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Critics want Israel to admit, abolish its nuclear program
The nation, widely believed to rank fifth in atomic weaponry, doesn't need the bomb, some say.

St. Petersburg Times Senior Correspondent
January 19, 2004

In the new Broadway play Golda's Balcony, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir grapples with a monumental decision: whether to use nuclear weapons against Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Mideast War.

The story of an Israeli politician might seem unlikely fodder for an American stage hit. Even more surprising is that Golda's Balcony deals so openly with a weapons program never officially acknowledged to exist.

The Worlds Nuclear ArsenalIn one of the world's worst-kept secrets, Israel has become a nuclear giant. It is estimated to have as many as 200 weapons, an arsenal that ranks it fifth among nuclear powers and dwarfs the programs of India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Though warning of the danger from other countries, Israel is the only nation that has ever brought the Mideast to the brink of nuclear war. Yet it has maintained a policy of "deliberate ambiguity" about its own nuclear capabilities even as it bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and pressured other countries to disarm.

Now Israel itself is under pressure to come clean about its program and take steps to disband it.

" I don't think that since 1973, there has been any threat that justifies a nuclear program," says Zeev Maoz, a visiting Israeli professor at the University of Michigan.

Whatever threat Iraq once posed vanished with the fall of Saddam Hussein. Libya, another longtime enemy, is voluntarily abandoning its weapons of mass destruction. And Iran, perhaps the biggest current threat to Israel, is allowing international inspectors greater access to its nuclear facilities, which it maintains are for peaceful purposes.

But if outsiders see little reason for Israel to maintain a nuclear stockpile, that is not the way Israelis see it. Polls show most regard nuclear weapons as a safeguard against attack by a hostile Muslim nation.

" The Israelis were not the first country to get the atomic bomb, but they'll probably be the last ones to give it up," says John Pike, director of, a Washington, D.C., research organization.

Israel's nuclear program undoubtedly has had a deterrent effect. The Jewish state has not fought a major war since 1973, when Meir considered using nuclear weapons as Syrian troops advanced from the north and Egyptian forces moved from the south. The threat of a nuclear Armageddon scared not only those countries, but also the United States, which agreed to give Israel conventional weapons to stave off defeat.

Arab nations "know they cannot win a war with Israel because of Israel's nuclear deterrence," Pike says. "They can only push the Israelis so far before they are pushed back with atomic bombs."

But Israel's nuclear program has also raised the danger level in the Middle East by fueling an arms race, other experts note. " While Iraq and Iran have their own reasons to develop nuclear weapons, certainly Israel was a factor in their decision to launch their nuclear programs," Maoz says. "And it certainly was a major factor in launching Syrian weapons of mass destruction, not nuclear but chemical and biological weapons."

Israel's nuclear project has also been thorny for its closest ally, the United States. Other countries, especially Arab ones, accuse America of hypocrisy in tolerating Israel's buildup while condemning Libya, Iran and Iraq for their activities in the nuclear realm. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, says charges of a double standard are legally "inappropriate" because Israel is not a party to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which commits members to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

" Israel did not sign the NPT so it does not have to comply with its obligations to do anything," says Cohen, senior research fellow at the University of Maryland. "But in the broader political sense, look, what can the United States do? From early on, the United States understood Israel is not going to give up nuclear weapons."

By the time of the Nixon administration, Washington had adopted what Cohen calls a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" about the nuclear program. That has allowed Israel, which gets $3-billion a year in U.S. aid, to avoid the economic sanctions imposed on other countries engaged in activities leading to the spread of nuclear arms.

' Are you making an atom bomb?'

Israel's original nuclear partner was not America but France.

In the 1950s, the two countries had a common adversary: Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel saw the rise of Nasser and his Arab nationalist movement as a threat to its existence. France, meanwhile, faced a Nasser-aided rebellion in its North African colony of Algeria.

In 1956, Nasser stunned the world when he nationalized the Suez Canal with Soviet support. France and Israel agreed to team up with Britain to overthrow the Egyptian leader and take back the canal. After a meeting near Paris to finalize the plan, Israeli leaders approached the French about assisting with a nuclear program.

" 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," Shimon Peres, then Israel's defense minister, said in the 2001 documentary The Bomb in the Basement.

The Suez invasion was a disaster for the French and British, who were forced to withdraw under international pressure. The crisis drew Egypt closer to the Soviet Union, and France, alarmed by growing Soviet influence in the region, agreed that French engineers would help Israel develop a nuclear deterrent.

In early 1958, ground was broken for a reactor at Dimona, in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Despite claims it was a textile plant, photos taken by American U-2 spy planes "identified the site as a probable reactor complex," Col. Warner D. Farr wrote in a history of the project. "The concentration of Frenchmen was also impossible to hide from ground observers."

In 1960, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion acknowledged existence of the reactor, but said it would be used "exclusively for peaceful purposes." He agreed to allow regular inspections by Americans, although they were stymied by brickedup elevator doors and other obstacles. (Inspections ended altogether in 1969.)

John F. Kennedy apparently was the last U.S. president to directly challenge Israel about its true intentions at Dimona. " Are you making an atom bomb?" he asked Peres.

" Mr. President, I can promise you one thing," Peres hedged, as he recalled in the 2001 documentary. "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East."

By the time of the 1967 Mideast War, Israel had two bombs and went on its first nuclear alert. But the real crisis came in 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Yom Kippur holiday.

Before tensions eased, the Soviet Union reportedly sent nuclear submarines to the region, America went on worldwide nuclear alert and Israel assembled 13 atomic bombs. The United States began an emergency airlift of conventional weapons to Israel because - as then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger purportedly told Egypt - the Israelis were close to "going nuclear."

The 1973 war had a lasting consequence: "Thus started the subtle, opaque use of the Israeli bomb to ensure that the United States kept its pledge to maintain Israel's conventional weapons edge over its foes," Farr writes.

By now, France had stopped supplying Israel with uranium from its African colonies. Israel and South Africa began a collaboration, with Israel providing technology and South Africa, the uranium.

On Sept. 22, 1979, an American satellite detected an intense flash of light near the southern tip of Africa. The cause was never officially determined, but it was widely believed to be a joint Israeli-South African test of an atomic bomb. If true, it may have been the only time Israel violated its purported pledge to the United States not to test nuclear weapons.

Veil over the program is slowly teased aside

The full extent of Israel's program was revealed in 1986, when London's Sunday Times published an interview with Mordecai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician at Dimona. Before he was laid off, Vanunu had taken dozens of color photographs of the facility and amassed other evidence showing Israel had at least 100 weapons, far more than previously thought.

" There should no longer be any doubt that Israel is ... a fully fledged nuclear weapons state," one expert told the paper.

Israel did not deny the Sunday Times' report, but accused Vanunu of compromising national security. An undercover female Mossad agent lured him to Rome, where he was drugged, arrested and flown back to Israel to stand trial. Imprisoned since then - much of the time in solitary confinement - he is due to be released in April.

Although the nuclear program officially remains secret, Israel in recent years has become a bit more open. It allowed Cohen's Israel and the Bomb to be published in Hebrew, and let the newspaper Yediot Ahronot print declassified documents from Vanunu's trial. Cohen thinks the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is anachronistic in light of all that has been revealed about the program. Israel, along with the United States, should find some way to "acknowledge and legitimize" Israel's nuclear weapons status while being accountable for it at home and abroad.

" The world, including the Arabs, should accept Israel's nuclear status as France's nuclear status is accepted," Cohen says. "Even after regional peace, Israel should maintain some form of nuclear capability."

But, he adds, Libya's recent actions could signal a profound and positive change in the way the world views weapons of mass destruction. To encourage general disarmament, he says, Israel should sign the 1972 treaty against the development of biological weapons.

" Israel can contribute to the devaluation and status of other weapons systems," Cohen says. "Biological weapons are perhaps the most symbolic of these, potentially the most threatening, and those about which the public is most ignorant.... Contributing to the reinforcement of the taboo on biological weapons would be a proper response to the devaluation of WMDs."

- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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