The Samson Option

samson-optionThis is a fascinating book by Seymour M. Hersh. As suggested by the subtitle, “Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy,” the book is split between describing how Israel developed nuclear weapons and a succession of American Presidents mostly turning a blind eye toward what Israel was doing. Some of the information is astonishing, and I often wondered whether the information was fact or fiction. There seems to have been a significant amount of research in the form of interviews with Israelis and Americans who could have known the secrets that are discussed. My inclination is to present the book as factual, and that is mostly because that would make the book more interesting!

The story begins with a description of how the U.S. shared high resolution images from a spy satellite called the “KH-11.” It seems a bit odd that the Israelis supposedly promised not to use the images for military purposes but used them to develop targets in the Soviet Union. They also used them to target and destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak twelve miles north of Baghdad in early June 1981. The bombing raid was accomplished with F-16s that had been purchased from the U.S. “for defensive purposes only.” The bombing brought about worldwide protest and was the first Middle East crises for the Reagan administration. President Reagan asked his national security advisor, Richard Allen why the Israelis had bombed the facility and was told “Well. Boys will be boys.” The real answer was that Menachem Begin had said that it was necessary to prevent Iraq from developing a nuclear weapon. He said Iraq having nuclear weapons would result in “another Holocaust.” He then added, “Never again! Never again!” Nine hundred Jewish defenders had committed suicide at Masada in 73 A.D. while Samson had killed himself and his captors by pushing apart the temple pillars where he was chained. “For Israel’s nuclear advocates, the Samson Option became another way of saying ‘Never again!’”

According to the book the Israeli nuclear program was developed with full assistance from the French. The French provided the technology and engineers to build a massive nuclear reactor at Dimona in the barren Negev region south of Jerusalem. There were Israeli scientists on hand for the first successful French nuclear weapon test in 1960 (based on United States design). There also was a chemical plant that recovered the plutonium from the spent fuel rods. The reactor had been operational for thirteen years when the Israelis bombed the Iraqi reactor. Israel had anticipated that Iraq might retaliate with a strike against Dimona and had shuttered both the reactor and reprocessing plant before the raid and kept them shut down for a year. Iraq did begin moving Soviet-supplied Scud missiles near the Iraq-Jordan border, and Israel knew that the Scuds could reach Dimona from inside Jordan. The Israeli air force kept aircraft in the sky on twenty-four hour alert. “There is no evidence that Washington saw or understood any of the Israeli defensive actions.” Washington also was apparently unaware that Israel was a nuclear power and that it had used the satellite images provided by the U.S. to target the Soviet Union with its missiles and warheads.

Ernst David Bergman was Israel’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific father of their atomic bomb. The Israeli Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 convinced the Eisenhower administration to help finance and fuel a small nuclear reactor south of Tel Aviv after promising “…that the nuclear materials would not be diverted to weapons research.” American Presidents all successfully failed to learn of the development of nuclear weapons by the Israelis while advocating nonproliferation. President Kennedy was the most aggressive at wanting to know what the Israelis were up to. He insisted on several occasions that inspectors should be allowed into Dimona, but Prime Minister Ben-Gurion refused. Kennedy retaliated by inviting Foreign Minister Golda Meir to a seventy minute private meeting to lend credibility to her political status. A declassified memorandum about the meeting includes a promise from Kennedy to Meir “…that in case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel.” Kennedy may have made that promise to assure Meir that Israel did not need a nuclear arsenal. Not all U.S. politicians agreed. Senator Stuart Symington, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Kennedy supporter, is quoted as telling Shimon Peres, “Don’t be a bunch of fools. Don’t stop making atomic bombs. And don’t listen to the administration. Do whatever you think best.” Dimona was producing 4-5 warheads a year by 1968 and there were twenty-five warheads in the arsenal by the time of the Yom Kippur War in September 1973. The first warhead is said to have had the words “NEVER AGAIN” welded on the casing in both Hebrew and English.

President Johnson saw that the Soviets were building their influence with the Arabs and believed Israel served as a surrogate for America. The Israelis agreed to a sham inspection and Jonson and his advisors pretended that was proof they weren’t building nuclear weapons. Walworth Barbour had been appointed ambassador to Israel in 1961 and kept the job until 1973. He is described as hugely overweight and always wearing yellowing white suits. He spoke no Hebrew and rarely attended any events. He was chauffeured to work around nine in the morning, went to the top floor of the embassy to his office, and left at noon. He was beloved by the Israelis because he never asked about their nuclear program. Johnson appreciated that Barbour never bothered him with any discussions of Israeli foreign policy. He is quoted as saying, “Arab oil is not as important as Israel to us.” It was after Richard Nixon became President that Barbour was given an intelligence briefing about Dimona. He responded, “Gentlemen, I don’t believe a word of it. When he was privately challenged why he had said that he said he would have to go to the President if he acknowledged the information. “The President didn’t send me there to give him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news.”

There are interesting descriptions of how the Israelis and South Africans allied to develop and test nuclear weapons. An Israeli official explained that South Africa had wealth and natural resources while Israel was poor. The South Africans were sympathetic to the Israelis. Israel also understood if they conducted a nuclear test “…all hell breaks loose.” South Africa began enriching uranium at a plant named Valindaba near Pretoria. The name means “the council is closed” or “the talking is over” in the local African Sotho dialect.

Clouds above the South Indian Ocean broke on the morning of September 22, 1979 and an American satellite recorded bright flashes of light that was probable evidence of a nuclear explosion. The Carter administration put together a team of scientists to evaluate the information. Perhaps the scientists understood that what they were supposed to report. They decided the bright flashes were not from a nuclear explosion. They said it might have been caused by “the impact of a small meteoroid on the satellite.” An Israeli source later said the flashes came from the third joint Israeli-South African test.

There is a chapter devoted mostly to Jonathan Jay Pollard, and American Jew who spied for Israel. What is more interesting is the description of an Israeli defector who had worked at Dimona and had taken photographs. Another worker named Mordecai Vanunu also took pictures showing the weapons lined up and intelligence agents were shocked to see they were thermonuclear. The Vanunu photographs “…propelled a major disinformation effort by Israel…”

Perhaps the most frightening part of the book is in the epilogue. The Iraqis began firing Scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War and American officials scrambled to beg the Israelis not to retaliate. American satellites saw Israeli mobile missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons had moved into the open and were deployed facing Iraq. “No one in the Bush administration knew what Israel would do if a Scud armed with nerve gas struck a crowded apartment building, killing thousands.” Bush could do little besides offering more batteries of Patriot missiles and promises that the Scud launcher sites would be made a priority target. The author observes there is a strong probability that any Arab nation firing missiles into Israel will face a nuclear response. 

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