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Leaks and Peeks Key to Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity

by Dan Williams

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM, 11 November 2003 — Forty years ago a flustered Shimon Peres faced off with US President John F. Kennedy on a secret seen as key to the Jewish state's survival, and got away with saying next to nothing.

"Kennedy began bombarding me with questions. Suddenly he says, `Are you making an atom bomb?' I told him, `Mr. President, I can promise you one thing: Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,'" Peres recalled in the recent documentary film "A Bomb in the Basement". That sidestep by Israel's veteran statesman evolved into a strategy of ambiguity straddling two national needs — to strike fear into numerically superior foes while calming global jitters at any doomsday saber-rattling in the volatile Middle East.

"We chose uncertainty, which afforded deterrence as far as the Arabs were concerned and convenience as far as our friends were concerned," Peres said.

Critics insist the policy — enforced at home by military censors and abroad by agents who, in one case, abducted an Israeli whistleblower — is counterproductive, breeding speculation that it could spur a regional arms race.

The director of a Washington-based watchdog group likened Israel's "opacity" to that of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, saying this hastened the US nuclear programs and increased tensions.

"As it turned out, the Soviets were not so well-stocked," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. "Ever since, it has been proven that greater knowledge about different nations' nuclear weapons generally leads to greater responsibility."

Daniel Seaman, director of the Israeli government press office, who liaises between the media and the security services, disagrees. "Israel won't discuss non-conventional capabilities, but it wants to keep the enemy guessing," he said. "Ambiguity is not all about denial. Speculation also makes for deterrence."

Israel did not sign the 1970 UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and thus kept its main reactor, in the desert town of Dimona, exempt from inspections.

At least 200 nuclear warheads are believed to have been produced at Dimona, an estimate based on disclosures by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986 and other exposes quoting unnamed intelligence sources.Last month, as international calls for the inspection of Iran's atomic reactors mounted, the Los Angeles Times reported that Israel had extended its reach to the Islamic republic by arming US-made, submarine-launched missiles with nuclear warheads. The newspaper cited US administration sources and — in the first such claim by a reputable publication — said an Israeli "official" confirmed the missile had been modified.

The Pentagon and Israeli government declined comment. Duncan Lennox, editor of Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems, said the report's timing was no less important than its truthfulness.

"Iran must be very worrying to Israel. Hence I would think that the stories of Israel's capabilities may be aimed at saying to Iran, `You may get some nuclear weapons, but there will always be retaliation if you attack first,'" Lennox said.

Such theories sit well with Israeli journalists like Michael Karpin, whose "A Bomb in the Basement" enjoyed unprecedented access to the nation's atomic architects and privileged files. He attributed this to the fact the film was made shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States: "It seems Israel, fearing a new and yet- unknown global terror threat, decided it was time to reveal more of its own threats."

Yet a senior Israeli official insisted such initiatives are unnecessary. "The appeal of uncovering our capabilities — whatever they may be — is such that people will talk no matter what we do," said the official on condition of anonymity.

Israel does not tolerate leaks. Vanunu was abducted overseas by the secret service and jailed for 18 years.

More recently, Yitzhak Yaacov, a retired chief of Israel's military arms-research branch, was tried as a spy for granting the leading national daily Yedioth Aharonoth an interview and writing a memoir. He denied trying to circumvent censorship.

Such crackdowns are far from consistent, however.

In June 2000, a month after Israel ended its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in a unilateral move many saw as harmful to national deterrence, the Sunday Times reported an Israeli test of nuclear- capable missiles in the Indian Ocean.

Israeli officials denied the report but apparently took no action against Sunday Times reporter Uzi Nahmaimi, an Israeli who works out of Tel Aviv. He could not be reached for comment.

Israel's nuclear ambiguity lets it skirt US laws against supporting countries that proliferate non-conventional weapons, and thus it receives $2.8 billion in annual aid from Washington. Analysts say the Israeli policy also takes some pressure off neighboring states to pursue their own nuclear programs or at least lends legitimacy to their military constraints.

"These reports do not have much of a direct impact on Egypt's military strategy as we are not going to be dragged into an arms race with Israel in any way," said Mohamed Al— Sayed Said of Cairo's Al- Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

But Israel's policies have offered little protection from previous conflicts and may even have precipitated them.

According to historian Michael B. Oren's "Six Days of War", Israel launched the 1967 Middle East war because it feared — without basis in fact — that Egypt was about to target Dimona. In 1973, Israel was surprised by an Egyptian-Syrian assault that historians agree was aimed at regaining lands lost in the previous war rather than destroying the Jewish state outright.

"Israel's assumed nuclear option gave no guarantee against limited conventional conflicts," said Ronen Bergman, author of "Yom Kippur War — Moment of Truth". "Ambiguity is a brilliant policy, but only where total Armageddon is concerned."

Copyright: Arab News © 2003 All rights reserved.

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