By Ami Dor-on
In a Senate hearing, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, posed an unusual and strange argument that “Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons for deterrence only because it is surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons: Pakistan, Russia, Israel and U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf.” Careless statements by Israeli leaders regarding the ‘nuclear option’ constitute a potential danger to Israel, even involving the possibility of an end to U.S. financial aid due to the ‘Symington Amendment’ law.
A surprising statement towards the end of 2006 was made by the designated Secretary of Defense of the United States, Dr. Robert Gates, during the Senate hearings which were held prior to his approval for that position. In precise words, Gates shed a brilliant ray of sunlight that penetrated a thick layer of dark clouds Israel had laid out as cover regarding the alleged ‘nuclear’ secret it had kept hidden behind a curtain of impenetrable dark skies for nearly five decades. The affect of Dr. Gates statement was like a burst of lightning through those thick and dark clouds of avoidance of that subject, when he declared to the Senate that “Israel has nuclear weapons“.
Gates did not claim that it was his personal opinion or was based on the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, but his unexpected exposure was introduced in the Senate as a fact. That one statement seemingly put an end to Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. Even if one can assume that his ‘bombastic’ statement caused damage to Israel’s security, what turned into a more puzzling situation was a more serious remark, the follow up statement of Gates, that “Iran basically aims to develop nuclear weapons for deterrence only because it is surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to the east, Russia to the north, Israel to the west and U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf”.
Gates’ words resulted in great wonder and even confusion within the Senate and the members of the committee which conducted the hearing, because they actually contradicted the image of the Iranian threat that the administration of President George W. Bush had presented to the American public. One member of the Senate asked, with mockery, if the designated Secretary believed that the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had lied when he said that “Iran was not acting to acquire nuclear weapons”.
“Yes, sir,” Gates replied flatly, adding however no less strange a statement than before this time concerning Ahmadinejad’s warnings about “deleting the Jewish state from the world map”. Those statements said Gates “did not necessarily represent Iranian government policy”.
Gates was no youngster to International security. For 26 years he had served in the U.S. intelligence systems even holding the position of Director of the CIA during the government of President George Bush Senior. What if his knowledge gathered from that position was the source of his deviated statements?
U.S. intelligence assessments about Israel’s ‘nuclear option’, as expressed in the statements made by the Secretary of Defense during his testimony, were not born in a vacuum nor were they based only on the findings of intelligence gathered by CIA agents in the world and in Israel. A significant contribution to the establishment of this concept about Israel’s nuclear option by the Western intelligence community grew from reckless statements, perhaps even irresponsible ones, which had been made by previous Israeli leaders.
Israeli officials stated time and time again with determined consistency that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East and make use of them”. An official position is one thing, and un-official babble is another. Reviewing the exceptional wealth of loose lipped statements made by Israeli leaders over the years could possibly explain why an intelligence expert like Dr. Gates could have made this astounding statement.
The first Israeli official to imply about the direction that Israel was seeking to take was none other than Professor Ernst David Bergmann some 50 years ago. Bergmann was no less than the right hand of David Ben-Gurion in the nuclear field, and served as the first chairman of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. In an Interview by Raphael Bashan (“Ma’ariv ” 5/13/66) Bergman explained, “we now speak of a nuclear option”. According to commentators at that time, that statement meant that Israel hoped to reach a technical stage, the possible extent of which meant that there was a real possibility that Israel had the ability to self-manufacture a nuclear bomb. The inference was it could do so without actually going into the production of nuclear weapons. According to the commentators” the most important thing to understand is that by developing energy for peaceful goals, you could also achieve a nuclear option. There are no two separate atomic energies”.
A few years of quiet passed in the media regarding nuclear options until Prof. Ephraim Katzir made a declaration during his tenure as the President of Israel. Meeting with a group of Science reporters from the U.S. and Europe (12/01/74) in his official residence Katzir told the visitors that “Israel has a nuclear potential”. One of the reporters who understood the significance of the “media bomb” Katzir had just dropped on them, asked the President if “this fact was not a potentially alarming issue”, Katzir replied without reservation, “Why should this matter make us worried. Let the world worry about it.” The world listened attentively then and did worry.
Not long after that another storm was generated by Knesset member Moshe Dayan (February 1976). In an Interview with the French TV, Dayan stated clearly: “We have the possibility to produce an atom bomb already. If the Arabs introduce an atomic bomb into the Middle East sometime in the future, we should have a bomb before them, but of course we won’t be the first to use it”. Dayan added an explanation as to why he thought Israel needed nuclear potential. “We are a small country and America is no longer the world’s policeman. We must defend ourselves,” he stated. Dayan did not settle for just an interview in France. He made similar statements during an interview with Italian television that took place at his home in Zahala. During that interview he even expanded the scope of the subject. “We had wars and never mused about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. However, the situation changes completely when it comes to leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi or Iraqi leaders whose behavior no one can predict should they achieve nuclear capability,” Dayan stated.
The most obvious of all statements that were made on the subject occurred, a few years later, by Meir Kahane, then a Knesset member. During Breakfast at the National Press Club in Washington, he responded when asked an ‘Atomic’ question by one of the journalists following the publication of the Mordechai Vanunu espionage story: “Of course Israel has nuclear weapons. And why should we hide it?” stated Kahane. He even called for the release of Vanunu at that time, arguing that, “I think he (Vanunu) did a wonderful thing. I prefer the whole world hate the live State of Israel – than love the dead State of Israel”. Kahane’s words were recorded by a reporter for a cable TV network who sold that clip to the International news.
One of the most important contributions to the exposure of Israel atomic policy was made by none other than Shimon Peres who reflected on the subject when he was Prime Minister and again later on when he served as Minister of Regional Development in the government of Ehud Barak. As Prime Minister (1/04/96) Peres, who was tied to the dream of peace that he carried with him for many years, made a statement using precise and explicit words, “Give me peace and I shall give up the nuclear program”. The Political significance of this statement was reflected on by most major media commentators around the world. The message the commentators reflected on was that Israel which had nuclear weapons, was willing to give them up, but only at a special price. That price demanded total peace in return.
A few years later Peres took another step forward when he again addressed Israel’s nuclear policy. In an interview with British journalist Patrick Seale, who represented “Al-Hayat” published in London, Peres said: “I did not want Hiroshima when I created the nuclear option. I created it to get to Oslo”. His implied meaning was, Israel’s nuclear weapons, if they indeed existed, were not designed for war, but to allow for the coming of peace.
The substantive statement issued by Robert Gates, damaging as it was, was not fully recognized in the eyes of the U.S. government. No one believed at the time that Gates had witnessed or seen the existence of an Israeli atomic bomb, when he made his statement. As a result no measures were taken against Israel as required by U.S. law. However, Ehud Olmert, who served as Prime Minister of Israel in 2006 caused a great storm through a statement he made that, has been debated as being either a slip of the tongue or a deliberate response. Olmert responded to the question of a German television interviewer by adding the name of Israel as a nuclear power, with the same breath that he mentioned France, Russia and the United States.
The question was raised whether it was right of Olmert to confirm Israel’s nuclear position as a fact to the world, even though the journalist had talked about his estimate that Israel might be a distinguished member of the nuclear powers club. Olmert’s’ statement created a firestorm within the Israeli public as well as among world leaders too. Interesting enough regarding one important country, Olmert’s message was not allowed to reach its public in order to prevent the possibility of a public hearing or debate. That country was Israel’s great friend, the U.S. who could have handled the subject with dire results. Olmert’s words could have resulted in great danger and potential harm to Israel, much more than the public could have imagined.
The Potential extent of the damage that might have resulted is related to a statute, a small, almost negligible, amendment to the statutes of the United States. The Amendment enacted in 1976 is called the “Symington Amendment”, named for its sponsor, Democratic Senator Stuart Symington. Symington, who for many of his years of public service until his death, was dedicated to the prevention of nuclear proliferation.
According to the ‘Symington amendment’ and relating to its controls on U.S. foreign aid, “the U.S. should not provide military aid or economic state transfers to others upon which it receives information regarding their dealing with nuclear enrichment equipment or for a country that develops nuclear weapons or tries to use them”. This amendment does not allow for discretion by the administration or the President. The law states that in such a case the U.S. must immediately stop aid of any kind.
The ‘Symington Amendment’ has stood the test of reality. The first time it has been upheld was in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. At that time Carter ordered security and economic sanctions against Pakistan after it was clear that the Islamic country engaged, in secret, in uranium-enrichment facility construction. The amendment was upheld a second time in May 1998. Following a nuclear test conducted by India, which was followed by a Pakistani nuclear test a few days later, President Bill Clinton ordered sanctions, both economic and security, against the two countries.
To understand how serious these public declarations were, it is important to examine the figures of American aid to Israel. For years, Israel receives annual aid from the U.S. in the amount of seven billion dollars. Half is for military aid and half is in economic aid. Additionally, the U.S. gives Israel guarantees to raise billions of dollars in the U.S. financial market. One doesn’t need to be an economist of world renown in order to understand how a financial-defense blow might affect the existence of Israel were the U.S. to block this flow of financial aid, resulting from the constraints should the ‘Symington Amendment’ be invoked.
A small but significant contribution to the realm of mystery and secrecy regarding Israel was made in 1999. Yiftah Shapir, of the Yoffe Institute at Tel Aviv University, had an interview which was published in most German newspapers. Shapir stated at the time that Israel could produce nuclear warheads small enough to fit missiles carried by Israel’s ‘Dolphin’ type submarines. It should be noted that according to promotional materials put out by the German submarine manufacturer, the “Dolphin” is capable of carrying and launching a dozen cruise missiles. According to foreign reports these types of missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads (1) can include the ‘Popeye Turbo’ missile manufactured by Israel.
If senior intelligence communities in various Western and Arab countries, and probably in Iran, were to extract all of the statements concerning Israel and its nuclear capability that have been made over the years and were to believe the well-established intelligence assessment they would likely come to the following conclusions. Israel not only has nuclear weapons and missiles to launch them into enemy targets, but under certain circumstances it could also use its ability to launch these weapons as a ’second blow’ to strike at any enemy who would dare attack it or even threat the destruction of the Jewish State.
(1) Anyone involved in strategy knows that submarines with such capabilities are part of what is called ‘second blow’ capability.