Going nuclear in the Holy Land

Michael Karpin untangles the complex history of Israel's nuclear deterrence.

bomb book 88 298 (photo credit: )
bomb book 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What That Means for the World By Michael Karpin Simon & Schuster 387pp., $26 When the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they brought the Second World War to a merciful end. While tens of thousands of Japanese civilians perished in the explosions, many more soldiers and civilians would have been killed had hostilities continued. The Allies had no choice but to develop nuclear capability, for fear that Hitler would build the bomb first and claim the world at a single stroke. For all that, the possession of such devastating power cast a chill over the early post-war years. "Baby play with nice ball?" asked the sinister scientist of the infant representing mankind in David Low's famous cartoon. Nobody wanted to play with the atom bomb, but every state with pretensions of power wanted to have it. Just in case. Now Israel has it too, and has for close to 40 years, according to foreign reports. How a country that did not exist when mushroom clouds appeared over Japan managed to acquire the ultimate weapon is the subject of Israeli journalist and documentary producer Michael Karpin's new history. Karpin believes that "the bomb in the basement" originated in a visit David Ben-Gurion paid to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp two months after Hiroshima. This is not certain: what is sure is that the existential fears aroused by the Holocaust played a major role in the construction of the Dimona reactor. All the architects of the project, such as Rafael head Munya Mardor, Ben-Gurion's scientific adviser Ernst Bergmann, Shimon Peres and Mossad operative Shalhevet Freier were haunted by what had happened in Europe. Bergmann summed it up: "I am unable to forget that the Holocaust took the Jewish people by surprise. This nation cannot permit itself to be so deluded again." The road from desire to achievement was not a straight one. As Karpin tells it, improvisation and chance marked the path. Israel exploited a rare window of diplomatic opportunity by forming a close alliance with France while shrouding its nuclear dealings in utter secrecy to prevent interference from the Arab world and the Great Powers. Post-war France helped Israel acquire developmental know-how and essential equipment. Many individuals in the government and the defense establishment were motivated to help the Jewish state because of sympathies provoked by the Holocaust. But France's own nuclear ambitions also played a role. It hoped to take advantage of the abilities of Israeli nuclear scientists to develop its own atomic arsenal. Also, France saw Israeli military strength as a useful counterweight to Egypt's Nasser and other countries threatening its hold on Algeria. This assistance did not waver before or after the ill-starred Suez adventure in 1956, and was unaffected by frequent changes in government in Paris. The Americans were suspicious at first. Leaks in 1960, possibly deliberate, alerted them to what was going on at Dimona. But President Eisenhower's reaction was low-key, and Ben-Gurion's formal announcement later that year that Israel was building a research reactor for peaceful purposes did the diplomatic trick. The warming relations between Washington and Jerusalem during the 1960s were mostly unaffected by rumors that Israel had acquired nuclear capability. The Arab states were slow to realize what was going on. In the early 1960s Nasser made fitful attempts to acquire advanced missile technology, but seems to have assumed that nuclear capability was beyond Israel's reach. Still, all these maneuvers, according to Karpin, would have failed had Israel been too overt. The policy of nuclear ambiguity encapsulated in the phrase "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East" served to lull suspicions and quiet fears. No state seriously believes that Israel will engage in atomic warfare for offensive reasons; everyone has assumed that the bomb is there to ensure the survival of the state only if it faces utter destruction. This was an Israeli diplomatic triumph, though it is not clear who first thought of the policy. Given the existential fears of the young state, it was not a given that the right note be struck. Ultimately, the policy seems to have been forged by a mixture of Ben-Gurion's pragmatism and determination, scientific and organizational genius and military restraint: never has the nuclear threat ever had to be made explicit. In the 1991 Gulf War, a few rumblings and veiled remarks sufficed to remind Saddam Hussein that any attempt to fire missiles at Israel equipped with unconventional warheads would be speedily, and bitterly, regretted. Neighboring Arab countries have come to terms with the situation, and their belief that Israel possesses this last and most potent means of defense has been a generally calming influence on the region. The only exceptions have been Iran and Iraq, which illustrates the abiding problem with nuclear weapons: what happens when an irresponsible or expansionist state goes flat out to obtain them? Israel, by placing itself carefully outside such categories and by never confirming that it possesses such weapons, has earned the unspoken trust of unprejudiced observers. Karpin does not openly take issue with researchers who suggest that the time has come for Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear ambiguity, but it is clear that he believes it has been entirely successful. The author picks his way carefully but surely through the tangled path of Israel's foreign relations in the 1950s and 1960s, and depicts the tensions within the defense and political establishments caused by Ben-Gurion's commitment to the Dimona project. Despite the inevitable restrictions imposed on his research and the attentions of the censor, Karpin presents a sharply focused picture of what happened and why. Much of his research was carried out for a television documentary screened five years ago, but the interested reader will be pleased that The Bomb in the Basement has made a successful transition to the printed page.