Don't Panic! October 23 2003

Your war questions answered

How come nobody ever talks about Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal?

I seldom do, mostly because it's very difficult to find anyone who's interested. I just typed "Israel's Nuclear Arsenal" into the "Search Interests" box at the online personal networking site Friendster.com and didn't find a single person who listed it as an interest. The best I could come up was "Chris" in New York. He lists "Nuclear Weapons" as an interest, along with "carbon monoxide," "masturbation" and "not properly labeling fatal poisons."

Neither the U.S. nor Israel has the same excuse, though. Tons of people around the world wanna talk about Israel's nukes, yet the U.S. and Israel consistently refuse to join the conversation. Israel has had nukes since the late 1960s but will not admit it — not even to itself. An attempt earlier this year by the Israeli parliament minister to discuss the country's nukes in open debate inspired several of his colleagues to walk out in protest. (And you thought Congress was silly.)

The last official on-the-record pronouncement from an Israeli government official about its nuclear program came in 1960, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said that Israel's nuclear reactor was solely for peaceful, electricity-making purposes. That lie has since been repeated by so many other countries it's now the global geopolitical equivalent of, "I swear, baby, I really hate strip clubs."

The truth is that Israel has hankered for nukes since its inception. Born just after the Holocaust into a neighborhood populated by aggressively hostile neighbors bent on destroying them, Israeli leaders have always had a justifiable preoccupation with national survival. Ben-Gurion hinted at Israel's nuclear ambition during the country's early days with repeated statements about how Israel should make up for what were then military, economic and political weaknesses by exploiting Jewish intellect. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, quotes Ben-Gurion as saying, "What Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller — the three of them are Jews — made for the United States could also be done by scientists in Israel for their own people." Electricity, my ass!

Israel's nukes played an important, some say crucial, role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Though Israel didn't openly threaten attacking Arab nations with nukes, it did leak to the press that it had nukes ready just in case. Some scholars believe that Israel's off-the-record suggestions about going nuclear on Egypt and Syria helped assure the massive flow of conventional arms from the U.S. that helped Israel win the war. Not coincidentally, that very same massive flow of conventional U.S. arms so irritated Arab countries that they stopped selling us oil for a while, hobbling our economy for years.

The yarmulke of secrecy covering Israel's nuclear program couldn't have been knitted without American help. In 1969, that great lover of secrets, President Nixon, made a nudge-nudge, wink-wink deal with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir stipulating that if Israel promised to neither brandish nor test its nukes, the U.S. would turn a blind eye. Openly accepting Israel's nuclear program might have fatally undermined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Countries that signed the treaty promise never to develop nukes. Every country in the Middle East has signed except Israel.

Many experts (and at least one newspaper columnist) think that Israel's nuclear secrecy is increasingly dangerous — more so to Israel than anyone else. Today, Israel's conventional military is massively superior to the combined forces of its neighbors. Even neighboring Syria, which spends all of its money on its military (and all of its time complaining about Israel), didn't dare so much as point a Super Soaker at Israel after Israeli forces attacked it earlier this month.

The only real military threat to Israel is Iran's nascent nuclear program. Neither we nor Israel wants Iran to have nukes, but how are we supposed to get Iran to negotiate with us if we ignore the fact that Israel can launch nukes from the air, land and (according to recent reports) from German-made subs off Iran's coast. Pressuring Iran to disarm without so much as acknowledging Israel's nukes is a bit two-faced. And since it's the U.S. and Israel doing it, it's actually four faces.


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