Privately, it has been well understood by US officials since the 1960s that Israel has the capacity to build its own nuclear weapons. Publicly, Israel has a policy of not confirming or denying its nuclear stockpile, even though by now it is a well-established fact.
Since 1968, or possibly even earlier, Israel has amassed a secretive arsenal thought to amount to at least 80 nuclear warheads. In a hacked 2015 email, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote that Israel has “200 [nuclear bombs], all targeted on Tehran.” The latter figure may be an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that Israel has the bomb and in significant numbers.
The definitive book detailing the story of how Israel got the bomb is Seymour Hersh’s The Sampson Option. In it, Hersh – a renowned investigative journalist – recounts how Israel worked with French scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to build a nuclear reactor in Dimona in the southern Negev Desert. Photographs by US spy planes showed that Israel, despite its denials, was indeed building the reactor. However, the politicians and higher-ups seemed not to want to know.
In fact, there seems to have been a deliberate policy of turning a blind eye to what was going on, ignoring intelligence briefs. One US ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, was in post for 12 years and emblematic of this. His long assignment, Hersh wrote, was a testament to his “willingness to operate the American embassy as a subsidiary, if necessary, of the Israeli foreign ministry.” According to Hersh, Barbour was willing to stand aside when ordered to do so and “permit the White House and the Israeli ambassador to Washington to run the real policy behind his back.”
The Sampson Option, published in 1991, is an impressive book, based largely on official US records and US and Israeli official sources, some speaking anonymously. It is the characteristic Hersh blend of impressive military and intelligence sources approached with admirable skepticism and critical rigor. Unlike most mainstream US journalists reporting on Israeli “intelligence” affairs, Hersh refused to submit his book to Israeli censorship.
It is an almost-entirely unreported scandal (in the mainstream, at least) that the Israeli military imposes crude censorship on both domestic and foreign journalists operating in the country. Any other regime operating in this way would not be presented by the media as a “democracy”, as Israel almost always is. For the Palestinians whose life it dominates through a brutal occupation, Israel is a military dictatorship.
Hersh was able to avoid Israeli censorship simply by staying out of the country. He talked to his Israeli sources either over the phone or while they were in the US.
Based on the accounts of anonymous Israeli officials, he recounts a telling story around the production of the first Israeli atomic bomb. With some of Israel’s current best friends being the far-right, anti-Muslim US President Donald Trump and the fascistic “alt-right”, it is a story with a chilling current relevance.
In 1968, Israeli Defence Minister and former General Moshe Dayan showed the Labour government’s Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir around Dimona in an attempt to persuade him that the nuclear bomb made financial sense and was worth funding. Sapir was a skeptic, until Dayan “showed him the whole thing, from A to Z,” Hersh’s official Israeli source said.
“Have you seen it all?” Sapir later asked a ministerial colleague. “I’ve seen it and you don’t know shit. There will be no more Auschwitzes.”
This is a reference to the infamous Nazi death camps in which it is estimated that more than 1.3 million people were slaughtered, mostly Jews. The reference reflects the anachronistic idea, common in Israeli propaganda, that the state of Israel was established to protect Jewish people from Nazi genocide. It was, of course, in the planning at least 50 years before the extent of the Holocaust was acknowledged.
Furthermore, Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, has a far darker and more complicated relationship with Nazism and anti-Semitism than simple opposition. At times, individuals and groups in the Zionist movement collaborated actively with Nazi Germany, first surfacing in the 1930s with the transfer agreement. In the case of Rudolf Katzner (later an Israeli government official and unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for Mapai, the party which went on to merge with other “left Zionist” groups to form Labour), this even extended to outright collaboration with the Nazi regime which was directly occupying Hungary towards the end of the war, giving breathing space for them to slaughter Hungarian Jews while saving himself and over 1,600 others.
Has the Israeli nuclear bomb made the world a safer place for Jews or anyone else for that matter? The answer is no.
Were there to be a “new holocaust” today, there is no doubt about which side Israel would be on. Britain First, whose deputy leader’s messages Trump retweeted this week, is extremely pro-Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is very pro-Trump. Within this sort of context, Israel’s nuclear weapons today are far more likely to create a “new Auschwitz” than to stop one.
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