Release Date: June 2, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Israel's Covert Nuclear Program

by Eric Margolis

LONDON -- In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's Dimona reactor center, revealed to the `Sunday Times' of London that Israel had secretly developed 100-200 nuclear warheads, using French and American-supplied technology. Vanunu was lured to Rome in a classic `honey trap' and kidnapped by Israeli agents. He was convicted of treason and has been held in solitary confinement for the past 14 years.

Earlier this month, the `Sunday Times' broke a second major story about Israel's covert nuclear programs. According to leaked information supplied to the `Times,' Israel used a newly acquired Dolphin-class submarine to test a hitherto secret cruise missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

The cruise missile is said to have hit a target 900 miles from its launch point off the coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, and may have a maximum range of 1,200 mile. Israel has become increasingly involved in Sri Lanka's civil war, supplying the embattled Colombo government with weapons, munitions, and military advisors to combat Tamil Tigers rebels.

The state-of-the-art, 1750-ton Dolphin diesel subs were supplied to Israel by Germany as near freebie `guilt payments' because Iraq used some German-made components in its military programs during the Gulf War. Revelations that Israel is using the $440 million each subs as nuclear launch platforms has deeply embarrassed Germany's ardently anti-nuclear socialist government.

This also raises the fascinating question of how and where the Dolphins were modified to accept missiles. The cruise missile used by the Israelis is believed too large to be fired from the Dolphin's 21-inch torpedo tubes. The original 1990 design called for lengthening the hull to accommodate a `wet and dry' compartment for frogmen - unusual in an attack sub- and for `extra torpedo storage.' This was clearly the cover for what became a missile compartment of four vertical launch tubes.

If true, this suggests full German collaboration in Israel's covert nuclear program - in spite of Berlin's anguished denials. The United States was originally to have supplied the subs to Israel, but claimed to lack the capability to build modern, conventional powered boats, and bucked the job to German yards, who have a century of experience in building U-boats. A cynic might suspect the US pressured Germany into supplying Israel's latest nuclear weapons platforms to escape an inevitable firestorm of protest by its Arab oil clients.

Israel now has a complete nuclear triad: air-delivered bombs; intermediate-range Jericho missiles; and now the sea-launched cruise missile. This important development means Israel has a counter-force nuclear capability that can ride out any enemy nuclear attack and riposte with a devastating strike from the sea. Israel will reportedly base one Dolphin in the Mediterranean, the second in the Red Sea, and the third in port for maintenance.

The Dolphin `roving launch platforms' also give Israel the ability to strike almost anywhere on the globe, and particularly against Iran and Pakistan, which Israel singles out as `long-range' enemies. Israel's Mossad long claimed Iran would deploy nuclear weapons by 2000. When proven wrong, Mossad now claims the date is 2002. US intelligence estimates Tehran will not even have a prototype weapon before 2010, and no deliverable warhead until 2012-13 - if ever. Iran denies developing nuclear weapons.

Revelations of Israel's new cruise missile have provoked a storm of outrage in the rest of the Mideast at an exceptionally delicate time when regional peace negotiations hang in the balance. One might suspect Israel's missile test may have been leaked to scupper Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Some defense analysts maintain Israel's sea-launched missiles are actually a stabilizing factor that eliminated the threat of a decapitating nuclear attack. Israel's Jericho missile base at Kfar Zachariah near Tel Aviv lacks hardened silos and is thus vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack. The same applies to airbases where nuclear bombs are stored for Israel's US-supplied F-15E's. Inadequately protected nuclear forces lead to a `use or loose' mentality in time of crisis.

But the latest revelations about Israel's nuclear arsenal - now the world's fourth or fifth most powerful - will likely spur the Arab states and Iran to intensify efforts to acquire a nuclear counter-force, and to develop `poor man's' weapons of mass destruction to match Israel's extensive nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal.

This bombshell also comes as Israel faces growing pressure in the UN over its nuclear weapons. Israel is the only Mideast nation that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT). Egypt insists Israel must sign NPT as part of a comprehensive Mideast peace. Cairo is pressing for a Mideast nuclear-free zone and demands Israel allow inspection of its nuclear complex at Dimona. Egypt claims Israel's 40-year old, French-supplied reactor there is unsafe and a hazard - a sort of Mideast Chernobyl.

The United States, in an unusual volte face, is quietly backing Egypt's position. Washington is doubtlessly expressing its growing displeasure with Israel over recent sales of high-tech Israeli arms and technology to China, much of them American origin, and over Israeli espionage against the United States.

The first battery of Israel's `Arrow' anti-missile system just went operational; THEL, a new laser anti-tactical missile system, follows soon. Now, sea-launched cruise missiles. What next? An Israeli landing on Mars?

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of the just released War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000]

[In 1958, Israel secretly initiated work at what was to become the Dimona nuclear research site. Only about 15 years after the Holocaust, nuclear nonproliferation norms did not yet exist, and Israel's founders believed they had a compelling case for acquiring nuclear weapons. In 1961, the CIA estimated that Israel could produce nuclear weapons within the decade. . . .

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations fashioned a complex scheme of annual visits to Dimona to ensure that Israel would not develop nuclear weapons. But the Israelis were adept at concealing their activities. By late 1966, Israel had reached the nuclear threshold, although it decided not to conduct an atomic test. . . .

By the fall, Assistant Defense Secretary Paul C. Warnke concluded that Israel had already acquired the bomb when Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin explained to him how he interpreted Israel's pledge not to be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. According to Rabin, for nuclear weapons to be introduced, they needed to be tested and publicly declared. Implicitly, then, Israel could possess the bomb without "introducing" it.--Avner Cohen and William Burr, "The Untold Story of Israel's Bomb," Washington Post, April 30, 2006] back button