By Hilary Wise
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to rant and posture about the existential threat of Iran – maybe, one day – possessing nuclear weapons, Israel is taking delivery of the latest of its state-of-the-art German submarines, capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The cost of the submarines is heavily subsidized by the German tax-payer as part of the country’s ongoing military aid to Israel. According to an exposé in Der Spiegel newspaper, Angela Merkel tried to tie the delivery to various conditions, “including a demand that Israel stop its expansionist settlement policy and allow the completion of a sewage treatment plant in the Gaza Strip, which is partially financed with German money.” None of the conditions were met, but the delivery has gone ahead anyway.
The World’s Worst-kept Secret
Israel’s nuclear arsenal has been common knowledge for decades, partly thanks to whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, who is still denied his freedom despite having served a sentence of 18 years.
The Center for Nonproliferation Studies have reported that Israel probably has up to 300 warheads – about the same as the UK. These include intercontinental-range thermonuclear weapons and artillery-delivered, enhanced-radiation tactical weapons (‘neutron bombs’).
Nuclear facilities in Israel include the nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev where Vanunu worked, nuclear storage bases at Eilabun near the Sea of Galilee and the national weapons testing laboratory at Soreq, south of Tel Aviv.
Israel has always refused to confirm or deny their existence: what Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the bomb, calls a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Naturally, no inspection of these facilities by the International Atomic Energy Authority has been allowed.
Both the US and Israel have an interest in maintaining the fiction that Israel is not a nuclear power (or if it is, that the US is unaware of the fact): US law expressly forbids US economic and military aid to nations that acquire nuclear enrichment technology for military purposes. There is however a let-out clause saying the President can authorize such aid, if it is in the US’ “vital interests”.
Israel’s impressive arsenal includes Jericho III missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads and are capable of reaching most of Europe and much of Asia. The Shavit space launch vehicle has a range of at least 4,500 km and Israel has developed a number of cruise missiles such as the on Gabriel-4 anti-ship cruise missile and the Popeye Turbo, which can be deployed on submarines.
Israel’s fighter aircraft, from the F-15 to the F-16I, are capable of long-range operations with nuclear and chemical warheads. The addition of Germany’s Dolphin submarines completes Israel’s capacity to deliver nuclear warheads by land, sea and air.
Israel’s reticence about its nuclear capabilities has gone largely unquestioned in western political and media circles.
Not only are few questions asked: western countries have for decades been actively cooperating in Israel’s nuclear program. It was France that built the Dimona nuclear reactor in the 1950s, with the reactor’s heavy water being supplied by Britain and Norway and later by the US. For years Israel collaborated closely with the South African regime on the development of nuclear weapons, until the fall of Apartheid.
US military aid to Israel, amounting to about $100 billion since 1962, now averaging about $3 billion a year, with billions more in arms sales, is largely in the form of conventional weapons such as fighter planes and surface-to-air missiles; but many of these may constitute delivery systems for nuclear missiles. For instance, recent aid packages have included nuclear-capable Harpoon missiles, to be fitted to the German submarines.
Israel’s clandestine acquisition of nuclear technology from the US and other countries has been the subject of various journalistic exposés but the extent of government collusion or acquiescence in these transfers will probably never be known.
Contrast this massive support with the western approach to Iraq. The mere – completely fallacious – suggestion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction meant that it was subjected to 20 years of crippling sanctions and saturation bombing, culminating in the bloody political disintegration we are still witnessing today.
Israel is awash with nuclear and probably chemical weapons but is totally unaccountable.
Dreaming of a Nuclear-free Middle East
An international conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is held every five years, in an effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and encourage nuclear states to relinquish them. The NPT has been signed by all Middle East states (including Iran), except Israel. The 2010 NPT Conference resolved that there should be a regional conference in 2012 to discuss the possibility of making the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction, and Ban Ki Moon strongly urged Israel to participate.
Israel prevaricated endlessly and the idea was eventually shelved – though it may be revived at this year’s NPT talks, 27 April – 22 May at UN Headquarters in New York. Possibly in exasperation, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution in 2012 calling on Israel to open its nuclear program for inspection. Those voting against were the usual suspects: Israel, the US, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
Whose Arms Race?
The tentative deal brokered between the US and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program was warmly welcomed by the international community, except for die-hard Zionists in the US. Netanyahu found himself isolated, once again, in his Cassandra-like predictions. With no doubt unconscious irony he raised the specter of Iran triggering a ‘nuclear arms race’ in the Middle East. The only horse in the race so far is Israel. It is also the most belligerent state in the region, having repeatedly attacked, invaded, and occupied its nearest neighbors, annexed territory from them and bombed others, including most probably Iran itself. While Israel maintains these policies, it is understandable that its neighbors might indeed wish to seek their own deterrent.
- Hilary Wise is a writer, an academic and an activist. She also was editor of Palestine News for eight years. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye.)