Israel's 'secret' nuclear arsenal

Issue 

By Peter Boyle

Confined for six years in a tiny cell, Mordechai Vanunu, who exposed Israel's secret nuclear weapons program, is being subjected to systematic ill-treatment which threatens his mental stability, says Gideon Spiro, an Israeli journalist and peace activist. Recent appeals against Vanunu's 18-year sentence have been denied despite requests from the European Community, Amnesty International and numerous other groups and individuals.

Vanunu's attempt to take the story of Israel's nuclear program to the public began in Australia in 1986, but ended abruptly when he was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Rome on September 30, 1986.

"Vanunu behaved as a citizen with democratic consciousness" when he decided Israelis had a right to know about their government's nuclear weapons program, says Spiro. "The Israeli government had claimed it would not be the first to introduce nuclear arms to the Middle East, but this was a lie. For exposing this deception, Vanunu deserved thanks, not 18 years in prison."

Vanunu's action could be compared with that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famous Pentagon Papers, showing that the US government had lied about the war in Indochina.

Gideon Spiro knows from personal experience the price for acting on one's conscience in Israel. In 1983 he was dismissed from the education department for writing a letter to a newspaper criticising the invasion of Lebanon. Today, he says, there is a national consensus that the war was wrong, but after a three-year court case he lost his job and was banned from holding any government position for six years.

In Australia on the way back from an anti-nuclear conference in Japan, Spiro said supporters of Vanunu were struggling to raise public debate about Israel's nuclear arms industry, the existence of which is still officially denied.

Back in 1986 the CIA estimated that Israel had 40 nuclear bombs and would have 100 by the year 2000. However, Vanunu revealed that in 1986 Israel already had 200 nuclear weapons. Now the figure is probably around 300, and the neutron bomb has most likely been added to the arsenal. In August 1992 the London Observer quoted an unnamed senior military source as saying: "Israel is threatening to use a neutron bomb against Iraq in the event that Saddam Hussein counters renewed hostilities in the Gulf with another missile attack on Tel

Aviv".

While Spiro supports the United Nations program to strip Iraq of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability, he also condemns the double standard applied to Israel, "especially as it was Israel which started the non-conventional arms race in the region in the 1950s".

He said it is Israeli government policy to preserve its nuclear monopoly, and in the process it is prepared to take extreme action such as the 1981 bombing of an Iraqi research reactor. However, this policy had failed to deter other countries in the region from trying to obtain nuclear weapons. In fact, it made Iraq "more determined" and only forced its program underground.

The best solution is a zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, Spiro says. The same UN apparatus being used to eliminate Iraq's mass destruction capability should be put to work in Israel.

He denies that Israel's nuclear monopoly improves its security, since Israel is already the strongest military power in the region.

Spiro rejects the view that nuclear weapons are less dangerous in the hands of Israel because it is a "responsible, democratic state". "Israel's history of occupation and its continuing rule over 2 million Palestinians is not the behaviour of a responsible state.

"Just as the Iraqi decision to build nuclear weapons was made by only one man, Saddam Hussein, so also the earlier Israeli decision was made by one man alone, David Ben Gurion. Israel's democratic institutions played no role. Indeed, the nuclear issue has never once been openly discussed in the Knesset [Israel's parliament] and only rarely has it been mentioned in the Israeli press.

"Nor do the Islamic states have a monopoly on nationalist religious fundamentalism. Jewish fundamentalism also exists. Jews with extremist views hold many positions of power throughout Israeli society: in the military, the government, the weapons industry and in the financial and industrial sectors."

Official denial of the nuclear arms program means that Israelis are deprived of the right to discuss and act on it. The French-designed reactor in Dimona is now 30 years old and near the end of its life expectancy. "Undoubtedly there have been renovations and improvements, but how do these affect safeguards? Where does the nuclear waste go?"

Spiro believes that the danger of nuclear weapons is by no means a thing of the past, and new arms races could break out. He says Israel should admit to the existence of its nuclear program and agree to its closure under international supervision.