Saturday, October 5, 2013

About ambiguity and hypocrisy

In the midst of the intensive debate about the Iranian nuclear program (the uranium enriching centrifuges “turning round and round in underground installations protected with thick layers of concrete”) suddenly, there came nuclear news from Israel’s own past. Simultaneously in the United States and in Israel was published the recorded testimony of the late Arnan Azaryahu  - a former senior ministerial adviser who had been party to many secrets. He told of what occurred on the 7th of October 1973 , the second day of the Yom Kippur War - when the admired Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was badly rattled by the initial successes of the Egyptian and Syrian armies. He therefore asked Prime Minister Golda Meir to authorize a "demonstrative use" of Israel's nuclear arsenal , and brought with him to the Inner Cabinet meeting the Head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, so that  preparations for this nuclear demonstration could begin immediately.

What would have happened, had Dayan got the authorization to demonstratively set off a nuclear warhead - probably in the air over an uninhabited area in Egypt or Syria or both? The Soviets had already placed in Egypt (still their ally at the time) nuclear armed missiles of their own. The United States declared at that time a high alert - higher than then  at any other time except for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Moshe Dayan was definitely playing with fire . Fortunately Prime Minister Golda Meir and her close adviser, Minister without Portfolio Israel Galili , along with Dayan’s great rival Yigal Allon, immediately removed the matches from Dayan’s hands. Which is quite a positive moment in the career of people otherwise remembered mainly for having conducted a policy of nationalist arrogance in the years after 1967 and having laid the foundations for the settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories.

Ultimately, Israel successfully conducted the war by conventional means and it ended without an unequivocal victory to either side - and such wars are often the ones most likely to end with peace. But Israel's nuclear arsenal remains in place, like a sword hanging over the Middle East , though not pulled out of its sheath.

This is far from the first revelation regarding the history of Israel's nuclear program, what Prof. Avner Cohen called "Israel’s worst-kept secret”. Quite a lot has already come out, in one way or another. It is known that as part of the military alliance which Israel forged with France and Britain in order to launch the attack on Egypt in 1956, then Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres gained French assistance in establishing the nuclear reactor in Dimona. It is known that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion became entangled in a prolonged conflict  with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who insisted on monitoring what was going on in what Israel  the officially termed "The textile factory in Dimona”. It is known that sophisticated means of deception were used, including the erection of an entire fake floor in the Dimona Pile, so that it could be presented to  the American inspectors who were eventually allowed to get there. (The similarity to the means of deception used forty years later by the Iranians to hide their own nuclear program might not be entirely coincidental.) . And despite all the sophisticated deceptions, it is known that President Kennedy remained suspicious of the Israeli reactor at Dimona right up to the moment when the assassin’s bullet ended his life at Dallas.

In the end, a mutually-satisfying solution was found. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who replaced Ben Gurion reached an agreement with President Lyndon Johnson who replaced Kennedy, an agreement establishing the  "nuclear ambiguity " which persists to this day. The State of Israel has never officially declared its possession of nuclear weapons nor did it hold any test of such a weapon. ( At least, not a test whose origin can be clearly attributed - the question of who it was who once detonated a nuclear device over the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from the coasts of Israel, remains unanswered).

So long as the State of Israel does not announce its possession of nuclear weapons , there is no reason to invoke against Israel the clause of U.S. law which mandates the cessation of all aid to a country which developed nuclear weapons. That is, apparently, why the government  of Israel continues to prevent the "Nuclear Whistleblower " Mordechai Vanunu from leaving Israel's territory , even many years after his having served the eighteen- year prison term imposed on him. Were Vanunu to show up on Capitol Hill and hand to Senators and Representatives signed affidavits, testifying to his having witnessed the manufacture of nuclear arms in Dimona , would it cause a stop of all U.S. aid to Israel? That is not very likely. It would, however, cause a headache to American and Israeli policymakers, who would need to find a creative face-saving formula , such as the one found to explain that the seizure of power by the Egyptian Army is not really a military coup . Rather than having to go through that, it is far more simple  and easy to have the Minister of the Interior  extend each April by one more year the administrative decree which prohibits Mordechai Vanunu from leaving Israel's borders and even approaching  the gates of a foreign embassy.

Professor Avner Cohen , an Israeli who dwells in the United States and from there researches the Israeli nuclear program , is a nuclear whistleblower of a completely different type than Vanunu . Not for him Vanunu’s way of entering into an all-out confrontation with the entire military and political hierarchy, disclosing all that he knew and paying  the full heavy price . Avner Cohen is collecting written documents and interviewing people who had been present at crucial decisions and who in their old age agreed to disclose some of what they had heard and seen. Over many years he is writing articles and books and playing cat and mouse games with the state authorities and the military censorship . No one would seriously consider sending Mossad agents to kidnap this  Research Fellow from the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington D.C. and haling him to an espionage trial in Israel. He and his associate, journalist Ronen Bergman in Yediot Aharonot , have steadily nibbled at the Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity. So did quite a few other. By now, there is not a lot left to reveal.

On the pages of  "Makor Rishon", the right-wing columnist Amnon Lord this week pointed out what seems to him a grave new threat : "The outlines of the sophisticated new Iranian strategy can already be discerned. It is a strategy similar for that used by the Palestinians. As the Palestinians suceeded in internationally de-legitimizing Israel through the so-called "occupation", so might Iran do in the nuclear sphere . ( ... ) There is reason to think that the Iranians might begin calling upon the International Community to strip Israel of its nuclear option . They might take this as their task for the coming decade”.

 For the time being , this is no more than a small cloud on the horizon . For the time being, the United States is formally committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons , by diplomatic means if possible , while at the same time being careful not to look what lies behind Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity. For the time being, the State of Israel can stridently demand a further exacerbation of the economic sanctions which already brought Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse, and the very same time  strongly demand of the Dutch government to avoid such a minimal step as marking settlement products , a move that could lead consumers in Amsterdam to take their own decision on whether or not to purchase them. It is still possible to demand that the Iranians freeze the enrichment  of uranium while negotiations continue on the fate of their nuclear program - and at the same time firmly reject the demand that Israel freeze settlement construction while it is negotiating the fate of the territory where the settlements are being established.

Still, ultimately, the main argument for the State of Israel to demand a preferential treatment and the exclusive right to hold nuclear weapons in the Middle East is based on its being "The Only Democracy in the Region",  a supposedly respectable and responsible member of the family of Western democracies . With every year that the Israeli occupation of millions of Palestinians continues to deepen, this argument sounds ever more hollow.