The Samson Option
The story behind one of the world’s worst-kept secrets: the Jewish state’s atomic arsenal.
Reviewed by George Perkovich
Sunday, February 19, 2006; BW03
The Washington Post
THE BOMB IN THE BASEMENT
How Israel Went Nuclear and What That
Means for the World
By Michael Karpin
Simon & Schuster. 404 pp. $26
In 1958, an American U-2 spy plane flying over Israel spotted an unusual construction site near the small Negev Desert town of Dimona. The facility featured a long perimeter fence, building activity and several roads. Israeli officials initially called the facility a textile plant; they later changed their minds and described it as a “metallurgical research installation.” In September 1960, according to Israeli accounts, the United States got a better look at Dimona from a Corona reconnaissance satellite. By December, CIA Director Allen Dulles felt sure enough of what was going on to tell President Eisenhower that Israel was secretly constructing a nuclear reactor that would allow it to build the bomb.
Israel has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons, though it does not deny having them. As the Israeli journalist Michael Karpin suggests in his aptly titled The Bomb in the Basement , the United States has gone along with this charade because acknowledging the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal would incite futile demands by Arabs and Iranians to get rid of it. Still, this worldly winking rankles at a time when the United States and Israel are leading the charge to make Iran, North Korea and other threatening actors come clean about their own nuclear activities. Many developing countries resist the idea of holding Iran to account for breaking nonproliferation rules when Israel is given a pass. But there’s another way to think of the issue. Rather than pretend that Israel’s nuclear posture is irrelevant, perhaps it’s time to use Israel’s muted approach to its atomic arsenal as an example for the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers to follow.
Unlike its adversaries, Israel has a deep-rooted democratic government and does not threaten the existence of other states. It also has an obvious goad; David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, began the Jewish state’s nuclear quest in the 1950s with harrowing images of Dachau and Belsen still fresh in his mind. For him, the bomb was the ultimate guarantor of “never again.”
In scale and expense, however, a nuclear-arms program seemed out of reach for a tiny, poor and often friendless nation. Ben-Gurion and a handful of technical optimists quietly trained scientists, imported nuclear technology and solicited the aid of France. French cooperation was less a matter of state policy than of the determination of key individuals within the French nuclear establishment — many of them non-Jews — to rectify Vichy France’s complicity in the Holocaust. President Charles de Gaulle twice ordered a stop to French assistance between 1958 and 1960, but key nuclear officials ignored him. Finally a deal was struck: The French government would cease construction work on the Dimona reactor, but contracts with private French companies would remain in force. Meanwhile, President John F. Kennedy leaned hard on Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, not to build the bomb, even sending U.S. inspectors into Israel’s Dimona reactor starting in 1961. But Israeli nuclear leaders outfoxed the inspectors, and Washington’s resolve faded with Kennedy’s death. By Nov. 1966, Israel had the capability to detonate a nuclear device.
Karpin tells this intriguing story through pithy accounts of the major events and profiles of the key actors, with the scene shifting from Israel to France to Egypt to Washington. His rendition is more entertaining than Avner Cohen’s seminal Israel and the Bomb (1998), even if it’s less cogent concerning the implications of the Israeli atomic project. As Cohen pointed out, something about the bomb invites opacity — not only to keep foreign adversaries from mobilizing but also to keep one’s own citizens from raising questions. Even among themselves, Israeli leaders did not refer to building nuclear weapons but to “Dimona,” “it” and “the big thing.” One of Kennedy’s advisers called it “the delicate matter.” As would happen in India, another democracy aspiring to get nuclear arms, many key decisions and activities went unrecorded. Costs were neither tallied nor debated seriously. Iran is probably doing much the same thing now.
Ironies abound here for today’s reader. Shimon Peres, who is now sometimes ridiculed for dovish flights of fancy, was the hard-driving CEO of the bomb project. Lyndon B. Johnson, a member of the Disciples of Christ, blessed the enterprise at least in part out of biblical appreciation of the covenant between God and the children of Israel. Karpin writes that Johnson was influenced by an inscription his grandfather wrote in the family photo album: “Take care of the Jews, God’s chosen people . . . help them any way you can.”
As it did in other countries, the Israeli pursuit of the bomb assumed sacred dimensions. “In Ben-Gurion’s eyes,” Karpin writes, “the nuclear project was holy.” Those who donated to it were “consecrators,” helping to build the Holy of Holies for modern Israel. According to Karpin, from 1958-60, the American businessman Abraham Feinberg led a secret fundraising campaign for the nuclear project that garnered about $40 million ($250 million in today’s terms) from “some twenty-five millionaires.” Karpin describes in new detail how Edward Teller, the monomaniacal father of the H-bomb, visited Israel six times between 1964 and 1967 — the period when Israel passed the atomic threshold — and unabashedly urged his friends there to build the bomb. All the while, Teller’s government was negotiating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Israel has never signed. Karpin intimates that Teller assisted Israel in designing sophisticated nuclear weapons. For the many people who want to equate Iran or Pakistan’s nuclear aspirations with Israel’s, the cooperation of Teller and French scientists and engineers with Israel will invite defensive equation with the notorious A.Q. Khan network, which helped spread bomb designs and know-how from Pakistan to Libya and Iran.
Meanwhile, the CIA and other agencies missed telltale signs of what Israel was up to. In 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War, Teller told a key CIA official that Israel probably had the bomb; the CIA relayed this information to President Johnson, but the secretaries of defense and state were kept out of the loop. Karpin also argues that domestic politics influenced the management of intelligence and nonproliferation policy. For instance, he shows how Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, angrily outflanked Pentagon and State Department negotiators who insisted in 1968 that U.S. sales of Phantom fighter jets to Israel be conditioned on Israel’s signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and allowing American inspectors to visit every site in Israel associated with strategic weapons. Rabin “got Abe Feinberg and Arthur Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to go and talk to Johnson.” In another channel, Rabin “peppered the heads of the Democratic Party with messages to the effect that it was worth their while before the  elections to present the Jewish voter with a show of support for Israel.” Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk did not know that Israel already had the bomb and that Feinberg and Goldberg already had the president.
Interesting as all this is, some flaws lurk in The Bomb in the Basement . Karpin badly botches his description of how nuclear bombs work. The difficulty of controlling nuclear reactions does not arise because “the uranium-235 and the plutonium isotopes are very sensitive to movement.” “A simple bomb” does not consist “of a container holding two pellets of fissile material that are pressed together by two springs and separated by a wedge.” Nor does Karpin prove his claim that, “if the Eisenhower administration had proposed that Israel swap Dimona for a security alliance, there can be no doubt that Israel would have happily accepted.” (Israel might well have preferred its own nukes to promises from Eisenhower and his anti-Israel State Department.) Most important, Karpin is so enthralled with the Israeli nuclear project that he avoids exploring its ramifications. He doesn’t ask how or whether nuclear weapons can be confined only to the “good guys” and kept forever away from the “bad guys.”
Even so, this is a worthwhile book, and it arrives when new thinking is needed about the global nuclear order. Here’s one heretical suggestion: Israel’s restrained management of its bomb could actually point the way toward abating global nuclear dangers. After all, Israel has never claimed to possess nuclear weapons and has never used them to enhance its prestige or browbeat its neighbors. For Israel, the bomb has never been something to brandish, never a shield behind which to hide while it annexes territory or undermines domestic or regional rivals — as was feared the bomb would be for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, perhaps, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran. It is a shield against annihilation.
Today the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, India and Pakistan are known to possess atomic arsenals. By treaty or declaration, these countries are formally committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament. But much of the world feels that, because these declared nuclear-armed powers refuse to take this objective seriously, they have no right to enforce nonproliferation rules on other countries. One way the Nuclear Eight could begin to show they are serious about disarmament would be to follow Israel’s example and lower the salience of their weapons — putting them at the bottom of their national arsenals, refraining from pointing to them during crises and declining to pull international rank because of them. Since such forbearance has not threatened the small, beleaguered Jewish state’s security, the United States, Russia, Pakistan, France and, increasingly, China have no excuse for relying as prominently as they do on nuclear arsenals. Karpin stops short of offering this implication, but the world might be a bit safer if all the nuclear powers put their bombs in the basement. ·
George Perkovich is vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “India’s Nuclear Bomb.”