Cheney statements focus uneasy attention on Israel's nuclear capability WAR IN THE GULF

February 18, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The gulf war keeps making headlines of an open secret authorities here would rather not discuss: Israel's nuclear arms.

Yesterday, Baghdad Radio said that Iraqi missiles had been fired Saturday at Dimona, the location of a nuclear reactor in southern Israel.

The Israeli military on Saturday said only that a missile landed in the Negev, the vast desert in which Dimona sits. Authorities pointedly refused to comment on questions about the proximity of the missile impact to Dimona.

Their reticence is standard policy in Israel, which has never officially admitted it has a nuclear weapons capability and discourages all talk of it.

But that position is becoming increasingly more awkward. On Feb. 2, a comment by U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney publicly confirmed the existence of Israel's nuclear capability and opened the issue of its possible use.

Mr. Cheney said in a CNN interview that if Iraq used chemical weapons, "the Israelis are liable to retaliate with non-conventional weapons." Asked if that meant Israel would use tactical nuclear weapons, he said it was "a decision Israelis will have to make. But I think Saddam should be very cautious."

His remarks raised official eyebrows in Israel and provided the opportunity for an unusual debate in the media over Israel's nuclear options, a subject normally off limits in the censored Israeli press.

The existance of Israel's nuclear capability has long been understood here. Moshe Dayan first confirmed that the country had the potential to produce atomic bombs in 1981. But saying much more than that has been treason, as Mordechai Vanunu learned.

Vanunu was a technician at Dimona who detailed to a British newspaper in 1986 how Israel had been producing nuclear warheads for 20 years.

Israeli agents apparently lured Vanunu from London to Rome and then spirited him back to Israel, where he was tried for treason. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1988.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says Isreal has as many as 100 nuclear warheads, fueled by plutonium extracted at Dimona.

Israelis on the street make grim jokes about Dimona, but there has been very little public discussion about when and under what circumstances nuclear weapons would be used.

The military stifles debate with a standard line that Israel "will not bethe first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region."

But after Mr. Cheney's remarks, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens hinted that there is some rethinking of that cautious policy in the face of the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack.

"This is the first time we are facing a clear challenge of this nature," Mr. Arens said. If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein uses chemical weapons, Mr. Arens added, "he'd better be worried."

That message had been clear to many in Iraq even before the war. In 1981, Israeli jets attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was under construction.

In interviews in Baghdad in the week before the war began, the most adamant fear expressed privately by Iraqi citizens was that Israel would deliver nuclear missiles or bombs.

It may have been to placate those fears that Iraq launched Saturday's missile toward Dimona and then claimed on Baghdad Radio the attack had scored "destructive strikes."

The propaganda value would be higher than the likelihood of actually hitting a specific target at such long range with the inaccurate missiles used by Iraq.

Israeli authorities refused to say where the missile landed but said that pieces were found out in the Negev desert and that no damage was done.

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