Imagine you are a developing country in the heart of the Middle East. The entire world suspects you are starting to build nuclear weapons, but you deny it. The one country in the world that has the diplomatic, economic and military might to stop you — the United States of America — has made it clear, over at least three administrations, that it will not permit you to go nuclear. Fearful of its retaliation, you give your solemn promise that your nuclear development is entirely peaceful.
Within 10 years, you have two nuclear weapons.
To Israel’s supporters, the story of how a small country, against all odds, became a nuclear power is fascinating, an illustration of Israeli genius wedded to good old-fashioned chutzpah.
To Iranians, I fear, it’s instructive.
Most American Jews are not familiar with the history of Israel’s nuclear program. In part, that’s because many of the documents surrounding it weren’t declassified until recently. But it’s also because American Jews regard Israeli nukes the way America’s military treated gay soldiers: Don’t ask, don’t tell.
That’s too bad, because you can’t really understand Israeli history or geopolitics without an appreciation of Israel’s tremendous nuclear capabilities. And, by the way, you can’t make sense of what the Iranians are trying to get away with unless you understand how the Israelis already have.
Israel’s President Shimon Peres was the architect of the country’s nuclear program. The man whom today’s rightists love to disparage as a hopeless internationalist spent years cultivating French cooperation in Israel’s nuclear program.
The details of Peres’ mission are reported in Michael Bar-Zohar’s 2009 biography, “Shimon Peres,” based on what were then newly released documents. Other facts have come to light in interviews by journalists and military historians.
Peres began his quest in the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, as the 33-year-old director-general of the Defense Ministry. A secret meeting between Peres and the French foreign and defense ministers in 1956 secured French cooperation in helping Israel develop nuclear weapons.
At the time, France itself was not a nuclear power, and Israel functioned as a kind of secondary development unit. It was French technicians who built the secret underground reactor in Dimona, in Israel’s Negev desert.
When a new French president, Charles de Gaulle, suspended cooperation, the Israelis convinced him to continue helping by promising not to use the nuclear power to make nuclear weapons.
President John F. Kennedy, too, adamantly opposed Israeli nuclear development. He feared it would lead the Soviets to introduce nukes into the region. Kennedy threatened to review the entire Israeli-American relationship unless the Israelis vowed not to develop weapons and allowed regular inspections.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion promised Kennedy that Dimona was for peaceful purposes and agreed to inspections.
But the Israelis only permitted the inspectors to visit above-ground control rooms, while the weapons development was taking place underground. For these visits, the control rooms were simulated and the elevators leading to the plutonium reprocessing plant below were bricked over.
The way Ben-Gurion saw it, if Israel intended only to use the nuclear arms for defensive purposes, they were not, technically, “weapons.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol made his first state visit to the White House on June 1, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson exacted yet another promise regarding Dimona. The briefing papers relate that Johnson told Eshkol that Israeli nukes “would have the gravest possible repercussions on U.S.-Israel relations.” Johnson also pressed Eshkol on Israel joining the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We can’t make Israel an exception, because we’re making 60 or so other clients of ours toe the line,” Johnson’s briefing book read.
The United States, Johnson reminded Eshkol, “is violently against nuclear proliferation.”
Eshkol, who pleaded with Johnson for American missiles, assured the president that Israel “was not engaged in nuclear weapons production.”
Back in the Negev, of the 50 American Hawk missiles Israel received, 25 were used to form a defensive shield around Dimona.
Meanwhile, through intense secret channels, Israel secured uranium from West Germany, heavy water from Norway and additional uranium from Argentina and South Africa.
Relations between Israel and the United States became so strained over the nuclear program that Israel’s ambassador urged Abba Eban, then the country’s U.N. representative, to avoid the General Assembly for fear of running into Secretary of State Dean Rusk and having to answer questions about Dimona.
Nevertheless, by 1967, just before the Six-Day War broke out, Israel had two nuclear devices. It became the sixth nation in the world to go nuclear.
By the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile and advanced missile delivery system all but guaranteed that the United States would help Israel maintain its conventional weapons superiority so it would not be forced into a position of using its nuclear weapons.
Today, Israel is a country with advanced nuclear weapons capability, giving it a qualitative edge over its Arab — and Iranian — neighbors.
“Arabs may have the oil,” Ariel Sharon is reported to have said, “but we have the matches.”
So what can we learn from Israel’s nuclear weapons history? Inspections are made to be subverted. When a country is dead set on developing nuclear weapons, it is very difficult to stop it. If your friends would lie to your face, risk your considerable financial and military support and spy on you in order to go nuclear, imagine what your enemies would do. Once you actually get the weapons, the world treats you with significantly more care.
History teaches many lessons. Let’s hope the Iranians don’t read history.