Israel's weapons of mass destruction
by John Steinbach
CovertAction Quarterly, April / June 2001
In the first months of 2001, efforts to secure peace in the
Middle East were hit by two dangerous developments. Right-winger
Ariel Sharon was elected to power in Israel, the world's neglected
nuclear nation. And President George W. Bush's first foreign policy
adventure saw Iraq bombed by U.S. and British forces, in what
was justified as a "defensive" act.
Since the Gulf War in 1991, much attention has been Lavished
on an alleged threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction while
the major culprit in the region, Israel, has been largely ignored.
With between 200 and 500 thermonuclear weapons and a sophisticated
delivery system, Israel, population 6 million, recently supplanted
Britain as the world's 5th Largest nuclear power. It may now rival
France and China in the size and sophistication of its nuclear
Possessing chemical and biological weapons, an extremely sophisticated
nuclear arsenal, and an aggressive strategy for their actual use,
Israel provides the major regional impetus for the development
of weapons of mass destruction, and represents an acute threat
to peace and stability in the Middle East.
The hypocrisy inherent in the condemnation of Iraq's weapons
of mass destruction and the obsessive focus on "rogue states"
such as North Korea, while totally ignoring Israel's provocative
arsenal, is breathtaking.
The existence of the Israeli nuclear program is a serious
impediment to meaningful nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
The time is long overdue for citizens concerned about sanctions
against Iraq, peace with justice in the Middle East, and
nuclear disarmament, to confront directly the issue of Israeli
weapons of mass destruction.
THE ISRAELI BOMB
The Israeli nuclear program began in the Late 1940s. It was
established at the Department of Isotope Research at the Weissman
Institute of Science under the direction of Ernst David Bergmann,
"the father of the Israeli bomb," who in 1952 established
the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission.
From the very beginning the U.S. was heavily involved in developing
Israel's nuclear capability, training Israeli nuclear scientists
and providing nuclear-related technology, including a small "research"
reactor in 1955 under the "Atoms for Peace" program.
It was France, however, that provided the bulk of nuclear
assistance to Israel, culminating in construction
of Dimona, a heavy water-moderated, natural uranium reactor
and plutonium reprocessing operation situated near Bersheeba in
the Negev desert.
Israel had been active in the French nuclear weapons program
from its inception, and provided critical technical expertise.
Dimona became operational in 1964 and plutonium reprocessing began
shortly thereafter. Despite Israeli claims that Dimona was "a
manganese plant, or a textile factory," the extreme security
measures employed belied the bogus claims.
In 1976, Israel shot down one of its own Mirage fighters,
and in 1973 shot down a Libyan civilian airliner that approached
too close to Dimona, killing 104.'
There is substantial credible speculation that Israel may
have exploded at Least one, and perhaps several, nuclear devices
in the mid-1960s in the Negev near the Israeli-Egyptian border,
and that it participated actively in French nuclear tests in Algeria.
By the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel possessed
an arsenal of perhaps several dozen deliverable atomic bombs and
it went on full nuclear alert.
Possessing advanced nuclear technology and top nuclear scientists,
Israel was confronted early with a major problem-how to obtain
the necessary uranium.
Israel's own uranium source was the phosphate deposits in
the Negev, totally inadequate to meet the need of a rapidly expanding
program. The short-term answer was to mount commando raids in
France and Britain to successfully hijack uranium shipments, and
in the 19673 "Plumbatt Affair," to collaborate with
West Germany in diverting 200 tons of yellow cake (uranium oxide).
These clandestine acquisitions of uranium for Dimona were subsequently
covered up by the countries involved.
There was also an allegation that a U.5. corporation, Nuclear
Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), diverted hundreds
of pounds of enriched uranium to Israel from the mid-1950s to
the mid-1960s.4 Despite an FBI and CIA investigation, and congressional
hearings, no one was ever prosecuted, although most other investigators
believed the diversion had occurred.
In the late 1960s, Israel solved the uranium problem by developing
close ties with South Africa in a quid pro quo arrangement whereby
Israel supplied the technology and expertise for the "Apartheid
Bomb," while South Africa provided the uranium.
SOUTH AFRICA AND THE US In 1977, the Soviet Union warned the
U.S. that satellite photos indicated South Africa was planning
a nuclear test in the Kalahari desert. The apartheid regime backed
down under pressure from the Carter administration.
On September 22, 1979, a U.S. satellite detected an atmospheric
test of a small thermonuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean off South
Africa, but because of Israel's involvement the report was quickly
whitewashed by a carefully selected scientific panel, kept in
the dark about important details. Later it was Learned through
Israeli sources that there were actually three tests of miniaturized
Israeli nuclear artillery shells.
The Israeli/South African collaboration did not end with the
bomb testing, but continued until the fall of apartheid, especially
with the developing and testing of medium range missiles and advanced
artillery. In addition to uranium and test facilities, South Africa
provided Israel with Large amounts of investment capital, while
Israel provided a major trade outlet undermining the international
economic sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime.
Although the French and South Africans were primarily responsible
for the Israeli nuclear program, the U.S. deserves a Large part
of the blame.
An observer remarked the Israeli nuclear program "was
possible only because [emphasis in original] of calculated deception
on the part of Israel, and willing complicity on the part of the
U.S." Beginning with the provision of a small reactor in
the mid-1950s, the U.S. played a critical role in Israel's nuclear
Israeli scientists were trained largely at U.S. universities
and were generally welcomed at the nuclear weapons Labs. In the
early 1960s, the controls for the Dimona reactor were obtained
clandestinely from a company called Tracer Lab, the main supplier
of U.S. military reactor control panels, purchased through a Belgian
subsidiary apparently with the acquiescence of the U.S. intelligence
In 1971, the Nixon administration approved the sale to Israel
of hundreds of krytons, a type of high speed switch necessary
to the development of sophisticated nuclear bombs. And in 1979
President Carter provided Tel Aviv ultra-high resolution photos
from the KH11 spy satellite, which were used two years later to
bomb the Iraqi Osirak reactor. Throughout the Nixon and Carter
administrations, and accelerating dramatically under Reagan, U.S.
advanced technology transfers to Israel continued and continue
to the present.
THE VANUNU REVELATIONS
Following the 1973 war, Israel intensified its nuclear program,
while continuing its policy of "nuclear opaqueness."
Until the mid-1980s most intelligence estimates of the Israeli
nuclear arsenal were of the order of two dozen, but the explosive
revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician working
in the Dimona plutonium reprocessing plant, changed everything
A leftist supporter of Palestinian rights, Vanunu believed
that it was his duty to humanity to expose Israel's nuclear program
to the world. He smuggled dozens of photos and valuable scientific
data out of Israel and in 1986 his story was published in London's
Rigorous scientific scrutiny of the Vanunu revelations Led
to the disclosure that Israel possessed as many as 200 highly
sophisticated, miniaturized thermonuclear bombs. His information
indicated that the Dimona reactor's capacity had been expanded
manifold, and that Israel was producing 1.2 kilograms of plutonium
a week, enough to make 10 to 12 bombs per year, and that it was
producing advanced thermonuclear weapons.
Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist and scholar on
U.S. intelligence, commenting on the Vanunu data said: "The
scope of this is much more extensive than we thought. This is
an enormous operation."
Just prior to the publication, Vanunu was Lured to Rome by
an Israeli-American Mossad "Mata Hari", and was beaten,
drugged and kidnapped to Israel. following a campaign of disinformation
and vilification in the Israeli press, Vanunu was convicted of
treason by a secret security court and sentenced to 18 years in
prison. He served over 12 years in solitary confinement in a 6
by 9 foot cell, according to Amnesty International, the longest
known modern solitary imprisonment.
After a year of modified release to the general prison population-he
was not permitted contact with Arabs-Vanunu has been from the
year 2000 subject to punishment spells in solitary and faces more
than three years' further imprisonment. The Vanuatu revelations
were largely ignored by the world press, especially in the United
States, and Israel continues to enjoy a free ride regarding its
There is little doubt that Israeli nukes are among the world's
most sophisticated and are largely designed for "war fighting"
in the Middle East.
A staple of the Israeli nuclear arsenal are neutron bombs,
miniaturized thermonuclear bombs designed to maximize deadly gamma
radiation while minimizing blast effects and long-term radiation-in
essence designed to kill people while Leaving property intact.
Weapons include ballistic missiles and bombers capable of reaching
Moscow, cruise missiles, Land mines-in the 1980s Israel planted
nuclear Land mines along the Golan Heights-and artillery shells
with a range of 45 miles.
The Sunday Times (London) reported in June 2000 that an Israeli
submarine had launched a cruise missile, hitting a target 950
miles away. Israel had become only the third nation after the
U.S. and Russia with this capability. It will deploy this year
three of these virtually impregnable submarines, each carrying
four cruise missiles. The nuclear bombs themselves range in size
from "city busters" Larger than the Hiroshima bomb to
Regardless of its size and scope- and it would be a serious
mistake to underestimate Israeli capabilities- the Israeli arsenal
of weapons of mass destruction clearly dwarfs the actual or potential
arsenals of all other Middle Eastern states combined, and is vastly
greater than any reasonable need for "deterrence."
Israel also possesses a comprehensive arsenal of chemical
and biological weapons. According to the Sunday Times, Israel
has produced both chemical and biological weapons with a sophisticated
delivery system. A senior Israeli intelligence official acknowledged:
"There is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical
or biological weapon... which is not manufactured at the Nes Tziyona
Biological Institute.'' The same report described F-16 fighter
jets specially designed for chemical and biological weapon payloads,
with crews trained to Load the weapons on a moment's notice.
In 1998, the Sunday Times reported that Israel, using research
obtained from South Africa, was developing an "ethno-bomb."
"In developing their ethno-bomb,' Israeli scientists are
trying to exploit medical advances by identifying a distinctive
gene carried by some Arabs, then create a genetically modified
bacterium or virus... The scientists are trying to engineer deadly
micro-organisms that attack only those bearing the distinctive
Dedi Zucker, a Leftist Member of Knesset, the Israeli parliament,
denounced the research saying: "Morally, based on our history,
and our tradition and our experience, such a weapon is monstrous
and should be denied."
In popular imagination, the Israeli bomb is a weapon of last
resort, to be used only at the Last minute to avoid annihilation.
This strategy, described by U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh as the
"Samson Option," is backed by many supporters of Israel.
Whatever truth this formulation may have had in the minds
of the early Israeli nuclear strategists, today the Israeli nuclear
arsenal is inextricably linked to and integrated with overall
Israeli military and political strategy. As Seymour Hersh says
in classic understatement: "The Samson Option is no Longer
the only nuclear option available to Israel.''
Israel has made countless veiled nuclear threats against the
Arab nations and against the Soviet Union and by extension Russia
since the official end of the Cold War. One chilling example comes
from Ariel Sharon, now the Israeli Prime Minister: "Arabs
may have the oil, but we have the matches."
In another example, Israeli nuclear expert Oded Brosh said
in 1992, "...we need not be ashamed that the nuclear option
is a major instrumentality of our defense as a deterrent against
those who attack us."
Israeli academic Israel Shahak commented in 1997: "The
wish for peace, so often assumed as the Israeli aim, is not in
my view a principle of Israeli policy, while the wish to extend
Israeli domination and influence is." He added: "Israel
is preparing for a war, nuclear if need be, for the sake of averting
domestic change not to its Liking, if it occurs in some or any
Middle Eastern states... Israel clearly prepares... to use for
the purpose all means available, including nuclear ones."
Israel uses its nuclear arsenal not just in the context of
deterrence or of direct war fighting, but in other more subtle
but no less important ways. For example, the possession of weapons
of mass destruction can be a powerful lever to maintain the status
quo, or to influence events to Israel's perceived advantage, such
as to protect the so-called moderate Arab states from internal
insurrection, or to intervene in inter-Arab warfare.
In Israeli strategic jargon this concept is called "non-conventional
compellence" and is exemplified by a 1962 quote from Shimon
Peres: "Acquiring a superior weapons system [read nuclear]
would mean the possibility of using it for complement purposes-that
is forcing the other side to accept Israeli political demands,
which presumably include a demand that the traditional status
quo be accepted and a peace treaty signed."
Robert Tucker asked plaintively in a 1975 Commentary magazine
article in defense of Israeli nukes: "What would prevent
Israel... from pursuing a hawkish policy employing a nuclear deterrent
to freeze the status quo?"
Another major use of the Israeli bomb is to compel the U.S.
to act in Israel's favor, even when it runs counter to its own
strategic interests. As early as 1956 Francis Perrin, head of
the French A-bomb project, wrote: "We thought the Israeli
Bomb was aimed at the Americans, not to launch it at the Americans,
but to say, 'If you don't want to help us in a critical situation
we will require you to help us; otherwise we will use our nuclear
During the 1973 war, Israel used nuclear blackmail to force
Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon to airlift massive
amounts of military hardware to Israel. At that time the then
Simcha Dinitz, is quoted as saying: "If a massive airlift
to Israel does not start immediately, then I will know that the
U.S. is reneging on its promises and... we will have to draw very
One example of this scenario was spelled out in 1987 by Amos
Rubin, economic adviser to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
"If Left to its own Israel will have no choice but to fall
back on a riskier defense which will endanger itself and the world
at Large... To enable Israel to abstain from dependence on nuclear
arms calls for $2 to $3 billion per year in U.S. aid." Since
then Israel's nuclear arsenal has expanded hugely, both quantitatively
and qualitatively, while the U.S. money spigots remain wide open.
It is clear Israel has no interest in peace except that which
is dictated on its own terms, and has absolutely no intention
of negotiating in good faith to curtail its nuclear program or
discuss seriously a nuclear-free Middle East.
Israel Shahak notes: "Israel's insistence on the independent
use of its nuclear weapons can be seen as the foundation on which
Israeli grand strategy rests.'' Seymour Hersh says "the size
and sophistication of Israel's nuclear arsenal allows men such
as Ariel Sharon to dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East
aided by the implicit threat of nuclear force."
There is an abundance of evidence to Lend credence to this
analysis. Ever Weizman, Israel's ex-President, said: "The
nuclear issue is gaining momentum [and the] next war will not
Ze'ev Shiff, an Israeli military expert writing in Ha'aretz,
said: "Whoever believes that Israel will ever sign the UN
Convention prohibiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons...
is daydreaming." And Munya Mardoch, Director of the Israeli
Institute for the Development of Weaponry, said in 1994: "The
moral and political meaning of nuclear weapons is that states
which renounce their use are acquiescing to the status of vassal
states. All those states which feel satisfied with possessing
conventional weapons alone are fated to become vassal states."
As Israeli society becomes more and more polarized, the influence
of the radical right becomes stronger. According to Shahak: "The
prospect of Gush Emunim, or some secular right-wing Israeli fanatics,
or some of the delerious Israeli Army generals, seizing control
of Israeli nuclear weapons... cannot be precluded... while Israeli
Jewish society undergoes a steady polarization, the Israeli security
system increasingly relies on the recruitment of cohorts from
the ranks of the extreme right."
During a future Middle Eastern war -not at all unlikely given
the ascension of Ariel Sharon, an unindicted war criminal with
a bloody record stretching from the massacre of Palestinian civilians
at Quibya in 1953 to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at
Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and beyond-the possible Israeli use
of nuclear weapons should not be discounted.
Seymour Hersh warns: "should war break out in the Middle
East again... or should any Arab nation fire missiles against
Israel, as the Iraqis did, a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable
except as a last resort, would now be a strong probability."
Many Middle East peace activists have been reluctant to discuss,
let alone challenge, the Israeli monopoly on nuclear weapons in
the region, leading to incomplete and uninformed analyses and
flawed action strategies.
But placing the issue of Israeli weapons of mass destruction
directly on the table would have several salutary effects.
First, it would expose the primary destabilizing dynamic driving
the Middle East arms race and compelling the region's states to
each seek their own "deterrent."
Second, it would expose the grotesque double standard which
sees the U.S. and Europe on the one hand condemning Iraq, Syria
and North Korea for developing weapons of mass destruction, while
simultaneously protecting and enabling the principal culprit.
Third, exposing Israel's nuclear strategy will help focus
international public attention, resulting in increased pressure
to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and negotiate in
Finally, a nuclear-free Israel could reasonably be expected
to result in a Nuclear-Free Middle East, making a comprehensive
regional peace agreement much more likely.
Unless and until the world community confronts Israel over
its covert nuclear program, it is unlikely there will be any meaningful
resolution of the Israeli/Arab conflict, a fact that Israel is
apparently counting on as the Sharon era dawns.
John Steinbach is a graduate of the University of Michigan
School of Natural Resources and the Environment. With his wife
Louise Franklin-Ramirez, he is the co-author of the map and database
"Deadly Radiation Hazards USA." He is active in the
Washington, D.C.-area peace and justice movement