Avner Cohen, the leading academic on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, has written a riveting article about the lies which Israel’s leaders used to obfuscate and mislead its allies about its nuclear ambition. As part of the research for the article, Cohen has amassed 42 supporting government documents which he’s made public as well.
France had designed and helped build the Dimona nuclear reactor beginning in the late 1950s. But when Charles de Gaulle came to power in the early 1960s, he exerted much greater constraint on French involvement. He restricted the supply of uranium offered to the Israelis and put conditions on its use.
This severely restricted Israel’s ambitions to build a nuclear weapon. Publicly, Israel’s prime minister and senior cabinet ministers kept up a front asserting the nuclear program was for peaceful purposes only. But this wasn’t true and behind the scenes Israel pursued WMD at breakneck speed.
In 1964, Canadian intelligence received word that Argentina had agreed to sell 80 tons of uranium yellowcake to Israel, which replaced the fuel Israel had expected from France. Eventually, the British told the U.S. about the deal and the latter instructed its embassies in Israel and Argentina to confirm the sale. Secrecy around the program in Israel was air-tight and the U.S. embassy could uncover nothing. But the embassy in Argentina did manage to confirm the sale.
Intelligence experts estimated that Israel could have a nuclear weapon in 18-24 months. Turns out, it had a crude device ready by the 1967 War which served as a fail-safe in case Israel faced a cataclysmic defeat.
Cohen further reveals that a Mossad front company in Italy purchased 200 tons of Belgian yellowcake in 1968. The material was off-loaded from a European cargo ship to an Israeli freighter at sea, and then made its way to Dimona.
The Foreign Policy article also reveals a string of lies spread by Israel’s leaders to assuage the concerns of allies like John Kennedy. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol secretly reached agreement with Kennedy to allow U.S. scientists to inspect Dimona. But when they arrived the Israelis arranged to conceal sensitive areas of the plant that might expose their true aims.
Despite the fact that the U.S. knew Israel was procuring yellowcake from Argentina and surmised that Israel might be developing a nuclear weapon, it did not confront Israel publicly. Even repeated private queries made by the U.S. ambassador to Israel to Abba Eban went unanswered. The U.S. government had to know what this meant. Yet it chose to take the easy way out and not make an issue of it.
There is a section crying out for inclusion in Cohen’s article, which he omitted: the parallels with Iran. The take-away is that Israel behaved in a far more devious, unfettered way than Iran ever has. Israel always intended to create a weapon. Yet it repeatedly lied to everyone it needed to, in order to pursue the research and development freely. There was no Non-Proliferation Treaty at the time, so Israel never faced the rigorous inspection process Iran faces.
Though Iran has engaged in some of the obfuscation Israel did in concealing the new research facility in Qom till just before the west was about to expose it, Israel has what Cohen calls “the world’s most opaque nuclear program.” Iran’s program is almost transparent by comparison. Remember too, that Israel has never joined the NPT because it rejected the constraints it would place on the weapons program. It preferred to pursue its nuclear ambitions in absolute secrecy. This has never been true of Iran.
Iran has allowed relatively unfettered access to most of its facilities. IAEA scientists have inspected regularly. While they have expressed some concerns about Iran’s intentions, reports articulate those concerns in exceedingly circumspect ways that never amounted to anything near a smoking gun.
In short, there has been far more mendacity and chicanery involved in Israel’s WMD program than Iran’s. And when Israeli leaders start moaning and groaning about Iran and its duplicity, etc. we have to remember that Iran had excellent teachers in the Israelis who preceded them. The hypocrisy of Israel’s complaints about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is simply astonishing.