The truth about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal

Israel has been stealing nuclear secrets and covertly making bombs since the 1950s. And western governments, including the United States and Britain, turn a blind eye. But how can we expect Iran to curb its nuclear weapon ambitions if the Israelis won’t come clean?

Deep beneath desert sands, an embattled Middle Eastern state has built a covert nuclear bomb, using technology and materials provided by friendly powers or stolen by a network of secret agents. It is the stuff of pulp thrillers and the sort of narrative often used to characterize the worst fears about the Iranian nuclear program. In reality, though, neither U.S. nor British intelligence believe Tehran has decided to build a bomb, and Iran’s nuclear projects are under constant international monitoring.

The exotic tale of the bomb hidden in the desert is a true story of another country. In an extraordinary feat of subterfuge, Israel managed to assemble an entire underground nuclear weapons complex at Dimona, which produced an arsenal estimated at 80 warheads, and even tested a bomb nearly half a century ago, with a minimum of international outcry or even much public awareness of what it was doing.

Despite the fact that the Israel’s nuclear program has been an open secret since a disgruntled Dimona technician, Mordechai Vanunu, blew the whistle on it in 1986, the official Israeli position is still never to confirm or deny its existence.

When the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, broke the taboo in December 2013, declaring Israeli possession of both nuclear and chemical weapons and describing the official non-disclosure policy as “outdated and childish”, a rightwing group formally called for a police investigation for treason.

Meanwhile, western governments have played along with the policy of “opacity” by avoiding all mention of the issue. In 2009, when late Washington reporter Helen Thomas asked Barack Obama in the first month of his presidency if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. He dodged the trapdoor by saying only that he did not wish to speculate. U.K. governments have generally followed suit.

But through the cracks in this stone wall, more and more details continue to emerge of how Israel built its nuclear weapons from smuggled parts and pilfered technology.

The tale serves as a historical counterpoint to today’s drawn-out struggle over Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. The parallels are not exact; Israel, unlike Iran, never signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so could not violate it. But it almost certainly broke a treaty banning nuclear tests, as well as countless national and international laws restricting traffic in nuclear materials and technology.

The list of nations that secretly sold Israel the material and expertise to make nuclear warheads, or who turned a blind eye to its theft, include today’s staunchest campaigners against proliferation: the United States, France, Germany, Britain and even Norway.

Meanwhile, Israeli agents charged with buying fissile material and state-of-the-art technology found their way into some of the most sensitive industrial establishments in the world. This daring and remarkably successful spy ring included such colorful figures as Arnon Milchan, a billionaire Hollywood producer behind such hits as Pretty Woman, LA Confidential and 12 Years a Slave, who finally admitted his role in December 2013.

According to Milchan’s biography by Israeli journalists Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, he was responsible for securing vital uranium-enrichment technology, photographing centrifuge blue-prints that a German executive had been bribed into temporarily “mislaying” in his kitchen. The same blueprints, belonging to the European uranium enrichment consortium URENCO, were stolen a second time by a Pakistani employee, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who used them to found his country’s enrichment program and to set up a global nuclear smuggling business, selling the design to Libya, North Korea and Iran. For that reason, Israel’s centrifuges are nearly identical to Iran’s, a convergence that allowed Israel to try out a computer worm, codenamed Stuxnet, on its own centrifuges before unleashing it on Iran in 2010.

Israel had few qualms about proliferating nuclear weapons knowhow and materials, giving South Africa’s apartheid regime help in developing its own bomb in the 1970s in return for 600 tons of uranium yellowcake.

Israel’s nuclear reactor also required heavy water (deuterium oxide), to moderate the fissile reaction. For that, Israel turned to Norway and Britain. In 1959, Israel managed to buy 20 tons of heavy water that Norway had sold to the U.K. but was surplus to requirements for the British nuclear program. Both governments were suspicious that the material would be used to make weapons but decided to look the other way.

Israel’s nuclear-weapons project could never have gotten off the ground, though, without an enormous contribution from France. The country that took the toughest line on counter- proliferation when it came to Iran helped lay the foundations of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, driven by sympathy from French-Jewish scientists, intelligence-sharing over Algeria, and a drive to sell French expertise abroad.

France’s first reactor went critical as early as 1948. Pierre Mendès France, president of the council of ministers, gave the order to start building bombs in December 1954. As it built its nuclear arsenal, Paris sold material assistance to other aspiring weapons states. At Dimona, French engineers poured in to help build Israel a nuclear reactor and a far more secret reprocessing plant capable of separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel. This was the real giveaway that Israel’s nuclear program was aimed at producing weapons.

By the end of the 50s, there were 2,500 French citizens living in Dimona, transforming it from a village to a cosmopolitan town, complete with French lycées and streets full of Renaults, and yet the whole endeavor was conducted under a thick veil of secrecy.

The British were kept out in the dark, being told that the huge construction site was a desert grasslands research institute and a manganese processing plant. The Americans, also kept in the dark by both Israel and France, flew U2 spy planes over Dimona in an attempt to find out what they were up to.

The Israelis admitted to having a reactor but insisted it was for entirely peaceful purposes. They claimed the spent fuel was sent to France for reprocessing, even providing film footage of it supposedly being loaded onto French freighters. Throughout the 60s, it flatly denied the existence of the underground reprocessing plant that was churning out plutonium for bombs.

Israel refused to countenance inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so in the early 1960s, President Kennedy demanded they accept American inspectors. U.S. physicists were dispatched to Dimona but were given the ? run-around from the start. The lead American inspector, Floyd Culler, an expert on plutonium extraction, noted in his reports that there were newly plastered and painted walls in one of the buildings. It turned out that before each American visit, the Israelis had built false walls around the row of elevators that descended six levels to the subterranean reprocessing plant.

As more and more evidence of Israel’s weapons program emerged, the U.S. role progressed from unwitting dupe to reluctant accomplice. In 1968, CIA director Richard Helms told President Johnson that Israel had indeed managed to build nuclear weapons and that its air force had conducted sorties to practice dropping them.

The timing could not have been worse. The NPT, intended to prevent too many nuclear genies from escaping from their bottles, had just been drawn up, and if news broke that one of the supposedly non-nuclear-weapons states had secretly made its own bomb, it would have become a dead letter that many countries, especially Arab states, would refuse to sign.

The Johnson White House decided to say nothing, and the decision was formalized at a 1969 meeting between Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. In fact, U.S. involvement went deeper than mere silence.

At a meeting in 1976 then-CIA deputy director Carl Duckett informed a dozen officials from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the agency suspected some of the fissile fuel in Israel’s bombs was weapons-grade uranium stolen under America’s nose from a processing plant in Pennsylvania. Not only was an alarming amount of fissile material going missing at the company, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, but it had been visited by a veritable who’s-who of Israeli intelligence, including Rafael Eitan, a top Mossad operative.

It was one of the most glaring cases of diverted nuclear material, but the consequences appeared so awful for the people involved and for the U.S. than nobody really wanted to find out what was going on. An investigation was shelved and no charges were made.

A few years later, on September 22, 1979, the U.S. satellite Vela 6911 detected the double-flash typical of an atmospheric nuclear weapon test off the coast of South Africa. Leonard Weiss, an expert on nuclear proliferation, was briefed on the incident by U.S. intelligence agencies and nuclear weapons laboratories. He became convinced a nuclear weapon test had taken place in contravention to the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

It was only after both the Carter and Reagan administrations attempted to gag him on the incident and tried to whitewash it with an unconvincing panel of inquiry, that it dawned on Weiss that it was the Israelis rather than the South Africans who had carried out the detonation. “I was told it would create a very serious foreign policy issue for the U.S. if I said it was a test. Someone had let something off that the U.S. didn’t want anyone to know about,” Weiss said.

Israeli sources told American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh the flash picked up by the Vela satellite was actually the third of a series of Indian Ocean nuclear tests that Israel conducted in cooperation with South Africa.

The U.S. policy of silence continues to this day, even though Israel appears to be continuing to trade on the nuclear black market. In a paper on the illegal trade in nuclear material and technology published in October 2013, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security noted: “Under U.S. pressure in the 1980s and early 1990s, Israel … decided to largely stop its illicit procurement for its nuclear weapons program. Today, there is evidence that Israel may still make occasional illicit procurements. U.S. sting operations and legal cases show this.”

In the Arab world and beyond, there is growing impatience with the skewed nuclear status quo. Egypt in particular has threatened to walk out of the NPT unless there is progress toward creating a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The western powers promised to stage a conference on the proposal in 2012, but it was called off, largely at U.S. opposition, to reduce the pressure on Israel to attend and declare its nuclear arsenal.

– edited from an article by Julian Borger, The Guardian (U.K.), January 15, 2014
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

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