ISRAEL: Washington backs Middle East's `nuclear outlaw'

Norm Dixon

March 24, 2004 -- “Every civilised nation has a stake in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction... We’re determined to confront those threats at the source”, US President George Bush declared in a February 11 speech.

“We will stop these weapons from being acquired or built. We’ll block them from being transferred. We’ll prevent them from ever being used. One source of these weapons is dangerous and secretive regimes that build weapons of mass destruction to intimidate their neighbours and force their influence upon the world.”

Arguing for combative new “arms control” measures that would further entrench the West’s control over nuclear weapons, Bush casually repeated the now thoroughly exposed lie that the US-led war against Iraq was launched because Baghdad “refused to disarm or account for ... illegal weapons and programs”.

Bush used the speech to signal that Iran remains in Washington’s gun-sights, alleging that Tehran “is unwilling to abandon a uranium enrichment program capable of producing material for nuclear weapons”. Bush also demanded that North Korea “completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear programs”.

The February 11 speech marked a new high for hypocrisy and cynicism. It was prompted by embarrassing revelations that Washington’s closet ally, Pakistan, has been the world’s leading peddler of nuclear weapons technology for more than a decade — and its customers have included Iran and North Korea. Until 2003, Washington tolerated the activities of Pakistan’s state-sponsored nuclear smuggling and spying rings.

US allies

Washington has never opposed “dangerous and secretive regimes” developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “to intimidate their neighbours and force their influence upon the world” — only those that are not US allies.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq developed and used its chemical weapons arsenal, and began an effort to build nuclear and biological weapons, while an ally of the US prior to 1991. Washington began nuclear cooperation with Iran in 1957 under its “Atoms for Peace” program and encouraged US corporations to sell “dual use” nuclear technology to the US-backed Shah of Iran’s dictatorship.

But the most spectacular — and under-reported — example of Washington’s support for nuclear proliferation is its dealings with Israel.

The corporate press endlessly parrots US (and Israeli) charges that “weapons of mass destruction” in the hands of Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria pose a grave threat to peace. However, Israel is the only state in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons and the delivery systems to use them anywhere in the region and beyond.

Israel is the only state in the Middle East that has considered using them, and the only state in the region that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It refuses to allow international inspections of its nuclear, chemical or biological facilities. Yet Israel’s nuclear monopoly is rarely acknowledged by the capitalist media, and is persistently covered up by Washington.

Israel may well be the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power, ahead of Britain, and could even rival China for fourth place. Estimates of its stockpile range from 200 to more than 400 nuclear weapons, including medium- and long-range nuclear missiles, aircraft-mounted nuclear bombs and submarine-based nuclear cruise missiles, as well as sophisticated low-blast, deadly radiation-producing (“neutron bombs”) nuclear artillery shells and even nuclear land mines.

French role

According to a 1999 research paper prepared for the US Air Force Counterproliferation Center by US army academic Warner Farr, Israel began its quest for nuclear weapons soon after its creation in 1948. In 1953, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the development of nuclear and chemical weapons as a counter to the Arab countries’ larger armies.

In 1956, as quid pro quo for joining the French and British governments’ invasion of Egypt, France agreed to supply Israel with a large “research” nuclear reactor. France and Israel secretly agreed to pool their efforts to rapidly develop nuclear weapons and associated technologies, including uranium enrichment and plutonium separation.

A reactor and related facilities were secretly built underground at Dimona, in the Negev Desert near Beersheba, using the cover story that it was a “manganese plant”. Hundreds of French technicians helped build it.

Ben-Gurion appeared before the Knesset on December 21, 1960, and lied to the world when he stated the reactor was being built “entirely for peaceful purposes”. As Farr notes, the facility’s sole purpose was to produce nuclear bombs.

The Dimona reactor began operation in 1962. The French-built plutonium plant within the complex began production in 1965. On the eve of the 1967 “Six-Day War”, Israel had enough plutonium to produce at least one working nuclear bomb. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, in his 1991 book The Samson Option, after 1968 Israel was producing nuclear bombs at the rate of three to five bombs a year.

However, in 1986, the British Sunday Times published an expert examination of data supplied by former Dimona technician Mordechai Vanunu. It revealed that Israel possessed 200 highly sophisticated nuclear bombs. It was estimated that Israel was producing enough plutonium to make 10 to 12 bombs a year. (By the time Vanunu’s revelations were published, Israeli agents had lured him to Rome, where he was drugged and shanghaied to Israel. He was secretly tried and condemned to 18 years’ jail, most of which has been spent in solitary confinement. He is due to be released in April.)

US collusion

While Washington was not Israel’s main collaborator in its first acquisition of nuclear weapons, it made a significant contribution, which has expanded over the years. Israel’s original nuclear scientists and technicians were trained in US universities and government weapons labs. This cooperation continues to this day.

In 1955, the US supplied Israel’s Nahal Sorek research reactor, which began operation in 1960 under the Atoms for Peace program. Farr notes that there is evidence that Israel had access to data from US nuclear tests in the 1950s and ‘60s.

On March 7, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the US provided at least six tonnes of weapons-grade uranium under Atoms for Peace. Considering Israel’s chronic shortage of uranium in the early years of its weapons program, some of this prized material almost certainly was diverted to Dimona. The US also supplied Israel with heavy water.

According to British Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam’s 1999 book, Woman From Mossad: The Torment of Mordechai Vanunu, Dimona’s control panels were supplied by Tracer Lab, the company that outfits US military reactors, with the knowledge of US intelligence agencies.

Hersh revealed that US President Richard Nixon’s administration in 1971 approved the sale to Israel of hundreds of kryptons, high-speed switches used in nuclear weapons, and supercomputers used in the design of nukes. Jane Hunter reported in the June 24, 1994, Middle East International that US President George Bush senior’s regime sold at least 1500 nuclear “dual-use” items in Israel, in defiance of the NPT.

As Stephen Zunes of the liberal US Middle East Policy Council pointed out in a 1997 article: “Given the enormous costs of any nuclear program of the magnitude of Israel’s, it would have been very difficult ... without the tens of billions of dollars of direct and unrestricted American financial support. In effect, the United States has subsidised nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.”

However, Washington’s greatest assistance has been to use its political and diplomatic might to shield Israel from demands that it give up its nuclear monopoly in the region. In his 1998 book, Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen, an Israeli working at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, recounted US President John Kennedy's 1961 meeting with Ben-Gurion in New York to express Washington’s concern that, if news of Israel’s nuclear weapons program ever leaked, Arab states might approach the Soviet Union for nuclear weapons.

However, Kennedy did not demand that Israel abandon its effort, simply that Ben-Gurion agree that Israel will never admit in public that Israel was pursuing atomic weapons. Ben-Gurion agreed to token annual “inspections” by US officials beginning in 1962. In return, the US would not press Israel to disarm. This meant no detectable nuclear tests and no public threats to use nuclear weapons. This arrangement formed the basis of Washington’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in relation to Israel’s weapons of mass destruction, or “nuclear ambiguity” as it is referred to in Israel, which remains in effect to this day.

`Apartheid’ bomb scandal

Washington even permitted the white supremacist regime in South Africa to acquire nuclear weapons with Israeli assistance. From 1967, Israel turned to apartheid South Africa for uranium for Dimona and access to secret facilities to test nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable medium-range missiles. In return for this, and Israel’s busting of economic sanctions imposed on the pariah state, the racist regime was given the “apartheid bomb”.

Hersh detailed how US President Jimmy Carter’s administration remained silent when US satellites in 1977 revealed that a nuclear test site was being jointly prepared in the Kalahari Desert. Two years later, on September 22, 1979, US satellites observed a joint Israeli-South African nuclear explosion in the Indian Ocean. Washington kept silent about this disturbing atomic partnership.

In 1997, South Africa’s deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and apartheid-era military chief Constand Viljoen confirmed that the racist regime had accumulated six nuclear bombs via its dirty deals with Israel. In an unprecedented speech, a member of Israel’s Knesset, Issam Makhoul, declared in 2000: “The crime of manufacturing nuclear weapons in Israel was combined with another crime, the collaboration between Israel and the neo-Nazi apartheid regime in South Africa.”

In 1981, Washington went even further to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East by providing Tel Aviv with high-resolution photographs, enabling Iraq’s incomplete Osiraq nuclear reactor to be destroyed by Israel’s US-supplied fighter planes. While the US publically criticised the attack, Hersh reports that in private “[US President Ronald Reagan] was very satisfied”.

A token ban on the delivery of more US jets to Israel imposed after the attack was lifted just two months later. The US House of Representatives passed a motion endorsing the Israeli aggression and called for the US to seek the repeal of UN Security Council motion 487, which had condemned the attack.

The December 26 Haaretz reported that “former US president Bill Clinton promised two [Israeli] prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu [in 1998] and Ehud Barak [in 1999], that the US would ensure that Middle Eastern arms control initiatives did not impair Israel’s strategic deterrence capabilities”.

For a nuclear-free Middle East

In Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen summed up the Israeli ruling class’ frightening attitude towards fighting a nuclear war: “[Israel] must be in a position to threaten another Hiroshima to prevent another holocaust.”

According to Farr, on October 8, 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, placed Israel’s nuclear missiles and aircraft on alert during Israel’s war with Egypt and Syria. William Burrows and Robert Windrem, in their 1994 book Critical Mass, state that this was not the first time. They write that in 1967, two Israeli nuclear bombs were ready for use.

In 1985, Israeli spy Jonathon Pollard was found to have supplied Israel with US nuclear targeting data on the location of Soviet military targets and information on Soviet air defences. And during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel’s nuclear weapons were primed and ready for launch throughout the 43-day long conflict.

Supporters of Israel’s policy claim that it requires a nuclear “deterrent” to dissuade attacks from the Arab and Muslim states’ larger armies. However, Israel long ago achieved superiority over its neighbours in terms of conventional arms thanks to decades of massive US military aid. More recently, apologists for Israel’s nuclear might have rested their argument on the claim that Arab countries with “weapons of mass destruction” surround Israel.

However, this justification has been weakened by recent events. It is now confirmed that Iraq totally destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction at least 10 years ago. Libya has abandoned its feeble weapons programs and Iran has agreed to international inspections of its nuclear energy facilities, which the International Atomic Energy Agency agrees are not part of a program to develop nuclear weapons.

If anything, it is Israel’s massive arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that drives nearby states to seek a military deterrent. This fact is recognised in Washington, according to a report in the April 17, 2003, Washington Post. Present and former US intelligence officials told the newspaper that the development of Syria’s chemical weapons and Scud missiles were started more than 30 years ago as “a force equaliser with the Israelis”.

Arab and Muslim states have repeatedly urged Israel to join them in creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, but this has been stymied by Tel Aviv and Washington. The 1991 UN Security Council resolution under which the US justified its invasion of Iraq included the goal of “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery”. Washington has not sought to implement that in relation to Israel.

Since 1987, Israel has ignored at least 14 resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly and the IAEA General Conference calling on Israel to join the NPT. In December, the General Assembly passed such a resolution by a vote of 164-4, with 10 abstentions.

In December, Syria asked that a draft resolution be discussed by the UN Security Council calling for the implementation of previous resolutions “aimed at freeing the Middle East region of all weapons of mass destruction” and urging all Middle East states to sign international treaties forbidding the spread of WMD. The US and Britain, permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, disregarded Syria’s request.

“We have been pursuing this for years because we believe it’s the only solution for the Middle East to be truly peaceful and stable”, Syrian government minister Bouthaina Shaaban told the December 29 Christian Science Monitor.

“If the US decides ... to take a leading role in the Middle East and treats countries fairly, and the UN takes a strong role, then I don’t see why Israel should not give up its nuclear weapons. It’s up to the international community now to say what’s right.”

There is even support for such a zone in the Israeli Knesset. Haaretz reported on December 26 that United Tora Judaism MP Meir Porush stunned the chamber when he declared: “The state of Israel should dismantle its nuclear weaponry like Libya is doing.”

However, despite the mounting pressure, Israel’s rulers have no intention of giving up their nuclear monopoly. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the daily Maariv newspaper in October that Israel will not dismantle its “special measures”: “Looking ahead, these things are very important... It is impossible to expect that the US will remain [in the Middle East] for ever.”

Nor does the US intend to give up its backing for the Middle East’s only nuclear outlaw and key strategic ally in the region. A “senior American official” bluntly told the December 26 Haaretz : “I don’t think there will be a change in policy toward Israel in the nuclear field. The Arabs will raise the issue, and Israeli will need to find a way to explain its policy. But we understand that as long as Israel is facing Arab rejectionism from so many directions, the way to deal with this is via quiet discussions.”

As Jordan’s former UN ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah wrote in an article on the Electronic Intifada web site on January 22, Israel’s nuclear monopoly and Washington’s unstinting backing for it have nothing to do with self defence. Washington and Tel Aviv are pressing for “the unilateral disarmament of Israel’s adversaries, not in order to make the region safer, but simply to ensure continued Israeli military hegemony” of the oil-rich Middle East.

Stephen Zunes notes that “the primary concern of the United States is not the prospect of horizontal nuclear proliferation per se, but any challenge to its military hegemony in the post-Cold War world. With [US planners] moving away from the prospect of a major East-West confrontation to ones involving medium-intensity warfare against Third World regional powers, the desire for a nuclear monopoly by the major powers and certain allies like Israeli becomes all the more critical.”

From Green Left Weekly, March 24, 2004.
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From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #576 24 March 2004.