Might Israel Ever Surrender Its Nukes?

Just as apartheid South Africa once secretly possessed nuclear weapons and vowed to hold down its black majority forever, Israel is approaching a crossroads where it must decide if it will accept Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza as citizens and then what to do with its nukes, a dilemma that Joe Lauria explores.

By Joe Lauria

Israel last week sent its first observer in 20 years to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, which is held every five years at U.N. headquarters in New York. Israel, which is not a NPT member and has never confirmed that it possesses nuclear weapons, also has taken part in five rounds of negotiations in Geneva on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

However, the veil fell away for the world’s worst kept secret when the U.S. Defense Department recently released a document making it clear that Israel indeed has the bomb. A 1987 Pentagon document declassified in February unequivocally declares that Israel’s nuclear weapons program was then at the stage the U.S. had reached between 1955 and 1960. It also says Israel had the potential to develop hydrogen weapons.

A photograph of a control room at Israel's Dimona nuclear weapons plant in the 1980s. (Photograph taken by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was later kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel as punishment for revealing its secret nuclear arsenal.)

A photograph of a control room at Israel’s Dimona nuclear weapons plant in the 1980s. (Photograph taken by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was later kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel as punishment for revealing its secret nuclear arsenal.)

The document was released just days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his highly controversial March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress in which he argued why Iran had to be stopped from getting the bomb. As the only nuclear power in the region, Israel has an unequaled strategic advantage.

There doesn’t appear to be any scenario in which Israel would willingly give up its nuclear arsenal to fulfill a 1995 Security Council resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East. Or is there?

The only country to ever voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons is apartheid South Africa. President F.W. de Klerk gave written instructions to that effect in February 1991 (the same month Nelson Mandela was released from prison). When he announced in March 1993 that Pretoria’s six, airplane-borne weapons had been dismantled, De Klerk said it was done to improve South Africa’s international relations. (It was also the first time South Africa had ever confirmed that it had the bomb).

De Klerk’s reason has not been entirely accepted by experts. Speculation has led to various theories. One was that with the Soviet Union gone, South Africa no longer needed its nuclear deterrent. Another was that it no longer needed the bomb as a means of blackmailing the U.S. to come to its defense.

One credible theory is that Pretoria saw the writing on the wall: apartheid was doomed and South Africa would soon be led by a black government. The apartheid rulers concluded that it would be better to ditch the bomb altogether rather than letting it fall into the hands of the African National Congress and possibly shared with other African governments.

A former South African diplomat was quoted as saying Pretoria was “motivated by concern that it didn’t want any undeclared nuclear material or infrastructure falling into the hands of Nelson Mandela.”

De Klerk had already scrapped apartheid laws and released Mandela by the time the bombs were dismantled. When he announced that the nukes had been destroyed, de Klerk said, “This country will never be able to get the nuclear device again, to build one again, because of the absolute network of inspection and prevention which being a member of the NPT casts on any country.”

The parallels between South Africa and Israel are on the rise. After Netanyahu renounced his support for a Palestinian state in the heat of the final days of his re-election campaign (only to try to reverse it immediately afterward), both the United States and the United Nations strongly implied that the alternative would be an apartheid Israel.

“A two-state solution is the only way for the next Israeli Government to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, on March 18, the day after Netanyahu’s re-election. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the same day that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “firmly believes” that a two-state solution and an end to the settlements is “the only way forward for Israel to remain a democratic State.”

Not quite believing my ears, I asked Haq if what he meant was that the alternative was an apartheid Israel. “I’ve said what I said,” he responded.

While many critics of Israel say it is already running a de-facto apartheid system in its rule over 4 million Palestinians without rights, legal apartheid would come with annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. That appears to be the reason annexation has been resisted. But the longer a two-state solution remains a dream, the more a one-state solution becomes possible.

No less than two former Israeli prime ministers have said so. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state,” said Ehud Barak in 2010.

Three years earlier, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

A former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel, put it even more bluntly. “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state, in the hope that the status quo is temporary, is an apartheid state.”

Without full Palestinian suffrage, Israel is increasingly facing a hostile international reaction. Israel fears the budding boycott, divestment and sanctions movement could grow to the scale of sanctions that pressed Pretoria to end apartheid.

A one-state solution, in which all Palestinians would have a vote, would almost certainly mean the election of a Palestinian government to rule both Arabs and Israelis, much as a black South African government rules blacks and whites. Despite its violent past, South African has shown how the communities could coexist.

It seems nearly inconceivable today that Israel would become a single state with a Palestinian Arab government. But it was once inconceivable that South Africa would be led by a black government. If that day of a peaceful transition to a single, democratic state to replace Israel should come, is it conceivable that Israeli leaders would allow their nuclear arsenal to be controlled by an Arab government?

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at[email protected]  and followed on Twitter at @unjoe. [A version of this story originally appeared at Middle East Eye.]

4 comments for “Might Israel Ever Surrender Its Nukes?

  1. Consortiumnews.com
    May 5, 2015 at 10:11

    Posted for Peter Loeb:

    An excellent analysis as always.

    Some writers have written of the arms industry’s wish for Word War Three.
    (See for example, William Greider;s FORTRESS AMERICA….) In addition
    to the Israeli lobby, AIPAC, the arms industry is looking for jobs, market,
    sales and profit. (Many of those actually manufacturing the weapons
    having experienced reductions from World War Two no longer
    hope for a great jump in employment opportunities for them. Many of
    the jobs will go to grease the sales to foreign nations who also
    want the skills to make their own weapons of murder.)

    This Administration has not demonstrated any willingness to buck
    either AIPAC (Israel) or the arms industry.One can hope against
    hope as the saying goines, but the fact is that there are elections
    soon in the US and they cost millions of dollars.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

  2. May 4, 2015 at 16:50

    Last week Iran led the call by non-aligned nations for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons as the 2015 NPT Review Conference got underway.

    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted that the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is demanding that “Israel, the only one in the region that has neither joined the NPT nor declared its intention to do so, (…) renounce possession of nuclear weapons” adding the non-aligned nations are seeking “as a matter of high priority” to set up a nuclear-free-weapons zone in the Middle East…

    In April, The National Security Archive of George Washington University published documents which corroborated much of what Israel’s Nuclear Whistle Blower Mordechai Vanunu has been saying for twenty-nine years. The documents detail the discovery of Israel’s nuclear deceptions, debates over Israel’s lack of candor and efforts to pressure the Israelis to answer key questions about the Dimona dating to the Eisenhower Administration:

    Excerpted from Document 10: “Considerable Weapons Potential”

    On 9 December, Secretary of State Herter summoned Israeli ambassador Avraham Harman to the State Department and showed him photos of the Dimona reactor, asking for an explanation that would remove ‘bases for concern.’

    Harman said he knew nothing of the project but would inform his government. Later that afternoon, Herter called Claude Lebel, the chargé d’affaires at the French embassy, and asked about French involvement in the project.

    Herter prefaced his question by referring to a report he had received from his embassy in Tel Aviv that Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was about to announce that a new experimental reactor had been built in the Negev with French aid.

    Herter noted that, according to information the United States had ascertained, Israel had been involved since 1958 in constructing a reactor ‘which is at least ten times as large as claimed,’ and that the design appeared to be not for power but for plutonium production, hence, it would provide Israel ‘considerable weapons potential.’

    In 2005 Mordechai Vanunu told me:

    “The French were responsible for the actual building of the Dimona. The Germans gave the money; they were feeling guilty for the Holocaust, and tried to pay their way out.

    “Everything inside was written in French, when I was there…the Dimona descended seven floors underground.

    “In 1955, Perez and Guirion met with the French to agree they would get a nuclear reactor if they fought against Egypt to control the Sinai and Suez Canal. That was the war of 1956. Eisenhower demanded that Israel leave the Sinai, but the reactor plant deal continued on…”

    Excerpted from Documents 27A-B: The Post-Mortem

    This ‘post-mortem’ study on SNIE 100-8-60 is one of the most intriguing documents in this collection.

    Its aim was to explain why the US intelligence community had failed to detect in real time the Israeli nuclear project, and indeed how late it was in making that determination.

    The chronology, on pages 8 through 17, provides an account of what was known, and when, about the Israeli nuclear program, concluding that Washington might have seen through Israeli ‘secrecy or deception’ and better understood Israeli intentions at least a year earlier if the ‘atomic energy intelligence community had properly interpreted’ the available information.

    In essence, the overall conclusion was that the root cause of the delay was not so much the absence of information as that some important reports and items of information had been lost in the shuffle and the dots not properly connected…

    Connecting that dot:

    In 1986, Nuclear Physicist] Frank Barnaby was hired by London’s Sunday Times to verify what Vanunu told Peter Hounam. Barnaby testified at Vanunu’s closed door trial:

    I found Vanunu very straightforward about his motives for violating Israel’s secrecy laws he explained to me that he believed that both the Israeli and the world public had the right to know about the information he passed on. He seemed to me to be acting ideologically.

    Israel’s political leaders have, he said, consistently lied about Israel’s nuclear-weapons programme and he found this unacceptable in a democracy.

    The knowledge that Vanunu had about Israel’s nuclear weapons, about the operations at Dimona, and about security at Dimona could not be of any use to anyone today. He left Dimona in October 1985…

  3. Zachary Smith
    May 4, 2015 at 12:26

    It seems nearly inconceivable today that Israel would become a single state with a Palestinian Arab government. But it was once inconceivable that South Africa would be led by a black government.

    This is of course an opinion issue, but mine is that the situations of Israel and South Africa are only superficially comparable. South Africa never had anything like the leverage enjoyed by Israel. And the ration of Blacks to Whites in that nation were in the range of 10:1. By contrast 75% of the population of Israel is Jewish.

    Based on the behavior of Israel since it was created in 1948, it’ll do whatever it takes to maintain a Jewish State.

    IMO that will mean there must be a final ethnic cleansing of the non-Jews, including the Arabs who are officially citizens of the shitty little apartheid nation-state.

    How would I do it? One way would be a false-flag attack which killed thousands of Israelis in some out-of-the-way slum. Another would be to generate a distraction somewhere else. Say, a low-level nuclear war between Russia and NATO. Westerners would be so frightened that they wouldn’t even notice the tragic little drama of a new Death March into the Sinai. Or Jordan. Or the Syrian desert.

    So my answer to “Might Israel Ever Surrender Its Nukes?” would be a solid “NO”.

    • Mark Schmittgens
      May 4, 2015 at 15:19

      Of course they won’t give up their nukes, and will try to play the “get out jail free, Holocaust card and anti-Semitism game for ever…and will be enbabled by the bloody American traitors from Congress to NBC…from Wall Street to the Pentagon…the US will always be at war…

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