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Israel's not so secret nuclear arsenal

Published: May 28, 2008


Mordechai Vanunu in the magistrate's court in Jerusalem April 30, 2007 for violating the terms of his release after completing an 18-year prison term, by speaking to foreign media. (MaanImages via Newscom)

Controversial ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter has weighed into the Middle East foray again by publicly stating that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons, the first time a U.S. president has openly acknowledged one of the worst kept secrets in the region.

Carter was asked at a news conference at Wales' Hay literary festival on Sunday how the United States should deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, to which he responded that the global situation internationally should be put into context.

"The U.S. has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union [Russia] has about the same, Great Britain and France have several hundred, and Israel has 150 or more. We have a phalanx of enormous weaponry ... not only of enormous weaponry, but of rockets to deliver those missiles on a pinpoint accuracy target," he stated.

Israel is widely believed to be one of four nuclear-armed countries not recognized as a nuclear weapons state by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the other three being India, Pakistan and North Korea. The International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei regards Israel as a state possessing nuclear weapons.

Israel first entered the nuclear picture when it sought the help of France for reactor design and construction. Nuclear cooperation between the two nations dates back as far as the early 1950s, when construction began on France's 40MWt heavy water reactor and a chemical reprocessing plant at Marcoule. In the fall of 1956, France agreed to provide Israel with an 18 MWt research reactor.

Since 1999 Israel has been in possession of three German-built Dolphin class submarines, equipped with U.S.-made Harpoon missiles modified to carry small nuclear warheads and possibly medium range (1,000-2,000 miles) larger Israeli-made "Popeye Turbo" cruise missiles, originally developed by Israel for air-to-ground strike capability.

A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report (leaked and published in the book, "Rumsfeld's War: The Untold Story of America's Anti-Terrorist Commander," by journalist Rowan Scarborough in 2004) estimated the number of Israeli weapons at 82, while the declassification of large numbers of formerly highly classified U.S. government documents show that the United States was convinced that Israel had nuclear weapons by 1975.

Today, however, most experts estimate that Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, largely based on information leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper in the 1980s by Mordechai Vanunu, a former worker at the country's Dimona nuclear reactor.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, based on Vanunu's information, Israel had approximately 100-200 nuclear explosive devices by 1980 and the Jericho missile delivery system.

So sensitive was Israel to Vanunu's disclosures that he was lured by a Mossad agent in Rome, drugged, kidnapped and brought back to Israel where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, 16 of them in solitary confinement under extremely harsh conditions, after standing trial.

To this day he is banned from talking to the media, associating with foreigners and forbidden from leaving the country. He recently completed another 18-month stint in jail for breaking these conditions.

The United States first became aware of Dimona's existence after U-2 overflights in 1958 captured the facility's construction, but it was not identified as a nuclear site until two years later.

The complex was variously explained as a textile plant, an agricultural station, and a metallurgical research facility, until David Ben-Gurion stated in December 1960 that the Dimona complex was a nuclear research center built for "peaceful purposes."

In the same year the CIA issued a report outlining Dimona's implications for nuclear proliferation, and by the mid-1960s the CIA station in Tel Aviv had determined that the Israeli nuclear weapons program was an established and irreversible fact. By 1968 the CIA issued a report concluding that Israel had successfully started producing nuclear weapons.

U.S. inspectors visited Dimona seven times during the 1960s, but they were unable to obtain an accurate picture of the activities carried out there, largely due to tight Israeli control over the timing and agenda of the visits. The Israelis went so far as to install false control room panels and to brick over elevators and hallways that accessed certain areas of the facility.

Officially the United States, a key ally of Israel, has in general followed the country's policy of "nuclear ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying the existence of its assumed arsenal; although Israel did state publicly that "it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."

However, in the late 1960s the late ex-premier Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, informed the U.S. State Department that Israel's understanding of "introducing" such weapons meant that they would be tested and publicly declared, while merely possessing the weapons did not constitute "introducing" them.

More recently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert included Israel among a list of nuclear states in comments in December 2006, a week after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates used a similar form of words during a Senate hearing.

"Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to write Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons as America, France, Israel, Russia?" asked Olmert.

Afterwards aware of the public blooper the Israeli premier's office decided to dance around semantics by claiming Olmert's comments had been taken out of context.


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