THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 13: An Israeli Decision
In early December 1967, Yigal Allon, the 1948 war hero and advocate of West Bank resettlement, was given a private look at Israel's nuclear future. It moved him to tears. He and a group of aides had been invited to inspect the early work on Israel's first nuclear missile field, under construction at an obscure site known on the map as Hirbat Zachariah, in the foothills of the Judean Mountains west of Jerusalem. The expertly concealed shelters, not identified for years by the American intelligence community, were to be burrowed into the ground at the end of an unmarked road lined with closed- circuit cameras.
The shelters represented the best of Israeli technology and ingenuity. They were being built by Tahal, the government- owned water planning corporation, which was then negotiating with the shah of Iran to build a forty-two-inch oil pipeline to relay Iranian crude to the Israeli port cities of Elat and Ashdod. The smooth barrels through which the missiles would be launched had been imported into the country marked as lengths of pipeline.  Israel was many years away from anything amounting to a nuclear missile capability-the first field test of the Jericho I had been held, with mixed results, only a few months before. The missile, jointly being developed with France's Dassault Company, had guidance problems: it wasn't yet capable of going where it was aimed.
Nonetheless, those first shelters represented, as Allon clearly understood, a new kind of military security for the nation. "Allon got all excited," one Israeli observer recalled. "Here's a man who had fought in 1948 with only a British submachine gun, and now-twenty years later-here is Israel building nuclear missiles. We're a people," added the observer, "who have come back from the dead. In one generation we have become the warriors-the Sparta of our time."
Allon couldn't resist boasting about what he had seen. A few days later, he stunned his cabinet colleagues by warning Egypt in a public speech at Haifa that Israel would reply in kind to any Egyptian attack on a population center using advanced weapons. "Every weapon Egypt can produce or purchase with the aid of a great power," he said, "we can match, sometimes with and sometimes without the aid of a big power." As a member of the prime minister's select committee on national security issues, Allon had great credibility. But no Israeli official had ever publicly acknowledged the existence of a nuclear missile system, and Allon's cryptic assertions were privately attacked by other government officials as a breach of security and publicly criticized in the press for creating a panic.
Israel's missile program, code-named Project 700, had been envisioned years earlier by Ernst David Bergmann as the final, costly step toward the Samson Option. One former Israeli government official recalled seeing figures indicating that the overall long-range price of Project 700, if fully authorized by the prime minister's national security committee, would be $850 million-more than was budgeted for all Israeli defense expenditures in 1967. The staggering price of the missiles was more than matched by other elements of the nuclear system, and the overall cost of the nuclear program continued to be the major barrier to the bomb and the biggest hurdle for the official who emerged in the late 1960s with responsibility for Israel's nuclear future, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
Allon's visit to Zachariah had had a strategic purpose: he was being proselytized by Dayan, who, with his black eye patch and flair for the dramatic, had emerged from the Six-Day War as an international hero. The war's aftermath also gave Dayan and his pro-nuclear colleagues a renewed opportunity to publicly condemn the major target of their prospective bombs-the Soviet Union. Dayan was among the first in the Eshkol cabinet to predict that the Soviets, searching for any foothold they could get in their ideological struggle with the United States, would fill the power vacuum in the Middle East and become the major threat to Israel. In early July, Dayan warned in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper of West Germany that if the Soviets chose to unite with the Arabs against Israel, he would not "hesitate an instant to advise his government to fight and defeat the Russians just like the Arabs. . . . Israel need be intimidated by no one."
Dayan was articulating the sense of isolation that had worked its way into the top levels of the Israeli leadership, in a way not felt since the 1956 Suez Crisis. Charles de Gaulle had responded to the war by accusing Israel of being the aggressor and canceling all of France's arms sales to Israel, abrogating twelve years of close French support for Israel. De Gaulle also delayed the pending shipment of fifty previously purchased Mirage III jet fighters. He even claimed to newsmen that he had not known of Dassault's contract with Israel until the first field test in 1967 of the Jericho I (although the French firm would continue to work with Israelis on the missile program for another year).
The Soviets and their satellites in the Eastern bloc, with the . exception of Romania, had gone further: all diplomatic relations with Israel were severed. The Soviets also immediately began rearming their Arab clients. President Nikolai V. Podgorny made a triumphant state visit to Cairo in late June and was greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering Egyptians. Planeloads of Soviet arms began arriving shortly thereafter, initiating an extensive and rapid buildup of the depleted Egyptian war stores, all of which would be renewed within a year. Moscow eventually sent Soviet advisers and high-performance MiG fighters to Egypt; in return, the Russians were granted preferential treatment at four Mediterranean harbors as well as virtual control of seven Egyptian air bases. The Soviets were similarly generous in their support for Syria and Iraq, the other losers (along with Jordan) in the Six-Day War.
Israeli intelligence intercepted high-level communications between Cairo, Damascus, and Moscow that were replete with boastful talk about the next war in the Middle East, and little discussion of the last one. The Soviet fleet was suddenly being deployed in greater force in the Mediterranean, with two or three ships-obviously attempting to intercept Israeli communications- parked off the Israeli coast. There was no response to these provocations, as seen by the Israelis, from the world's other great superpower, the United States.
In late August 1967, the Arab nations, buoyed by the Soviet support and guided by Soviet advice, gathered for the first postwar summit at Khartoum and agreed on what became known as the "three no's"-no peace, no negotiations, and no recognition.
Dayan's drive for the bomb was heightened by his conviction that Israel could not depend on America to deter a Soviet attack. In 1966, he had spent time as a journalist in South Vietnam and come away "very much worried," as he later told NSC adviser Walt Rostow, about "the steadiness of the United States in honoring its commitments." In a crisis, Israel either would or would not-as in Suez-be supported by Washington, depending on the White House's assessment of its international and regional interests. Dayan believed Moscow similarly would be willing to come to the aid of the Arabs not because of a deep concern for the Middle East, but to protect its prestige and international interests. Whatever their motives, Dayan was convinced that the superpowers would dictate events in the Middle East unless Israel took steps to arm itself fully. Israel's survival, in Dayan's view, was now dependent on its ability to mass-produce nuclear weapons and target them at the Soviet Union-just as the French goal was to target its force de frappe at Moscow.
Dayan's mission in late 1967 and early 1968 was to convince his fellow cabinet members that if the Soviets could be persuaded that the Israeli threat was credible, they might decide that there was no Middle East war worth fighting. A credible Israeli bomb also would deter the Soviets from taking any steps in the Middle East that would jeopardize Israel's survival -- such as agreeing to supply an Arab nation with a nuclear weapon. In Dayan's scenario, Israeli intelligence agents would secretly inform their Soviet counterparts as soon as Dimona's assembly line went into full production. And when Israel developed its first bomb in a suitcase, Moscow also would be told -and reminded that there was no way to stop Mossad from smuggling a nuclear weapon across the border by automobile or into a Soviet port by boat. As for the rest of the world, including the United States, there would still be studied ambiguity oh the question of whether Israel had the bomb. The argument for an Israeli "bomb in the basement" was born.
Dayan got a boost in his lobbying sometime in the last few months of 1967 when the Israelis learned from American intelligence that the Soviet Union had added four major Israeli cities -Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, and Ashdod-to its nuclear targeting list. This most sensitive information was apparently obtained unofficially, according to a former member of Prime Minister Eshkol's staff: "We got it in a nonkosher way," the Israeli explained, without amplification. 
A second boost was supplied by Henry Kissinger, then New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller's foreign policy adviser in the campaign for the Republican nomination. Kissinger met privately in February 1968 with a group of Israeli scholars at the Jerusalem home of Major General Elad Peled, director of Israel's Defense College, where Kissinger had taught the year before. His message, according to Shlomo Aronson, an academic who has written on Israeli nuclear policy, was electrifying: the United States would not "lift a finger for Israel" if the Soviets chose directly to intervene by, "say, a Soviet missile attack against the Israeli Air Force bases in Sinai." Aronson, who attended the meeting, quoted Kissinger as making three declarations: "The main aim of any American President is to prevent World War III. Second, that no American President would risk World War III because of territories occupied by Israel. Three, the Russians know this."
By early 1968, it was obvious that the overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War had solved none of Israel's basic political and military problems in the Middle East. Yitzhak Rabin, the army chief of staff, flew to Washington in mid-December 1967 and said as much in a meeting with General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Rabin opened the conversation by stating that Israel finds itself in the peculiar position of having won the war, but not the peace," Wheeler noted in a memorandum for the record, later declassified and put on file in the LBJ Library. "Israel was in a less favorable position now than prior to 5 June [when the war began]. The Soviets do not want a peaceful settlement," Rabin told Wheeler. "[T]heir objective is to maintain a climate of tension, whereby they can continue to foster an increasing Arab dependence on Soviet power and influence ... with a view toward maintaining Soviet access to port and air terminal facilities and, ultimately, control of Arab oil."
America's Jewish community responded to the dramatic June victory with showers of money and increased visits; tourism was booming in late 1967, and so was the Israeli economy. Israel's success, as Ambassador Walworth Barbour told his doubting staff in the American embassy in Tel Aviv, had cemented its relationship to Washington. Yet for Dayan and many of his supporters at Dimona and elsewhere, America had proved its basic unreliability as an ally a month before the Six-Day War when it failed to respond to Nasser's closing of the Strait of Tiran and blockade of Elat. Israeli foreign ministry documents showed that Dwight Eisenhower had promised in writing after the Suez debacle in 1956 that the United States would use force, if necessary, to keep the strait open. Israel called on Johnson to keep that commitment after Nasser's blockade and felt betrayed upon learning that the State Department considered Eisenhower's commitment to have expired when Eisenhower left office in early 1961. Only a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate was binding on subsequent administrations, the Israelis were told. Washington, without knowing it, was playing into the hands of Moshe Dayan and his nuclear ambitions.
But Israel was not yet a full nuclear power: no senior official had authorized the reactor and reprocessing plant to begin systematically turning out plutonium. Financial fears continued to haunt the leadership. One Israeli official recalled seeing estimates indicating that by the early 1970s a full-scale nuclear weapons program, including warheads and missiles, would be chewing up more than 10 percent of Israel's overall budget -- nearly $1 billion. Pinhas Sapir, renowned among Israel's leadership as the economic boss of the newly formed Labor Party,  was a strong believer in government loans and investments to promote economic development; dollars for Dimona never made much sense to him. In his view, an Israeli bomb would only lead to conflicts with the United States and a lessened flow of American contributions.
Dayan, one Israeli official recalled, made a critical decision early in 1968. He telephoned Sapir and asked him to spend a day with him, just as he had done with Allon. The two men went to Dimona. "He showed him the whole thing, from A to Z," the Israeli said. "Nobody had seen the whole [reprocessing] facility. Sapir was like a cat with sour cream. He came back and said to Allon, who was still resisting a full nuclear commitment: 'Have you seen it all? I've seen it and you don't know shit.  There will be no more Auschwitzes.'"
Sometime early in 1968, Dimona finally was ordered into full-scale production and began turning out four or five warheads a year-there were more than twenty-five bombs in the arsenal by the Yom Kippur War in September 1973. There is no evidence that the Israeli cabinet ever made a formal decision about Dimona. Nonetheless, production of the first assembly line bomb, whether officially sanctioned or not, was quickly known to the top layer of national security officials and widely applauded. An Israeli recalled that champagne was broken out at Dimona, and in some government offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, at word that the first bomb had been assembled. It was widely believed, the Israeli added, that the first warhead had the following phrase welded, in Hebrew and English, onto its exterior: NEVER AGAIN.
One former Israeli government official explained the bureaucratic procedure behind the decision to open Dimona's assembly line by saying, with a shrug and a smile, that Moshe Dayan had unilaterally decided that he had received the support of the key money men and had all the authority he needed-as defense minister-to turn Israel into a nuclear power. A similar suggestion was made at the time to Dr. Max Ben, Ernst Bergmann's American friend, by Amos Deshalit. "We were talking about Dayan," recalled Ben, "and Amos said, 'He's the guy who's acting on his own.'" 
With the decision finally taken, the bureaucracy closed ranks, as Israelis always do in matters of state security. The first necessity was the acquisition of uranium ore-lots of it. Mossad knew that there were hundreds of tons of ore sitting in a warehouse near Antwerp, Belgium, available for purchase in Europe, but that option theoretically did not exist: such sales in Europe were controlled by Euratom, the Common Market nuclear agency, and it was inconceivable that approval would be forthcoming for a large sale to Israel. Dimona was, after all, under no international supervision. Even if such a sale could be arranged, no one in Israel was willing to let the world know that Dimona, ostensibly a twenty-four-megawatt reactor capable of consuming no more than twenty-four tons of ore in a year, was purchasing an eight-year supply of uranium. Mossad's solution was to approach one of its agents in West Ger- many in March 1968 and ask him to make the purchase of the uranium-for $4 million-allegedly on behalf of an Italian chemical company in Milan. The sale was approved by Euratom in October, and the uranium was shipped out of Antwerp aboard a vessel renamed the Scheersberg A. The Scheersberg A had been purchased, with Mossad funds, by another Israeli agent-in-place in Turkey. Once at sea, according to published accounts that were confirmed by Israeli officials, the uranium ore was transferred to an Israeli freighter guarded by gunboats and taken to Israel. The disappearance of the huge shipment of uranium ore was known, of course, within months to Euratom; it wasn't much longer before U.S. and European intelligence agencies were reporting internally that the Israelis were involved. It took nine years, nonetheless, before word of the uranium hijacking reached the press, and the affair eventually became the subject of a 1978 book, The Plumbat Affair. Israel's response to the book and to the earlier newspaper accounts was to continue to deny that it had a nuclear capability. No one, except for a few public-interest advocates and a few reporters, seemed to care.
1. A Tahal representative was appointed in 1966 by Prime Minister Eshkol to the expanded and revamped Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, to serve on the new power and water subcommittee. Missile tubing also may have been shipped to Israel described as water mains.
2. American intelligence officials subsequently told me that the United States did not obtain a physical copy of the Soviet nuclear targeting list until the early 1970s. Some human intelligence about Soviet targets did exist, however, and it was that information, known only to a few in the CIA and elsewhere, that conceivably could have been passed along to the Israelis.
3. In 1965, Mapai and Achdut Avodah had agreed to join forces to run as a bloc for seats in the Knesset. After the Six- ay War, the two parties merged with Rafi to create the Labor Party. The next year, Mapam decided to join forces with the unified Labor Party and stand for election on the same ticket, but did not formally join the party.
4. It should be noted that there is no such expression in Hebrew as "You don't know shit." The Israeli who used that phrase in an interview was fluent in idiomatic English and, in his translation, was trying to describe the essence and import of Sapir's comment to Allon.
5. In April 1976, Time magazine reported that shortly after the Six-Day War, Dayan "had secretly ordered the start of construction" on a reprocessing plant. Prime Minister Eshkol then decided, said the magazine, that "they could only rubber-stamp a project already under way." The article, despite its confusion about the reprocessing plant, which was already finished by 1967. provided the world with its first hard information about the Israeli weapons program. The story carried no byline, apparently because it was reported by David Halevy, who, as an Israeli citizen, was subject to government censorship. Halevy, a former intelligence and army officer, was known for good contacts inside the Israeli government and intelligence community; it was widely believed inside the Israeli government, which officially denied the story, that his basic source was Moshe Dayan.