never stating unequivocally that Israel has the bomb.
The policy of ambiguity was crafted to deter Arabs from attacking Israel while avoiding the political fallout of becoming an avowed nuclear power. But an Israeli documentary screened last week, on the heels of a book published in the United States, opens a window on the early period of Dimona, when a country with barely enough resources to feed its people set out to accomplish what only the world's great powers had.
The film, "A Bomb in the Basement - Israel's Nuclear Option," strings together details that have mostly been published before outside Israel and includes a riveting interview with Peres, who signals more definitively than ever before that Israel has produced nuclear weapons. The documentary is remarkable for something else: Broadcast on Israeli television, it marks the first time the electronic media here have dealt with the issue candidly and comprehensively.
"It was some kind of taboo in Israel until now, and the media didn't touch it," said Michael Karpin, who directed the 90-minute film. "Therefore nobody did anything with the topic."
Karpin focuses on the intimate ties Peres forged with the French in the mid-1950s relations, based on the two countries' shared anxiety over burgeoning nationalist movements in North Africa.
Israel feared that the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt would embolden an already formidable pan-Arab foe. And France faced a bloody insurrection in Algeria, one of its last colonies.
Their interests converged in 1956, when Israel agreed to team up with France and Britain in a war to punish Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal. According to the film, Israel had already approached France to buy an atomic bomb factory. Now, in high-level talks outside Paris with the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, Israel made the nuclear deal a condition for its participation in the campaign.
"I said: `Friends, this is not a part of the negotiations, and we are taking a big risk, and here's what we ask.' And they agreed," Peres said, describing the meeting.
"And you asked for the reactor?" Karpin's voice is heard saying off camera.
"I asked for more than that. I asked for other things, too. The uranium and those things.
Peres said he went to the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and said: "`It's settled.' And that's how it was."
Military censors who watch over journalists here usually expurgate overt references to Israeli nuclear weapons. But when a French Defense Ministry official was asked later in the film about the deal, he said outright that Paris had decided Israel should be supplied with a nuclear bomb. It is unclear why the censors and other security agencies had allowed Karpin leeway while cracking down on others who had tackled the same subject. In the past six months, Israel has detained an academic over a book he had written about Israel's nuclear capacity and has jailed a retired general named Yitzhak Yaakov for talking to a journalist about the subject.
Mordechai Vanunu, the former Dimona nuclear plant technician, is serving an 18-year sentence for telling the Sunday Times in 1986 that Israel had built more than 200 nuclear bombs at its sprawling desert facility.
Israeli authorities "want to give the impression of openness, but only the kind of openness the state wants," said Avner Cohen, who wrote Israel and the Bomb, an exhaustive history of Dimona that was published in 1998. Karpin concedes that his film rests to some degree on the data presented in Cohen's book. Israeli authorities made clear to Cohen after long talks that they would ban Israel and the Bomb, which was eventually published in the United States.
Several people interviewed in Karpin's movie served as sources for Cohen's book.
"These people are getting old, and I found in them an existential need to talk about it and to tell about their own involvement, their own participation," Cohen said in a telephone interview from his home in Tacoma Park, Md. "Getting credit is one element, but it's also a matter of releasing the deep and heavy story that has been there under secrecy for many decades. It's something like closure," he said.
Some nuclear analysts here think the publication of Cohen's book forced censors to reassess Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity and, as a result, to allow the film. But Karpin has another explanation.
He thinks the censor's relative openness might have something to do with the terrorist attacks on the United States, a form of muscle flexing to counter the threat posed by Osama bin Laden.
Karpin submitted the film to censors in early September and got it back about 10 days after the attacks on New York and Washington. He was surprised to find that only a few lines had been deleted.
"It could be that after September 11 they decided that perhaps the time has come to reveal a little bit more about the Israeli nuclear project," Karpin said.
"But this is only my speculation."
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.