Israel's nuclear programbegan almost immediately in 1949 with establishment of the Weizmann Institute Department of Isotope Research in Tel Aviv and an agreement for nuclear collaboration with France initiated by Ben-Gurion, who then established the Israel Atomic Energy Commission in 1952. France was Israel's first major arms supplier, beginning in 1955, which included a 24,000 kw nuclear reactor constructed at Dimona in the Negev desert and Mirage fighter-bombers capable of nuclear weapons delivery.
It was long suspected that the enriched uranium necessary for Israel's initial nuclear program came from the United States through diversion of some 200 pounds of missing weapons-grade uranium to Israel by a private Pennsylvania Atomic Energy Commission contractor, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) with an Israeli subsidiary company (ISORAD) 50% owned by the Israeli government. Zalman Shapiro, NUMEC's owner, was an ardent Zionist with extensive Israeli connections, but after years of surveillance and investigation and some very suggestive evidence, this suspicion has never been confirmed through a court proceeding.
A more certain source of their start-up supply was Euratom, the Common Market nuclear agency. Hundreds of tons of uranium ore were available for sale within the European community from a Euratom warehouse in Belgium. Its purchase for a Milan chemical company was arranged using a West German Mossad agent and shipped out of Antwerp on a Turkish-registered vessel purchased with Mossad funds, with the shipment transferred at sea to an Israeli freighter.
Although US and European intelligence agencies had identified Israeli involvement within months, it was nine years after the shipment disappeared before the hijacking was finally learned by the press. We cannot help but wonder if discovery would have been so leisurely and disclosure so muted had any other country staged this nuclear hijacking. Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan's worldwide notoriety and condemnation for allegedly sharing nuclear technology in violation of NPT restrictions invites comparison.
Israel's nuclear weapons program was formally launched in1968. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made the decision to make Israel a nuclear power independent of Western protectors, consistent with his well-known advice that "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." After visiting the Israeli nuclear production facility at Dimona that year, an impressed Dayan pronounced, "There will be no more Auschwitzes."
This decision required concealment of their plutonium production capacity from U.S. inspectors, who were aware but turned a blind eye. American indulgence has been repeatedly tested by Israel, like a child discovering how much its parents will let it get away with. Enabling Israeli violations of bilateral agreements, treaty obligations and international law has increasingly characterized U.S. foreign policy until it has become habitual and automatic, expected by all parties including the frustrated international community. Israel now responds with overt outrage if any of its demands are unmet.
By the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel had some two dozen nuclear warheads in its arsenal. Taken by surprise by the Arab attacks, Israel suffered initial setbacks and appealed for help from the U.S. Hoping for some Arab gains to establish a greater parity of power in the region, the Nixon/Kissinger administration initially held back.
But on the fourth day of the war, Kissinger learned that Israel was arming its U.S.-provided F-4 aircraft with nuclear warheads. The Soviets, responding to parallel intelligence, were reportedly preparing a nuclear arms shipment to their Egyptian client. Fearing a nuclear outbreak, Kissinger immediately approved the massive arms shipments to Israel known as Operation Nickelgrass.
Would Israel have precipitated a nuclear war to preserve the territories it had seized and illegally retained in 1967 in defiance of UN Resolution 242 affirming the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibition against acquiring land by force?
We will never know, but he U.S. could not trust Israeli prudence and restraint, thereby making us vulnerable to what Seymour Hersch described as "nuclear blackmail" in his 1991 book, The Samson Option.
This term did not originate with Hersch, but with Israeli leaders in the mid-1960s. Their decision to proceed with nuclear weapons development arose from a resolve to assure "no more Masadas" - the legendary suicide of over 900 Jewish defenders in 73 CE rather than suffer defeat by the Romans. The Israelis believed that only nuclear weapons could provide an absolute deterrent against the Arab threat through mutually assured destruction should Arab forces acquire nuclear weapons or other WMDs from the Soviet Union.
This strategy was named The Samson Option after the biblical tale of Samson who brought down the pillars of Dagon's Temple in Gaza killing both himself and his Philistine captors who were subjecting him to humiliation. As Hersch relates it, "the Samson Option became another way of saying 'never again'."
This threat and the Soviet response persuaded President Johnson that the Cold War had moved to the Middle East stage, with Israel serving as America's forward station. US arms exports to Israel after 1973 immediately multipled by 350%.
At least equally important, the Samson Option has remained an implicit if not explicit extortion threat for extracting US arms aid to Israel on demand, allowing - again in the words of Seymour Hersch - "men such as Ariel Sharon to dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East aided by the implicit threat of nuclear force."
Israel has continued to develop its unmonitored nuclear weapons program, including nuclear artillery shells and land mines and low-yield neutron warheads to kill large numbers of troops with minimal property damage. In 1988 Israel launched its first satellite into orbit, providing it satellite intelligence and intercontinental missile capabilities to make the mad dog ever more dangerous with each passing year.
With Sharon in a coma, his policies have continued in Ehud Olmert's 2006 assault on Lebanon and 2008 "Cast Lead" assault on Gaza, and the bellicosity of Benyamin Netanyahu pushing for attack upon Iran. The Samson Option augments the power of the Israel lobby in accounting for US government timidity in attempting to restrain Israeli provocations and aggression.
To avoid examination of this highly dysfunctional, criminality-enabling relationship, the Israeli nuclear stockpile has remained undeclared and officially unacknowledged throughout its four decade history, with its current size unknown but estimated in the hundreds of warheads with satellite-guided long-range missile delivery capabilities and a range of designs for a range of tactical purposes.
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