Hole blasted in Israel's nuclear 'ambiguity'


ANALYSIS:Revelations about Israel’s atomic activities and nuclear arsenal shatter its strategic coyness and poke a finger at US hypocrisy, writes MARY FITZGERALD

IT HAS long been considered the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. Wreathed in a self-styled policy of “ambiguity” or “opacity”, Israel’s nuclear capability has been the source of decades of speculation. But the carefully cultivated secrecy was dealt a blow yesterday when a report in a British newspaper cited previously classified papers, unearthed by American academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky, which the paper says provide the first official documentary proof of the existence of Israeli nuclear arms.

The documents, published yesterday by the Guardianand part of a forthcoming book by Polakow-Suransky, show Israel negotiated with apartheid-era South Africa over the transfer of atomic weapons in 1975. It is widely believed that at least two decades before that Israel began developing its nuclear programme, one that it has since neither denied nor admitted under the guise of what Israelis call “strategic ambiguity”.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates Israel’s arsenal at about 200 nuclear warheads, which would make Israel the sixth-largest nuclear power. These warheads can be launched by air, by ground (mid-range ballistic missiles such as the Jericho II) or by sea. Some arms control specialists say Israel’s nuclear arsenal includes missiles capable of reaching Libya, Iran or Russia. According to a 2006 report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), it is also believed Israel retains at least 100 laser-guided bunker-busting bombs, or “mini-nukes”, capable of penetrating underground targets such as nuclear laboratories or storage facilities for weapons of mass destruction.

Soon after its establishment in 1948, Israel began exploring the possibility of acquiring the “ultimate deterrent”. Its weapons programme “grew out of the conviction that the Holocaust justified any measures Israel took to ensure its survival” according to FAS. In 1952, the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, which was to work in close co-operation with the Israeli army, was founded. Six years later, US spy plane surveillance revealed the construction of the Dimona reactor complex deep in the Negev desert. Israeli officials described the site at different times as a textile factory, a metallurgical research station and an agricultural centre before then prime minister David Ben-Gurion acknowledged in 1960 it was a nuclear research site built for “peaceful purposes”. In the late 1960s, a CIA report concluded that Israel had begun to produce nuclear weapons. A suspected nuclear explosion in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 prompted speculation that it was a joint Israeli-South African test.

Much of what is known about Israel’s nuclear capability came from Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona plant. He gave the Sunday Timesdetailed information about the programme in 1986. The disclosures led experts to revise the number of nuclear warheads Israel was believed to possess to at least 100, and possibly as many as 200. Vanunu’s whistle-blowing led to convictions for treason and he spent 18 years in prison in Israel. Israel’s current president, Shimon Peres, then prime minister, testified the Vanunu leaks had seriously damaged Israel’s security. In a subsequent statement, Peres, widely considered the architect of Israel’s nuclear programme, said: “A certain amount of secrecy must be maintained in some fields. The suspicion and fog surrounding this question are constructive, because they strengthen our deterrent.”

Earlier this week, Vanunu was sent back to prison for three months, deemed to have conducted unauthorised meetings with foreigners, including his Norwegian girlfriend.

Peter Hounam, the journalist who worked on the Vanunu story for the Sunday Times, watched the fallout from yesterday’s report with interest. “This blows the concept of ambiguity out of the water,” he told The Irish Times. “How can the West now allow Israel the leeway it has had up to this point?”

Hounam, who dealt with claims of Israeli co-operation with apartheid South Africa in a book he wrote on the latter’s nuclear capabilities, says the disclosures raise several questions. “If they can sell to a pariah state like that, who else have they been dealing with? Once a country develops nuclear weapons clandestinely, all bets are off.”

Israel’s supporters put forward many explanations as to why the state remains deliberately vague. Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general, told the CFR the stance is “smart” from a geostrategic perspective. “Israel gets the benefit of being perceived as a nuclear power while at the same time not enduring potential punishment [from the international community].”

But the nod-and-wink attitudes towards Israel’s nuclear arsenal are coming under unprecedented pressure. The revelations yesterday about Peres’ meetings with PW Botha to discuss the exchange of missiles and warheads in the 1970s come as Israel’s nuclear capability is under the spotlight at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference taking place in New York.

Unlike Iran, Israel has never signed the NPT, which was designed to prevent the global spread of nuclear weapons. Other states in the Middle East have long been disgruntled at what they see as US hypocrisy. They accuse the US of double standards because it ignores the elephant in the room that is Israel’s atomic arsenal while insisting Iran is a threat to peace.

During his term as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei told Israeli newspaper Haaretz the IAEA operated under the assumption Israel had nuclear weapons. He warned that Israel’s belief it was safer because of its arsenal was misguided, as other Middle Eastern states felt threatened. Whatever the consequences of yesterday’s revelations, few consider a nuclear-free Middle East as anything but a very distant dream.

Mary Fitzgerald is Foreign Affairs Correspondent

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