The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel went nuclear and what that means for the world

By Michael Karpin (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2006)

In its listing of the world’s nuclear powers, Wikipedia, uses four categories:
  1. “NPT-designated nuclear weapon states” (those acknowledged to possess nuclear weapons when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was originally developed and signed): China, France, Russia (then the USSR), United Kingdom, and United States;
  2. “Other nuclear weapons states”:  India, North Korea, Pakistan (none of which have signed the Nonproliferation Treaty);
  3. “States formerly possessing nuclear weapons”: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa (the first three fell heir to former Soviet nuclear weapons when the USSR was dismantled; South Africa had constructed six “gun” devices with enriched uranium before it terminated its program in 1990 and signed the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1991);
  4. “States believed to have nuclear weapons.”

Only one country falls under category 4: Israel. The story behind the belief that Israel has nuclear weapons is told by Israeli journalist Michael Karpin. He avoids betraying state secrets by basing his story on public sources of information, “foreign” assessments of Israeli capabilities, and information leaked by Israeli whistle blower, Mordechai Vanunu.

Karpin’s book is in many ways a history of the early years of Israel, since he traces Israel’s development of a nuclear weapon to the post-World War II belief of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, that two things were essential to saving the Jewish people from extermination: a homeland and a weapon of deterrence. The U.S. was unwilling to allow him to produce weapons fuel in the “Atoms for Peace” reactor it provided, but France was more willing to help, largely because Israel could provide intelligence about the actions of Egyptian President Nasser related to the rebellion the French were facing in Algeria. And by acting militarily to provide a pretext for France and Britain to retake the Suez Canal after Nasser had nationalized it, Israel received a larger reactor from France, erected at Dimona.

Since Israel had its own uranium resources in the Negev desert, it could use its Dimona reactor to produce as much plutonium as it needed to develop nuclear weapons. But it needed to do so discreetly. And when knowledge of the reactor’s existence leaked out in 1960, Israel maintained that it was to be used only for peaceful purposes, an assertion that the Eisenhower administration accepted at face value. (At this point in his book, Karpin observes that the only area of the world for which spy satellite photos have not been published is Israel, and he speculates that this is to preclude evidence of U.S. awareness of the Dimona reactor.)

Continuing to the next presidential administration, Karpin writes that “[John F.] Kennedy’s posture toward Israel was more positive than Eisenhower’s had been” (p. 180), though Kennedy’s determination to limit nuclear arms development and proliferation ran counter to Israel’s interest. Karpin also notes that this warming between the U.S. and Israel also came at a time of cooling between Israel and France, as French disengagement from Algeria eliminated the need for Israeli intelligence. He wonders how this might have played out differently had Egypt’s President Nasser not wandered into the Soviet sphere. And he notes that Kennedy’s attitude toward Israel was balanced between considerations between the Jewish vote and nonproliferation. After a meeting with Ben-Gurion, Karpin quotes Kennedy as saying, “It is to our common interest that no country believes that Israel is contributing to the proliferation of atomic weapons.” (p. 193)

Israel found an even more sympathetic ear from Lyndon Johnson, who was now dealing with a new Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol. While Ben-Gurion had no qualms about deceiving the U.S. about Dimona, Eshkol did. Eshkol was able to assure Johnson about Dimona without deceiving him by saying that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

It was during Johnson’s presidency that Israel amassed sufficient fissionable plutonium for a nuclear weapon, whose systems were tested by computer simulation in a “cold test.” Karpin attributes this to assertions of “foreign experts,” who based their conclusion from the following passage in the diary of Munya Mardor, the head of the Israeli Authority for Weapons Development, RAFAEL:
On November 2, 1966, a test of special import was carried out. It represented the culmination of a period in the development of one of the principal weapons systems and the step which brought it to the final stages of its development and manufacture at RAFAEL. The success of the test was complete, for we achieved through it unambiguous experimental proof of the efficacy of the system... We had waited many years for this result. (p. 268)

But it was not until 1968 that, as a result of information from Edward Teller, the CIA assessed “for the first time that Israel had begun to produce nuclear weapons.” (p. 287) Karpin also writes that Teller told fellow physicist (as well as Israeli statesman) Yuval Neeman that he was going to relate this information to the CIA in order to end the “cat and mouse game” (p. 292), a move subsequently supported by Eshkol, who would die in 1969.

Eshkol was succeeded by Golda Meir, and Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, and Nixon and Meir got on even more famously than their predecessors — “after the Eisenhower administration’s 1958 decision to relate to Israel as an asset, Kennedy’s definition of relations with Israel as ‘special,’ and Johnson’s silent consent to Israel’s nuclear capability.” (p. 319)

Karpin writes that Israel’s nuclear capability has been able to co-exist peacefully in the Middle East because of the concept of nuclear ambiguity developed by Shalhevet Freier, “to achieve three goals: against the enemy, deterrence; to friendly nations, maintenance of a responsible image that makes normal relations possible; and for the Israeli people, a boost of self-confidence in the face of their security challenges.” (p. 343) But he acknowledges that this equilibrium would be upset if another Middle East country gains nuclear capability, and the major candidate for this is Iran. He notes that eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat is not as easy as the 1981 Israeli bombing of Iraq’s reactor, because Iran’s facilities are very spread out, and U.S. technology would be needed to bomb Iran’s facilities that are underground. He adds that Israel would support nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, but only through a process of building up trust in a lasting peace in a local framework, not in the larger context of a worldwide forum that is insensitive to Israel’s interests or though signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

John Roeder
The Calhoun School
433 West End Avenue
New York, NY 10024

This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education, Inc., John Roeder, Editor-in-chief.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.