Wednesday, June 6, 2012

John Cassidy - What about Israel’s Nukes?

MARCH 5, 2012

In case you’d forgotten about them—and that wouldn’t be hard, given how seldom their existence is mentioned in public debates—Israel has perhaps a hundred nuclear weapons, maybe even a few times more than that, and it has the capacity to launch them from underground silos, submarines, and F-16 fighter bombers.


Outside of the Israeli defense ministry, very few people know precisely how many nuclear-armed missiles the country has. According to a non-classified 1999 estimate from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which was cited in a 2007 bulletin from the Federation of American Scientists, Israel had between sixty and eighty nuclear warheads. More recent estimates say the figure is considerably higher.


The London-based Institute of Strategic Studies says Israel has “up to 200” warheads loaded on land-based Jericho 1 and Jericho 2 short- and medium-range missiles. Jane’s, the defense-information company, estimates that the over-all number of warheads is between a hundred and three hundred, which puts the Israeli nuclear arsenal roughly on a par with the British and French capabilities. And some of these warheads are widely believed to have been loaded onto the new Jericho 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of up to four thousand five hundred miles—meaning it could theoretically strike targets in Europe and Asia.


Ever since the 1960s, when Israel constructed its first nuke, successive governments have refused to acknowledge the existence of its weapons program—an official stance known by the Hebrew word for opacity, amimut. And it isn’t just a matter of non-acknowledgement. Israelis who reveal details about the weapons program can face prosecution and lengthy prison terms. In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician, gave photographs he had taken of the Negev Nuclear Research Center, near the city of Dimona, in the Negev desert, to the Sunday Times of London. After the publication of Vanunu’s story, Mossad agents snatched him from Rome, where he had been lured on vacation, and returned him to Israel. There he served eighteen years in jail, eleven of them in solitary confinement.


Avner Cohen, the Israeli-American historian who, in 1998, published a scholarly history of the Israeli nuclear program, “Israel and the Bomb,” didn’t meet that same fate. But when he returned to Israel in 2001, for an academic conference, he was subjected to fifty hours of questioning by the security arm of the Ministry of Defense about his sources and his motives in writing the book. And in 2002, Yitzhak Yaakov, a former head of the Israel Defense Force’s weapons-research program, received a suspended sentence of two years after writing his memoir. “This entire thing is a nightmare for me,” Yaakov said, during his trial. ”I wake up in the morning and remember that I was interrogated for espionage. I was told that I was worse than Vanunu and my wife is Mata Hari.”


Now that Israel is threatening to bomb Iran’s undeclared nuclear research program—a program that the American intelligence services don’t believe to have progressed to the stage of attempting to construct actual warheads, according to the Times—the pretence continues. Take this 2010 interview in The Atlantic with Benjamin Netanyahu, by my former colleague Jeffrey Goldberg:

Netanyahu would not frame the issue in terms of nuclear parity—the Israeli policy of amimut, or opacity, prohibits acknowledging the existence of the country’s nuclear arsenal, which consists of more than 100 weapons, mainly two-stage thermonuclear devices, capable of being delivered by missile, fighter-bomber, or submarine (two of which are said by intelligence sources to be currently positioned in the Persian Gulf). Instead, he framed the Iranian program as a threat not only to Israel but to all of Western civilization.

It is, of course, up to the government of Israel to formulate its policies based upon its view of the country’s self-interest. And, surely, the United States must do the same thing. In his speech to AIPAC yesterday, President Obama said this:

A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national-security interests of the United States. A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the nonproliferation regime that we’ve done so much to build. There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

In what was a lengthy speech, there was no mention of Israel’s nuclear weapons, or of its long-standing refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Has any American president publicly acknowledged these facts? In his latest book, “The Worse Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” Avner Cohen refers to a meeting in September, 1969, between President Richard Nixon and Golda Meir about Israel’s clandestine nukes.

No written record of or oral testimony about what transpired at this meeting is known to have survived, so what the leaders discussed remains shrouded in mystery. In retrospect, we can say that it was at this meeting that amimut as strategic posture mutually supported by Israel and the United States came into being. The Nixon-Meir meeting is the birthplace of the bargain.

At a time when the Israeli lobby in this country, with the coöperation of the Republican candidates, is exerting pressure on the United States to support Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, it might be time to revisit this bargain. It wouldn’t necessarily change much. The regime in Tehran is a deeply unpleasant one, and many of our other allies, including Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia, are also determined to prevent it from joining the nuclear club. But publicly acknowledging what everybody already knows about Israel—that it’s one of the world’s nuclear powers—would make the United States less vulnerable to the charge of double standards.

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