Bombs Away

Michael Karpin’s The Bomb in the Basement, therefore, arrives at a timely moment. Karpin, a prominent Israeli television and radio news reporter who has written several books, including one on the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, has ventured into what remains largely forbidden territory in his own country. Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at Israel’s once-secret Dimona nuclear weapons factory, was kidnapped in Italy in 1986 by Mossad (Israel’s vaunted intelligence service) and ended up serving 18 years in jail for divulging nuclear secrets to the British Sunday Times. Based on a documentary he produced several years ago, Karpin’s history relies heavily on interviews with many of the scientists and politicians, including Shimon Peres, who were vital in creating an Israeli nuclear weapon. Karpin may not be the first to write about this topic, which was covered by Avner Cohen’s scholarly Israel and the Bomb (1998), but he provides the most comprehensive and illuminating account of Israel’s path and its policy of “strategic ambiguity” about nuclear weapons. Perhaps it is a sign of Israel’s maturity as a state that it can now permit books like Karpin’s to appear–though it appears censored. Or perhaps it is merely a useful way of reminding Israel’s foes, (like Iran) about the apparent dimensions of its arsenal, which is said to include several hundred nuclear missiles, not to mention nuclear-armed submarines.

As Karpin correctly stresses, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was the key to developing a bomb. On Dec. 21, 1960, he told the Israeli parliament in an emotional speech that Dimona existed and was “meant to be used only for peaceful purposes.” The Holocaust loomed large in Israel’s consciousness, and Ben-Gurion was convinced that possession of a bomb was central to avoiding a repetition of the slaughter of Jews. Ben-Gurion assembled a crack scientific team led by a brilliantly inventive German migr named Ernst Bergmann who ran roughshod over bureaucratic obstacles. Karpin focuses on the tensions that threatened to derail the project before it had even gotten started. Some of Karpin’s most interesting passages focus on the army’s reluctance to develop a bomb, which it viewed as a costly and futile sideshow. The army leadership believed that Israel would be better off focusing on amassing more mundane weaponry. Ben-Gurion disagreed. He created a black budget for the bomb that would have sent his generals into conniptions had they only known about it. “Israel’s nuclear project was run,” says Karpin, “like a state within a state.”

Karpin is also very good on the reciprocal advantages that Israel and France derived from cooperating with each other. Karpin rightly notes that Israel would never have been able to build a bomb without the assistance of the French. Shimon Peres, the young head of the defense ministry who always fancied himself an intellectual savant, got on well with his French counterparts. For their part, the French were eager to have access to the Israeli scientific establishment in order to speed the process of constructing their own bomb. What’s more, the French coveted intelligence on Algeria, where they were waging a bitter and ultimately disastrous war against Islamic militants. What Israel–or, more precisely, Ben-Gurion–wanted from the French was a nuclear reactor. In return for Israeli help in the 1956 Suez War, France agreed to cough one up. This was heady stuff for Israel, which was for the first time playing in the big leagues of great-power politics. On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel launched an assault on Egypt that triggered the Suez War. “By agreeing that Israel would take part in the Suez campaign,” writes Karpin, “Ben-Gurion was taking a grave risk in view of the inevitably angry response of the Soviet Union and the likely displeasure of the United States.” No matter. Ben-Gurion was prepared to pretty much sacrifice anything in order to get hold of a nuclear bomb. Once Norway agreed in 1959 to sell heavy water to Israel, the course was clear.

The surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, thing is that it took the United States until 1960 to begin to comprehend that Israel really was building a bomb. The CIA report on the failure to identify the Dimona project earlier has a familiar ring. It said: “The general feeling that Israel could not achieve this capability without outside aid from the U.S. or its allies led to the tendency to discount rumors of Israeli reactor construction and French collaboration in the nuclear weapons area.” Interestingly, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was fooled by the Israelis. He thought Israel was simply disseminating propaganda to make itself seem more powerful than it actually was. It’s important to remember that, in the 1960s, the notion of a small state like Israel constructing a bomb did seem improbable.

Shortly after becoming president, John F. Kennedy successfully pressured Ben-Gurion into allowing a team of Americans to inspect Dimona, but they saw what they wanted to see, being unable to find any evidence that it was other than a peaceful project. Richard M. Nixon cut a deal with Golda Meir in which Israel agreed to forego the idea of public testing in exchange for American acquiescence and an end to inspections. Anyway, the United States wasn’t that interested in harassing Israel publicly. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol came up with the Delphic formulation “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East” to satisfy the Americans. It didn’t take much. Once the Middle East became the cockpit of superpower tensions, the United States became Israel’s staunch backer and had little interest in subjecting it to international inspections.

Karpin doesn’t speculate about it, but the Israeli example must have emboldened other powers to go down the same path. Status quo powers like Saudi Arabia don’t need an atomic bomb–at least not until the Iranians procure one. Karpin suggests that Israel might take out–as it did in 1983 Saddam Hussein’s nascent project–Iran’s effort at constructing a bomb. But exactly how this would occur, he does not say. An attack that failed to take out the Iranian reactor would be worse than not attacking. And thanks to the Bush administration’s maladroit handling of the run-up to the Iraq war, not to mention the aftermath, it was harder than ever to assemble an international coalition that might be able to exert any pressure on Tehran.

Karpin is undaunted. He ends with an effusion about how a nuclear-free Middle East might look. But this is pious nonsense. His book offers scant room for optimism. Israel conducted its search for a nuclear bomb with restraint and diplomatic dexterity. The bluff and bombast emanating from the lunatics in Tehran could not be further removed from Israel’s emphasis on nuclear weapons as a last resort. Israel has always understood something that Iran does not: how to keep a secret secret.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.