11. Israeli Nuclear Weapons, their History and Politics


by Aki Orr

In July 1956 President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal.

This was a major event in world politics – and history.

Anthony Eden’s government in Britain and Guy Mollet’s government in France saw this as a major blow to their prestige and interests. They decided to invade Egypt, overthrow Nasser, conquer the canal and hand it back to the Suez Canal Company in which they were major shareholders. However, most British and French citizens opposed this policy. They did not want their sons to risk their lives in a war for a colonial empire in which they no longer believed. After WW2 the era of empire and colonies was over. The people of the colonies had information, and ability, to become free, and struggles for national liberation started in every colony of Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, and Belgium.

The US too opposed an invasion of Egypt. It wanted Egypt to join the Baghdad Pact directed against the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union provided arms and political support to most liberation struggles against colonial powers. It agreed to finance and to build the High Dam in Aswan. Nasser saw no reason to antagonize it. He refused to join the Baghdad Pact. The US wanted to change Egyptian policy by economic pressure, not by use of force.

So Eden and Mollet decided to diagnose their war as a ‘Peace keeping operation’.

They agreed with Ben-Gurion, Israel’s PM, that first Israel would invade Egypt, conquer the Sinai Peninsula, approach the Suez Canal from the east and only then would they issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt to withdraw 10 miles from either side of the Canal, to ‘ensure freedom of passage in the Canal to ships of all nations’. They knew Nasser could not accept this ultimatum while Egypt was invaded, yet Ben-Gurion would accept it as it invited him to annex the Sinai. Ben Gurion flew to Paris on 22.10.1956 and signed this secret pact with Eden and Mollet. In Israel he denied he did so and kept denying this until his death in 1973.

So too did Shimon Peres, who only admitted this 30 years later, in 1986.

Israel, itself a product of British Imperial politics in the Middle-East in WW1, always depended on political, financial, and military support of foreign powers dominating the Middle East. Military presence of the British Army in the region enhanced Israel’s security. Ben-Gurion opposed the departure of the British from Egypt, Iraq, Cyprus and Jordan and of the French from Algeria and Tunisia. The Israeli secret service used contacts with Jewish communities in North Africa to help the French in their struggle against the liberation movements in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Most Israeli citizens did not know about these clandestine operations and would have opposed them, had they known about them. Ben-Gurion knew this and therefore withheld the truth from them. In 1956 most Israelis opposed collaboration with colonial powers. So Ben-Gurion used Shimon Peres – who was not a member of the Cabinet or Knesset – as his personal messenger to France to bypass the Cabinet, the Knesset, and the Press. One of the bonuses France offered Israel was – to construct a nuclear reactor in Israel capable of producing plutonium for nuclear bombs.

Ben-Gurion was afraid the majority in the Knesset and in his Cabinet would oppose his decision to invade Egypt, and also his decision to construct nuclear weapons in Israel.

So Peres never informed the Cabinet or the Knesset about his negotiations in Paris. He commuted between Paris and Jerusalem to negotiate the military agreement between Ben-Gurion, Guy Mollet and Eden and reported only to Ben-Gurion. On October 29, 1956, Israeli paratroopers under the command of Ariel Sharon landed in the Sinai. Israel conquered the Sinai as planned and reached the Suez Canal. Eden and Mollet issued their ultimatum and their troops invaded the Suez Canal zone.

At first it looked as if the plan was going to succeed. But President Eisenhower of the US was outraged and forced Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw from Egypt. The whole affair ended in a fiasco. Eden and Mollet had to resign but Ben-Gurion stayed in power as he presented this war to the Israelis as a ‘Preventive War’ that prevented an Egyptian war on Israel. Actually, Nasser offered Ben-Gurion a peace treaty rather than a war… He offered this in a public statement in the Bandung Conference in 1955.

Despite being forced by the US to withdraw from the Sinai (and from the Gaza strip) Ben-Gurion (and Peres) considered the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona by France to be a major achievement well worth the losses in this war.

They did not say this to the families of the soldiers killed in the war.

The decision to build nuclear weapons in Israel was never discussed or debated in the Knesset, in the Cabinet, in the Army, in the Press, or in the Security Service.

Ben-Gurion did not consider the possibility that an Arab state might acquire nuclear weapons.

He knew that neither the US nor the Soviet Union would give such weapons to an Arab state. He did not believe the Arabs could build such weapons themselves. The collapse of the Soviet Union (making nuclear weapons available for money) and the construction of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and Iran were possibilities he failed to foresee.

When this happened, the situation changed. Israel’s nuclear deterrent changed from an asset into a liability. Israel’s small area and high population density, especially the urban areas of Tel-Aviv and Haifa can be destroyed by just two H-bombs – one on each centre.

The destruction of these two urban centres amounts to the destruction of Israel.

This is the area where most of the Israeli economy and population are concentrated and after a nuclear attack they will be uninhabitable for years. Iran with its vast mountainous territory cannot be destroyed like this and is far less vulnerable. Even if Israel launches a second strike after being attacked, it cannot destroy Iran. Israeli second-strike capability, recently achieved by acquiring two nuclear submarines from Germany, will not repair the damage caused to Israel by just 2 H-bombs, nor will it deter Iranian religious fanatics. It is therefore essential for Israel to change its nuclear policy from threatening Iran and continuing the nuclear arms race into a policy for making the entire Middle-East a nuclear-free zone under international control. This does not seem imminent.

The Iranian nuclear threat has been described recently by Dr. Yuval Steinitz, Chairman of the Knesset committee for Foreign policy and defence. He said” “Iran plans to set up 54,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium. This means that they want to become a nuclear world-power capable of producing 20 to 30 bombs per year, not 2 or three bombs that will make them a regional power.” (“Ma’ariv” 9.10 2005, p.24).

Facing this situation – and the coming Israeli elections in March 2006 – there is a growing concern among Israelis about Iranian long range missiles, capable of reaching Israel, and the imminent ability of Iran to build nuclear weapons.

So election candidates propose various Israeli nuclear policies to attract voters.

The Israeli daily “Ma’ariv” reports on 5.12.2005, the following statements:

P.M. Ariel Sharon, leader of the new “Kamidah” Party, is quoted as saying:

“We shall not accept a situation where Iran as nuclear weapons. We act with Europe and the USA. The correct expression on this matter was Bush’s statement where he said that he does not think this matter can be left without treating its foundations. I hope the Security Council will soon decide to impose sanctions on Iran to stop the process.”

But Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, Dan Halutz, commented that the diplomatic efforts to stop the process will fail and raised a second possibility of applying physical pressure, or military pressure, to Iran. He is reported as saying: “Who will apply the military options? This is not a question I shall answer. When will this option be applied? I shall not answer this either. But there are options.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, the candidate of the ‘Likud’ Party, declared:

“I shall lead the next government to stop the Iranian threat, including all the necessary operations. If this will not be done by the present government I intend to lead the next government to stop this threat. This includes all operations necessary to stop Iran from threatening us with nuclear weapons.”

Amir Perez, the new chairman of the Labor Party, said: “I hope the Israeli government will do whatever is required, ignoring foreign considerations.” The Minister of Defence, Mofaz, said:

“The latest statements on this issue are irresponsible. The nuclear issue must not be part of the election campaign.” (“Ma’ariv” 5.12.2005 pp. 1 and 2).

However, since the Israeli public is worried about the issue, no candidate can ignore it.

The crucial – and revealing – point is the fact that no Israeli politician, journalist or academic proposed the simple option of declaring Israeli support for a nuclear-free Middle East under international control. This omission also exposes the hypocrisy of US policy on this issue.

The honesty of US nuclear policy in the Middle-East is proportional to the pressures it puts on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and support a nuclear-free Middle East.

As long as the US does not apply any such pressure its policy cannot be accepted as honest.

A recently published US report (funded by the Pentagon) proposes that Israel switch its nuclear policy. Its authors, Henry Sokolsky and Patrick Clawson in their 314-page document (“Getting ready for a nuclear-ready Iran”) say “the idea is not that Israel give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally, hoping that others will too. Instead, Israel should simply take a small, reversible, step, in an effort to promote a reciprocal process that would de-escalate the region’s nuclear arms race.” But Israeli officials dismissed the idea that Israel would lead a regional nuclear disarmament process in response to a nuclear-ready Iran. Israel’s position, an official said, is that a nuclear-free Middle East could be achieved only through comprehensive regional peace treaties.

In 1986 Israeli nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu provided technical proof to the London ‘Sunday Times’ that Israel had some 200 nuclear warheads. Today this number is much higher. Israel’s persistent refusal to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities renders all attempts to force Iran to do so sheer hypocrisy.

Vanunu joined the ‘Nuclear Research Centre’ in Dimona in 1978 as a technician.

At this time he was a follower of the Religio-Nationalist Rabbi Kahana. Like every candidate for a job in Dimona he was checked by the Israeli Secret Service. His support for Rabbi Kahana was not seen by the Israeli Secret Service as a hindrance. After working for a few years he became a student of philosophy in the Be’er-Sheeva University. As a project for a Master’s degree he chose the issue of “Moral issues in the nuclear era”. Reading material on the issue he gradually became convinced that nuclear weapons are immoral since their main use is against civilian populations. They are weapons to destroy whole cities. He also discovered that in Israel there was never a public debate and a democratic decision for building nuclear weapons. The decision to do this was the private decision of one man – David Ben Gurion. Vanunu therefore decided to resign from his job in Dimona and protest in the Israeli press about the secret – and illegal – activity in Dimona. To prove his claim he took some photos of his work before leaving his job. He resigned in 1986. He soon realized that if he informed any Israeli newspaper he would be arrested. He therefore decided to leave Israel. For a few months he travelled in Europe, passed through the Soviet Union, and finally reached Australia, where he converted to Christianity. He never approached any foreign embassy to offer the photos he took in Dimona. After a few months in Sydney a friend persuaded him to inform the ‘Sunday Times’ in London. He did so and the ‘Sunday Times’ invited him to London to check the reliability of his information. He was interviewed by nuclear specialists who checked his photos and concluded that they were reliable and that Israel had manufactured some 200 nuclear bombs. Vanunu was not paid for this information. His aim was to warn the world and Israel’s citizens – about the illegal activity of producing nuclear weapons in Israel. This activity is illegal because it was never endorsed by any majority representing the Israeli citizens. The ‘Sunday Times’ published Vanunu’s report in October 1986 and the Israeli Secret Service began to hunt him down. Finally they lured him to Italy, from where they hijacked him to Israel. He was tried in secrecy. No journalist was allowed into the courtroom. Finally he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

In 2004 he was released after serving the full sentence (11 years in solitary confinement) but he is not allowed to leave Israel or talk to journalists.

The Vanunu trial was a travesty of justice since Israel does not admit it has nuclear weapons. How can someone be punished for revealing something that does not exist?

From a nationalistic perspective Vanunu rendered Israel a service. As the purpose of Israeli nuclear weapons is to deter Israel’s enemies from destroying it, these enemies must be convinced that Israel has such weapons. They will not be deterred without proof Israel has such weapons. Whoever provides such proof renders Israel a service. For this reason there were observers in Israel, like former general turned historian Meir Pa’eel who insisted Vanunu was an agent of the secret service and his revelations were organized by the secret service. But as Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison, and served the full sentence (unlike criminals who get a remission of one third of their sentence) this raises questions about the treatment of secret service agents by their own government. To reward a man who rendered a service to his country by an 18 years prison sentence is unusual, to say the least.

Those who really want to create a nuclear-free Middle-East must apply international diplomatic pressure, including economic sanctions, to ALL Middle-Eastern governments to accept international inspection of all its nuclear facilities.

This is a minimal demand since ‘inspection’ is not ‘disarmament’.

Israel persistently and emphatically opposes any international inspection of its nuclear facilities. So far no one has put ANY pressure on Israel to sign the NPT and declare its support for a nuclear-free Middle-East, although such a declaration alone is still a long way from dismantling nuclear weapons.

The latest farce in this saga is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ElBaradei and the Internationa Atomic Energy Authority for their efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear energy.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2005 was awarded to the IAEA and Mohammed ElBaradei for their ‘efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way’.

Why did the Nobel Prize Committee prefer ElBaradei to Mordechai Vanunu who was 18 years in Israeli prison for informing the world press about Israel’s nukes?

Awarding the Peace Prize to Vanunu would have been a bold step against nuclear armament.

It seems the Nobel Peace Committee is afraid of antagonizing the Israeli government or – of being branded as anti-Semitic.

Yet what are the facts?

Israel was the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle-East and thus started the nuclear arms race in the Middle-East.

For 40 years Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

1. Israel refuses to allow an IAEA inspection of its Dimona nuclear pile.

Those who REALLY want to stop the nuclear arms race in the Middle-East must take active steps, like economic sanctions, political pressure, severing diplomatic relations, etc. against Israel to make it sign the NPT and allow an IAEA inspection of Dimona.

This will indicate to all other governments in the region that the efforts to make the Middle-East a nuclear-free zone are not biased.

If Israel persists in its refusal to sign the NPT, and its refusal to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities and refuses to hand back to Norway the 30 tons of heavy water lent for nuclear research on the condition that it is not used for the production of nuclear weapons, then the same steps the USA and IAEA applied to Iraq must be applied to Israel.

What did ElBaradei do about Israeli nukes? Nothing.

What did he say about Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT? Nothing.

What did he say about Vanunu being jailed for 18 years for informing the world press about Israel’s nukes? Nothing.

He visited Jerusalem and refused to meet Vanunu lest this antagonize the Israeli government.


No wonder Israel congratulated ElBaradei and the IAEA on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The IAEA applied to Israel a very different policy from the one it applied to Iraq.

It tries to solicit co-operation on nuclear disarmament from a government that refuses for 40 years to do so. This policy has failed for 40 years. Why continue with it?

Why reject any pressure on such a government to make it change its nuclear policy?

Israel persists in its refusal to sign the NPT. ElBaradei and the IAEA do not even criticize this – and get the Nobel Peace Prize.

Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Niels Bohr, would have denounced such duplicity.

Very impartial. Or, as Niels Bohr used to say: “VERY interesting”.

The Middle-East doomsday clock is ticking.

Today the danger of nuclear war in the Middle-East is greater than it ever was in the past.

An Israeli academic recently tried to calm down those worried about nuclear war in the Middle-East. Dr. Ephraim Kam, Head of the Yaffe Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv University said: “We must not forget that even when Iran has nuclear weapons it will live under major constraints, mainly American deterrence. If Israel succeeds in making the U.S. decvlare that it will consider a nuclear attack on Israel as an attack on the U.S. it will improve deterrence of Iran. But even without such a declaration the Iranians know that by launching a nuclear attack on Israel they risk a U.S. attack on them. They will also take into account an Israeli retaliation that will destroy Teheran. During the Cold War mutual deterrence prevented war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.” ) (“Ma’ariv” 9.10.2005. p.24)

This ignores the profound differences between world politics and regional Middle-Eastern politics. Middle-Eastern politicians lack the sense of responsibility for humanity that Kennedy and Khrushchev had during the Cuban nuclear missile crisis in 1962.

In the Middle-East, politics – and leaders – are motivated by considerations of honour, nationalism and religion, rather than by concern for all humanity.

If outside pressures are not applied to ALL Middle-Eastern states a nuclear war in the Middle-East will be unavoidable. Its consequences will not be confined to the Middle-East.

November 2005

Aki ORR (Member of the Israeli Committee for a Middle-East free of all weapons of mass-destruction)

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