Israel's Bombs


February 25, 1993|By SEYMOUR M. HERSH

George Bush left his successor a maze of unresolved foreign-policy horrors from Haiti to the Balkans, but at the end, the Bush team was making unheralded progress in one essential area: coming to terms with a nuclear-armed Israel -- and thus ending a 25-year policy of hypocrisy.

U.S. and Israeli officials began highly secret talks last year over the future of Israel's large nuclear arsenal. The specific aim was to negotiate an end to production of weapons-grade plutonium at the main Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert.

Such a unilateral stand-down would be a revolutionary breakthrough in the history of secret Israeli nuclear-weapons production. Since the late 1960s, when the program began, the U.S. and its allies have taken the astonishing position that there is no positive evidence that Israel is, in fact, in possession of nuclear arms.

Thus, the mere fact that the two countries are talking about the Bomb ends the shabby diplomatic lie that has been enormously damaging to America's ability to persuade Third World nations to forgo development of nuclear weapons. Foreign leaders, such as the late President Zia ul Haq of Pakistan, inevitably cited the U.S. tolerance for Israel in shrugging off U.S. protests about their efforts to create nuclear arsenals.

A major first step in the Israeli-U.S. disarmament process took place January 13 in Paris, when Israel joined with 143 other nations (Israel's Arab neighbors not among them) in signing a treaty that calls for the destruction of all chemical weapons over the next 12 years. Under the agreement, the United Nations has the right to demand a ''snap inspection'' of suspected chemical-weapons production and get access within 108 hours. Israel's main chemical-weapons site happens to be on the grounds of the Dimona nuclear-weapons complex.

U.S. officials, in recent interviews, described Israel's participation in the chemical-arms ban as a significant first step. ''This is a big deal,'' one source said, for those moderates in the Israeli government who believe in the inevitability of some form of nuclear disarmament but fear a backlash if the government gets ''way out in front of the Israeli public'' by agreeing to give up nuclear weapons. It is because of such political fears, U.S. officials add, that Israel insisted on strict secrecy for the bilateral nuclear talks.

The basis for those talks is the Middle East arms-control initiative that President Bush announced, with little fanfare, in May 1991. One of the proposals called on the states in the region ''to implement a verifiable ban on the production and acquisition of weapons-usable nuclear material,'' such as enriched uranium or separated plutonium.

Over the past few months, the U.S. negotiators have been working out procedures for verifying stoppage of Israeli nuclear production. One requirement was that no on-site inspection of the Israeli nuclear reactor be conducted. ''They have a lot of things going on,'' one informed American said of the Israelis, ''and they don't want people walking around'' Dimona.

There is a five-story underground chemical-weapons reprocessing plant at the nuclear base, built in secrecy during the 1960s. Officials said that the United States is confident it can verify reactor activity and production by external intelligence means, including satellites equipped with sensors, and will have no need for on-site inspection.

The reactor at Dimona has been fully operational since the 1960s and it is widely believed to be essentially burned out, thus not capable of producing significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium. Israel is known to be facing a decision on whether to rebuild the facility. That fact has prompted some U.S. officials to be skeptical of Israel's motives in the current talks.

One official explained Israel's willingness to stop its plutonium production as part of a sophisticated trade-off to ''keep what they've got.'' What they've got is a modern nuclear arsenal numbering in the hundreds of warheads, ranging from low-yield neutron devices to city-busting hydrogen bombs, that can be delivered by missile, fighter aircraft or long-range artillery.

''The Israelis feel,'' the official added, ''that the Arabs are scared about Iraq and Iran getting a bomb and they will accept a Middle East with the Israeli bombs in place.''

One long-range American goal of the current Middle East peace process, the official explained, will be ''a quiet commitment for Israel not to keep its nuclear monopoly forever.''

Israel's asking price for stopping its weapons production, another American predicted, will be more U.S. military aid as well as ''whatever kind of a security guarantee'' it can get. Israel's first president, David Ben-Gurion, had secretly and unsuccessfully sought similar guarantees of an American nuclear ''umbrella'' from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations before making a full commitment to the expensive nuclear-bomb project at Dimona.

As many as 40 nations could go nuclear in the next generation. They will watch the Clinton administration's treatment of Israel with interest. If there is no significant and continuing effort to defuse the nuclear issue in the Middle East, the post-Cold War peace will be populated by an ever-growing number of nations anxiously arming themselves with nuclear weapons as they grimly take the measure of one another.

Seymour M. Hersh is the author of a book about the Israeli nuclear arsenal, ''The Samson Option.''

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