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Israel reveals secrets of how it gained bomb

The Telegraph
Wednesday 26 December 2001
By Inigo Gilmore in Jerusalem

A TELEVISION documentary in which Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister, discloses for the first time details about Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons is to be broadcast in the Arab world. It is intended, at a time of rising tensions, as a warning.

In the documentary, Mr Peres goes further than any other Israeli official in confirming that the Jewish state has a nuclear capability. He and former French government officials give details about co-operation between Israel and France in launching Israel's nuclear programme.

The film, made by a leading Israeli documentary team, is a sign that the government may be finally relaxing its rule of absolute silence on its nuclear programme. Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona nuclear facility, is serving an 18-year jail sentence for revealing in 1986 that Israel had a nuclear programme and more than 100 warheads.

The documentary, "The Bomb in the Basement: Israel's Nuclear Option", was shown in Israel last month and is being sold to leading Arabic television stations including Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel.

The makers of the film believe that the government's co-operation in speaking about the origins of its nuclear capability was prompted by concerns over international terrorism and the expectation that Iran will have a nuclear capability within a few years.

The documentary's Israeli director, Michael Karpin, who previously made a controversial film about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, said he was not sure until a few weeks ago whether military censors would allow the programme to be broadcast.

"It could be that after September 11 they [the government] decided that perhaps the time had come to reveal a little bit more about the Israeli nuclear project," Mr Karpin said. "I think the decision to let it go ahead has to do with the idea of wanting to tell the Arab world: 'Listen we have it'."

The film reveals how France helped Israel on its nuclear programme in exchange for support in the Suez War. In the mid-1950s, relations between the two countries were warming because of their 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 foe, while France faced an Arab 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 nationalising the Suez Canal.

At the end of September 1956, in Sevres near Paris, Mr Peres, then a 30-year-old Defence Ministry official, accompanied David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, to a meeting with French and British delegations about the Suez crisis. The Israelis waited for the British delegation to leave before approaching the French on the matter of its nuclear project.

Mr Peres said: "In Sevres, when it was all over, I told Ben-Gurion, 'There's one piece of unfinished business: the nuclear issue. Before you agree, let me finish that.' Of the four countries which at that time had a nuclear capacity - the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France - only France was willing to help us."

Mr Peres is asked in the documentary whether Israel requested a nuclear reactor. He replies: "I asked for more than that. I asked for other things, too; the uranium and those things. I went up to Ben-Gurion and said, 'It's settled.' That's how it was."

Mr Ben-Gurion approved Israel's participation in the Suez campaign. On October 29, 1956, 400 Israeli paratroopers were dropped in western Sinai in the first phase of the attack on Egypt.

The agreement with France was unprecedented. Until then, no country had supplied another with the means for developing a nuclear capability. Mr Karpin believes that Mr Peres may have been motivated to speak on the subject because he hopes that it will help to secure his place in history.

In Paris, Jean-Francois Daguzan, the deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, said that France's deal with Israel had been kept a secret for almost 30 years. "It was well known in military and political circles but it didn't become public knowledge until the mid-1980s after a book was published about that era and the agreement was mentioned.

"There was no suggestion that France had given Israel its nuclear capacity but it had certainly helped the country acquire it."

Israel still officially neither confirms nor denies making nuclear weapons at the plant near Dimona. The country's journalists use coded language, 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 acknowledged nuclear power.

The documentary marks the first time that the Israeli broadcasting media has dealt with the issue candidly. Some commentators are surprised that the censors allowed Mr Karpin such leeway as in the past six months Israel has detained an academic over a book he wrote on the country's nuclear capacity and jailed Yitzhak Yaakov, a retired general, for talking to a journalists on the subject.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2001.

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