One person possessing the courage to admit guilt for his role in producing the bomb was Albert Einstein. Some five months before his death in late 1954, Einstein declared: "I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made, but there was some justification -- the danger that the Germans would make them." (Karpin, pp. 358-59)
Another person, David Ben-Gurion, reached just the opposite conclusion about the bomb. Notwithstanding the role that Zionist settlers played in stirring up Arab hatred in Palestine, in the wake of the Arab attacks on Jews in Jerusalem in August 1929 and the "Arab Revolt" of 1936, Ben-Gurion told friends in Jerusalem, "The danger we face is not rioting, but extermination. The attackers will not only be the Arabs of Palestine, but also the Iraqis and Saudi Arabians, and they have warplanes and artillery. We have to prepare seriously to constitute a substantial force in this country, capable of standing up to a massive offensive." (Karpin, p. 20)
But, if the events of 1929 and 1936 had Ben-Gurion thinking about extermination by Arabs, one should try to imagine the trauma he experienced upon visiting Germany's Dachau concentration camp and the extermination camp at Bergen Belsen in October 1945. According to Israeli journalist, Michael Karpin, writing in his book The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What that Means for the World, it was precisely in October 1945 -- just two months after the United States dropped its hideous atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but almost three years before Israel became a state -- that Israel's future Prime Minister and Defense Minister decided that Israel must have the bomb.
As Karpin also makes clear, it was largely under Ben-Gurion's leadership that Israel engaged in a campaign of lies and deceit -- much like Iran over the past two decades -- in order to obtain "the nuclear option." According to Karpin, not only did Prime Minister/Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion distinguish between ethics and national security, (p. 234) "Israeli public opinion had always drawn a clear distinction between morality and ethics on the one hand and the country's security on the other." (p. 291) (And, thus, how could Israel's leaders today possibly believe that Iran's current leaders are behaving less dishonorably than Ben-Gurion did, when it comes to getting the bomb?)
It began when Israel traded its intelligence about Egypt's role in the terrorism gripping French-occupied Algeria for the secret sale of French jet fighters and armored cars -- in violation of a Middle East arms embargo. Israel then leveraged its tie to France to pull off an even bigger secret deal. It would receive a nuclear reactor from France that was capable of producing plutonium for Ben-Gurion's bomb. In return, Israel would attack Egypt and, thus, provide France and Great Britain with a pretext for intervening to reestablish the peace and, coincidentally, forcibly reopen the Suez Canal -- their real objective.
And although both the United States and Soviet Union subsequently intervened to foil the French/British scheme, Israel lived up to its side of the dishonorable bargain -- by launching an assault on Egypt on October 29, 1956. And, for that, France honored its promise to help build the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev. The first French technicians arrived in late 1957, construction was completed in 1962, and Israel produced its first two bombs in mid-1967.
According to Karpin, "For years experts have been busy estimating or guessing the actual capacity, and a consensus of a sort has emerged that the reactor was originally built with a 40-megawatt capacity and was upgraded in the 1970s. This meant it could produce 15-20 kilograms of plutonium and four to five bombs a year." (p. 109) Information subsequently supplied by Mordechai Vanunu indicates that "Israel's annual plutonium output is some 40 kilos, and that it manufactures ten bombs a year." (Ibid) Today, Israel is thought to possess as many as 200 atomic warheads.
Judging by Michael Karpin's book, Israel paid no price for its lies and deceit surrounding its nuclear program, because: (1) the US has always tilted toward Israel (or as Harry Truman observed: "I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs in my constituents." (2) Israel was able to deceive the US until Dimona became a fait accompli, (3) American presidents, especially Lyndon Johnson, turned a blind eye to the emerging evidence that Israel was pursuing the bomb until (4) President Nixon and Henry Kissinger finally acknowledged it, but also embraced it as being in America's national interest.
As Karpin acknowledges, although it was US policy to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Israel "was a special case. The influence of the Jewish vote and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States was growing, and at least three presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon -- set their policy toward Israel's nuclear program with one eye on the Jewish electorate." (p. 181)
Special case, indeed! Consider, for example, Abe Feinberg's role in financing Israel's nuclear program during late-1958 to late-1960. Feinberg was President Truman's "close friend," (p. 135) "who had been bequeathed to Kennedy by Eisenhower, who had in turn inherited him from Truman." (p. 185) He also was "Ben-Gurion's representative in charge of obtaining donations from the wealthiest Jews in the world" (p. 136) During late-1958 to late-1960, Feinberg led a secret and successful fund raising campaign to finance Israel's nuclear program.
Thanks to Feinberg's "Dimona campaign" (p. 136), which was bolstered by the contributions of the Sonneborn Institute ("the group formed by the eighteen richest Jews in North America"), "some twenty-five millionaires contributed a total of about $40 million dollars" to finance Israel's nuclear program. Today that $40 million would equal $250 million. (Ibid)
Feinberg's secret fund raising campaign commenced some six months before American intelligence channels first learned of "the building site in the Negev." (p. 154) And it continued, even after an American reconnaissance satellite photographed Dimona in September 1960. (p. 155) President Eisenhower was especially concerned about the source of the funding: "We do not know where they obtained the funds, but have a proper interest in this because of the aid we are giving them." (p. 159)
The fund raising campaign succeeded, notwithstanding the fact that it was official U. S. policy to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And, it succeeded, notwithstanding the fact that the US already had supplied Israel with a low-power nuclear reactor, one that became operational in 1960. That reactor, however, could not produce the plutonium necessary for bombs.
Thus, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the contributors to the Dimona campaign knew precisely what they were supporting. That being the case, just imagine the national outcry -- highlighting America's pro-Israel bias -- were it to be revealed that US citizens of Iranian descent had been making secret contributions to finance Iran's nuclear program!
In December 1960, after the American news media got wind of Dimona and suggested that that Israel might be "developing a nuclear option," (pp. 156-57) Ben-Gurion spoke to the Knesset and lied about the allegations. He lied when he asserted: "This reactor's meant to be used only for peaceful purposes, and is being built under the direction of Israeli experts." (p. 161)
Karpin claims that the departing Eisenhower administration "had no interest in revealing its suspicion that Israel was building a bomb," (p. 158) and that the incoming Kennedy administration wasn't much better. Kennedy accepted the comforting words of two American scientists, who had been duped by the Israelis when they visited Dimona ten days before the president met with Ben-Gurion on May 30, 1961. Thus, Kennedy not only swallowed Ben-Gurion's false assertion that the main purpose of the reactor was to produce cheap energy (p. 193) -- Iran's leaders make similar claims today -- but he also ignored hints from Ben-Gurion that Israel reserved the option to build a bomb. Finally, Kennedy failed to ask Ben-Gurion "why Israel needed a plutonium extraction plant." (p. 194)
After the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy became much more serious about nuclear nonproliferation. When he met with Golda Meir in December 1962 in Palm Beach, Florida, Kennedy informed her that the United States "has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East, really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs." (p. 218) He added: "I think it is quite clear that in the case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel." (Ibid)
But when Kennedy issued an "ultimatum" (p. 232) about opening Dimona to inspections, the Israelis stalled until after his assassination. Moreover, when the first inspection finally took place, on January 18, 1964, the Americans were defrauded again.
Kennedy's failure to halt Israel's nuclear program occurred at a time, especially during late 1962 and early 1963, when Israel's Mossad was conducting a campaign of terror (including letter bombs) and intimidation against German scientists who, allegedly, were helping Egypt to build its own bomb. The intelligence behind the terror campaign proved to be "one big cock-and-bull story," (p. 210) but the injuries and diplomatic fallout proved to be all too real. (This nasty business seems to continue. According to The Sunday Times (UK) of February 4, 2007, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated by Mossad in mid-January 2007)
Yet, as bad as Kennedy's myopia about Israel's bomb was, Lyndon Johnson's was even worse. It was the product of life-long concern for the Jews and Israel. First, an aunt, who preached the importance of helping the Jews, influenced Johnson's childhood. Second, in 1938 Johnson helped to organize a network that smuggled Jews into Texas and, third, in 1945 he was visibly shaken by a visit to Dachau. When he became president, he was the first to agree to sell Israel offensive weapons.
When he met with Israel's Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in January 1968, Johnson knew that the CIA believed "that Israel already achieved nuclear capability." (p. 296) Nevertheless, although he informed Eshkol that the US was "opposed to the presence of nuclear weapons and strategic missiles in the Middle East," (Ibid) he did not challenge Eshkol's assertion that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce them.
Not only did Eshkol lie, by producing two bombs in mid-1967, Israel already had violated the terms of a March 1965 arms agreement with the U. S., in which Israel stipulated: "The Government of Israel has reaffirmed that Israel will not be the first to introduce weapons into the Arab-Israel area." (p. 257)
Yet, Johnson responded to such lies by Eshkol and Foreign Minister Abba Eban by overruling his own officials -- Dean Rusk and Paul Warnke -- who insisted that Israel submit to regular inspections and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, before being permitted to purchase technologically sophisticated F-4 Phantoms.
According to Karpin, pressure exerted by Abe Feinberg and Arthur Goldberg -- at the request of Israel's U.S Ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin! -- was decisive. "The assault of the Jewish lobby on the White House and the heads of the Democratic Party had apparently worked." (p. 309) "In his memoirs, Rabin describes how he agonized over the propriety of a foreign ambassador making use of a lobby within the American governmental system." (p. 308)
The lies and deceit directed at the United States finally ended, when the new Prime Minister, Golda Meir, decided to "tell the truth to the American leaders," (p. 315) in 1969. Fortunately, she encountered a Nixon administration that, under Henry Kissinger's tutelage, took a permissive position on nuclear proliferation by America's friends. And, thus, yet more American hypocrisy when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation!
Thus, "the United States accepted the fact that Israel possessed nuclear capability, ceased to demand that Israel sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and stopped sending its experts to inspect Dimona. Israel committed itself to three nos: no publication, no testing, and no provoking the Arabs with its nuclear option." (p. 318) And, thus, Israel maintains such "ambiguity" to this day.
Yet, notwithstanding Israel's policy of ambiguity, it's well known that, on October 9, 1973, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan recommended that Israel use nuclear weapons in order to avoid losing the Yom Kippur war. (Avner Cohen, "The Last Nuclear Moment," New York Times, Oct. 6. 2003) And according to Scott Ritter, Israel put its "nuclear-tipped Jericho missile force on full alert" (Ritter, p. 8) during the 1991 Gulf War.
Worse still (if the January 7, 2007, report in The Sunday Times is accurate), "Israel has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons." Not exactly what one could call ambiguity -- or responsible custodianship of nuclear weapons. (Israel subsequently denied the report.)
Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence has remained vigilant, lest some other Middle Eastern state emulates Israel and sneaks a bomb into its basement. Thus the Mossad's letter bombs against innocent German scientists in 1962-63, Israel's preventive strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, and the alleged Mossad murder of an Iranian scientist just recently.
Indeed, an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons could pose an existential threat to Israel, especially if the individuals who wield military power, such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, literally seek Israel's destruction. As Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren recently concluded: An Iran possessing the bomb "would be able to destroy the Zionist dream without pressing the button." (Yossi Klein Halevi & Michael B. Oren, "Israel's Worst Nightmare: Contra Iran," The New Republic Feb. 5, 2007) Under the threat of a nuclear attack, people will leave, especially the elite who have opportunities abroad. Foreign investors will flee as well. Consequently, "the promise of Zionism to create a Jewish refuge will have failed, and, instead, Jews will see the diaspora as a more trustworthy option for both personal and collective survival." (Ibid)
Thus, their conclusion: "A Jewish state that allows itself to be threatened with nuclear weapons -- by a country that denies the genocide against Europe's six million Jews while threatening Israel's six million Jews -- will forfeit its right to speak in the name of Jewish history." (Ibid) Yet, precisely because the authors, like many Israelis, discount deterrence and rule out negotiations, one has even more reason to suspect Israel of contemplating nuclear madness.
Yet, Iran denies pursuing nuclear weapons. Indeed, in September 2004, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the "production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons." (Ritter, p. 170) Whose religious edicts count in Iran, if not his?
Moreover, as Israel, America's Israel lobby and its bootlicking neocons prod the Bush administration to wage war against Iran, by attacking its nuclear facilities, it's worth recalling that the 1981 attack on Osirak backfired. For, as Joseph Cirincione has written recently, "After the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein turned the program from one involving 500 workers into a more ambitious, secret 7,000-person drive that came closer to delivering a bomb by 1991 than the open program would have" (Joseph Cirincione, "The Clock's Ticking: Stopping Iran Before It's Too Late," Arms Control Today, November 2006)
An attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would certainly provoke Iran to seek nuclear weapons with a vengeance. And an attack using nuclear weapons would outrage the world.
Thus, although there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Iran's leaders, like Israel's before them, are lying about their nuclear program -- a matter to be examined in Part Three of this article -- there also are plenty of reasons to believe that an Osirak-like strike would be even more counterproductive this time around. As a 2005 study by two scholars at the National Defense University concluded: "The costs of rolling back Iran's nuclear program 'may be higher than the costs of deterring and containing nuclear Iran.'"(Elaine Sciolino, "Chirac's Iran Gaffe Reveals A Strategy: Containment," New York Times, Feb. 3, 2007) Consequently, a different approach is required.
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Walter C. Uhler
Bomb, Iran's Pursuit of the Bomb and US War Preparations (Part One)