THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 19: The Carter Malaise
The surprising victory of Menachem Begin's Likud Party in the May 1977 national elections ended twenty-nine years of Mapai and Labor Party domination of the political process in Israel. It brought to power a government that was even more committed than Labor to the Samson Option and the necessity of an Israeli nuclear arsenal. Begin and his political followers represented a populist-nationalist view of a greater Israel with a right to permanent control of the West Bank; in their view, the mainstream Zionists, represented "by men such as David Ben-Gurion, had fought three major wars with no grand strategy. Israel's military aims were seen as having been dictated by the other side, whose leaders had chosen when and on which front war would begin. Begin and his coalition were determined-as they would demonstrate with disastrous effect in the 1982 Lebanon War-to use Israeli might to redraw the political map of the Middle East.
Nuclear weapons appealed to another side of Begin's character- his fascination with dramatic military moves, as exemplified by his insistence on the bombing of Iraq's Osirak and his involvement, as a leader of Irgun, the underground Jewish terrorist organization, in the July 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.  Unlike many Israelis who had immigrated from Eastern Europe, Begin had a hatred of Communism and the Soviet Union. He and his family had fled to eastern Poland after the 1939 German blitzkrieg and, like many Zionists, were arrested by Soviet troops and expelled to a Siberian gulag, only to be released into a hastily assembled Polish contingent of the Red Army after the 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia.
By all accounts, Begin had never visited Dimona before becoming prime minister, nor was he especially well informed about it. His initial briefings on sensitive national security matters were provided by the outgoing prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli signals intelligence expert then serving as a civilian official in the ministry of defense, recalled that Begin strongly endorsed Dimona's plans for the nuclear targeting of the Soviet Union. Begin went a step further, according to Ben-Menashe: "He gave orders to target more Soviet cities."  The increased targeting, Ben- enashe said, created a heightened demand for American satellite intelligence. But Israeli military attaches and diplomats were running into a brick wall in Washington, as the Carter administration retreated from the intense relationship that had developed under Presidents Nixon and Ford. One American officer who was in charge of a military intelligence agency in the first years of the Carter presidency depicted the Israelis as being all over the Pentagon and preoccupied with intelligence on the Soviets: "They were buzzing around. They were trying to get into overhead and they also wanted to know what our [military] attaches were reporting and what our requirements were. Our establishment was like a honeycomb for them."
Begin's enthusiastic support for the targeting of the Soviet Union was not known to the American intelligence community, still obsessed with its efforts to prove that Zalman Shapiro had diverted uranium to Israel. There was no doubt inside the intelligence community that Israel had the bomb, and yet no one in Washington-not even the new administration of Jimmy Carter, the first to be seriously committed to nuclear nonproliferation- saw any reason to raise the issue.
The Israeli government, worried about a backlash from its American supporters, continued to publicly deny the existence of any nuclear weapons--even when faced with evidence to the contrary. In 1976, after Carl Duckett inadvertently revealed in Washington that the CIA estimated Israel's arsenal to total at least ten warheads, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon had been summoned by Yigal Allon, the foreign minister, to discuss the issue. "[Allon] was very disturbed over this development," Toon said in a cable to the State Department, "and felt it scarcely compatible with relationship between our two countries.... He asked rhetorically why CIA had done it." Toon reported that he dutifully explained to Allon that Duckett's remarks were supposed to have been off-the-record. He then asked Allon whether Duckett's conclusion was accurate: "Allon looked at me, somewhat startled," Toon reported, "and said, 'It is not true.'"
Allon's bald denial rankled, and a year later, after Carter's election, Toon told a delegation of thirteen visiting American senators that he was sure Israel had the bomb. The senators, led by Abraham Ribicoff, Democrat of Connecticut, were on a fact-finding tour about the prospects for nonproliferation in the Middle East. They asked permission to inspect Dimona and were flatly told that no outsider had visited the reactor since the American inspections had ended in 1969, and none was welcome. Toon cabled the State Department about their treatment, complaining that "it was indecent for Israel to keep us out of Dimona." He vividly recalled the bureaucratic response: "Don't stir up the waters." 
The senators went much further than the State Department in attempting to paper over the fact that they had been denied entrance to the reactor. "This denial was dramatized by the press far beyond its actual significance," their subsequent public report noted. "Most of the delegation did not wish to visit Dimona because they lacked the technical expertise to make such a visit worthwhile. The delegation received no information as to whether Israel has nuclear weapons or not."
The senators were especially sensitive to the issue, for Congress had just approved an amendment to the Arms Export Control Act making it illegal to provide U.S. foreign aid funds to those nations that sold or received nuclear reprocessing or enrichment materials, equipment, or technology. The amend ment, as written, had no impact on those nations, such as Israel, which had been involved in the transfer or sale of nu clear materials prior to the bill's enactment. Israel, in other words, had been grandfathered out. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Stuart Symington, also provided for the President to override the law if he determined that the termination of such aid would be damaging to American national security.  The law has been applied two times to Pakistan, and to no other nation, since its approval.
Congress and the White House were, in essence, acceding to what had become the arms control community's rationalization for its failure to raise questions about the Israeli bomb: Israel was no longer a proliferation problem-it had already proliferated. One ranking State Department intelligence official, whose testimony was crucial to the first Pakistani foreign aid cutoff, recalled his cynicism about the Symington legislation: "Did any of these guys [senators] who were grilling me so mercilessly about Pakistan ever ask about Israel?" A former Nuclear Regulatory Commission official, who was responsible for testimony on the NRC's position on Israeli compliance with the Symington Amendment, recalled his understanding that Congress "doesn't want to discover anything in an open hearing." Although he was personally convinced Israel had developed nuclear arms, the official said that he repeatedly testified that he had "no evidence" of such weapons existing in Israel. If there were any significant items of information that needed to be passed along, the official added, "you told them over coffee. Never at an open hearing."
America's tolerance for a nuclear-armed Israel may not have troubled the Congress or the media, but it rankled Pakistan's President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. George H. Rathjens, a deputy early in the Carter administration to Gerard C. Smith, the President's specially appointed ambassador-at-large for nonproliferation issues, vividly recalled Zia's response when Smith raised questions about Pakistan's nuclear program: "'Why don't you people talk to Israel?' Smith was upset," Rathjens added, "but there was no way to answer Zia-no satisfactory answer." The Israeli nuclear program "wasn't anything people [in the U.S. government] wanted to talk about or discuss," Rathjens said. "It was an embarrassment."
Cooperation between Israel and South Africa on nuclear issues began in earnest after the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel, rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle, was forced to look elsewhere for support. Pierre Pean, in Les deux bombes, told of the surprising encounter in Johannesburg in 1967 between a French nuclear scientist who had been at Dimona and a group of Israeli nuclear scientists who had worked ten years earlier with the French at Saclay and Marcoule. The French physicist and his colleagues had helped the Israelis learn skills that they were now passing along to the South Africans. Israel was trading its expertise in nuclear physics for the uranium ore and other strategic minerals that existed in abundance in South Africa. The South Africans needed all the technical support they could get, recalled Ari Ben-Menashe: "They weren't good at all as a nuclear state. We had to help all the way."
In 1968, Ernst David Bergmann, out of office in Israel but still influential on nuclear issues, traveled to South Africa, where he spoke publicly on the "move toward international collaboration" on nuclear issues. In a speech to the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, Bergmann said nothing about nuclear weapons, but talked candidly about the "common problem" facing Israel and South Africa: "Neither of us has neighbors to whom we can speak and to whom we are going to be able to speak in the near future. If we are in this position of isolation, perhaps it might be best for both countries to speak to each other."
Bergmann's talk of isolation seemed prophetic as all but three black African states (Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland) broke diplomatic relations with Israel in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Israel's continued insistence on holding on to the occupied territories. Many of Israel's former allies in Africa increasingly began to support Palestinian aspirations. In November 1975, the United Nations General Assembly voted seventy-two to thirty-five (with thirty-two abstentions) in favor of a resolution that defined Zionism as "a form of racism and racial discrimination." Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog responded by accusing the United Nations of becoming "the world center of anti-Semitism."
Israel and South Africa, two "pariah" states, had turned to each other with renewed trading and arms sales after the war; within three years, joint trade grew from $30 million to $100 million a year. South Africa's small but influential Jewish population of 118,000 were always large contributors to Israeli bond drives and charities; now they also became more vocal in their support for Israel's more conservative political parties, including Menachem Begin's Likud Party. In 1974, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had made a secret trip to Pretoria, where, according to Ari Ben-Menashe, he discussed the possibility of an Israeli nuclear test on South African soil. Dayan left the Israeli cabinet a few months later, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, but continuity on key Israeli-South African defense and nuclear issues was assured with Rabin's appointment of Shimon Peres to the defense portfolio. Two years later, Prime Minister John Vorster, who had sided with Germany during World War II, visited Israel-the first official state visit by a South African prime minister in Israel's history. 
Peres made at least one private trip to Pretoria before the Vorster visit, just as he had made private trips to France twenty years earlier to arrange for arms and nuclear cooperation. His agenda included nuclear testing-the issue initially raised by Moshe Dayan-and he won a commitment in principle from John Vorster, according to Ben-Menashe, for a series of joint Israeli-South African tests in South Africa. Vorster's highly publicized visit to Israel resulted in a renewal of full diplomatic relations, as well as secret arms transfer agreements that would enable the two countries, working together in defiance of international opinion and United Nations sanctions, to emerge by the early 1980s as economies that were highly dependent on foreign arms sales.
Israeli sources put the number of secret military and nuclear understandings between Israel and South Africa at "six or seven" by the end of the Vorster visit. "Why?" a former Israeli official asked rhetorically. He cited four reasons. "One: to share basic resources. South Africa is a very rich country and Israel is poor. Two: the supply of raw materials. Three: testing grounds. Try to do a [nuclear] test in Israel and all hell breaks loose. In South Africa it's different. Four: there is a certain sympathy for the situation of South Africa among Israelis. They are also European settlers standing against a hostile world.
"South Africa, when it realized it wanted to go nuclear, also realized there was one country it could turn to," added the Israeli, who has firsthand knowledge of Israel's nuclear policy. The issue of Israel's nuclear arms remained in the background in the first years of the Carter administration, whose major priorities included a Middle East solution. The nuclear intelligence experts at Los Alamos and Livermore had been trying to monitor the shipment of uranium ore from South Africa to Israel since the early 1960s, but simply failed to see, or failed to understand, the full scope of South Africa's continuing efforts in nuclear technology. In 1970, Prime Minister John Vorster informed Parliament that the nation's nuclear scientists had developed a unique uranium enrichment process involving jet-nozzle enrichment and a sophisticated cascade technique. Within a few years, South Africa began construction of a pilot plant for the production of enriched uranium, not subject to IAEA safeguards, at a plant called Valindaba near Pretoria. 
The American intelligence community knew nothing of the secret negotiations between Vorster and Peres, but there were a few analysts who knew something was up between the two nations. By the mid-1970s, one American official recalled, " [t]he South Africans and Israel were suddenly doing things in such a different way that it took us by surprise. They went from the drawing board to the production [of enriched uranium]. They leapfrogged us in production design and output and we weren't looking in the right places." The official's point was that the nuclear production process in the United States was so huge and unwieldy that innovations were difficult to achieve; any new process would be tested for years in pilot production before being adopted in the government's main weapons assembly line near Amarillo, Texas, which is capable of producing five thousand or more warheads a year.
By the mid-1970s, South Africa considered itself in an analogous position to that faced by Israel after 1967: it was fighting an internal war against the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement as well as a war of secession in Namibia, and an external war against the growing black nationalism and emerging independence of Angola and Mozambique in the frontline states of southern Africa. In the long run, the military prospects of South Africa were bleak: the leaders of South Africa saw themselves, as did the men running Israel, to be vastly outnumbered by their enemies.
There was security, so the Afrikaners believed, in the nuclear bomb. And, like Israel, South Africa would need a weapon- low-yield nuclear artillery shell-that could be used in case frontline defenses were breached and urban centers threatened. In August 1977, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev privately warned the Carter administration that his nation's Cosmos satellite system had detected evidence of South African preparations for a nuclear test, or series of tests, at what was determined to be an underground site in the Kalahari. Similar warnings were sent to Britain, France, and West Germany, all participants-with the Soviets and the United States-in a 1975 conference in London that had set up the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which established a series of voluntary guidelines for limiting technical and material aid to non- nuclear nations. 
An American satellite was immediately routed over the Kalahari and saw the classic signs of preparations for an underground nuclear test-a test hole had been dug with casing around it, an observation tower had been put up, and the many cables needed for measurement were in place. Carter and Brezhnev, working together, led an international campaign of protest, and the South African government, facing the loss of diplomatic relations, backed down by the end of August. Carter publicly announced that "South Africa has informed us that they do not have and do not intend to develop nuclear explosive devices for any purpose, either peaceful or as a weapon." The President also said he had been assured that the Kalahari test site "is not designed ... to test nuclear explosives, and that no nuclear explosive test will be taken In South Africa now or in the future."
The White House, jubilant over its first major foreign policy success, arranged for a series of elaborate briefings to the news media about the intricacies of its successful diplomacy. The reporters were not told, however, that the CIA had reported that Israeli military personnel, in civilian clothes, were all over the Kalahari test site, and being "quite open about it," as a CIA officer recalled. The press also was not told that a senior South African diplomat had privately assured the United States at the height of the crisis in early August that his military was not planning to test a long-range missile, but only "a rocket or artillery round-something like that."
The CIA would later conclude, in a formal assessment for the White House, that the strong international protests over Kalahari had deflected South Africa "at least temporarily" from carrying out its planned test. Israelis, added the CIA assessment, have "participated in certain South African nuclear research activities over the last few years...."
Carter's heavily promoted diplomatic "victory in the desert" was far less significant than it appeared; a real triumph would have involved going a step further and taking on the Israeli nuclear program, and no one in the Carter White House had the stomach for that.
It was into this Washington that an Israeli with inside information about Dimona-seeking to trade that information for personal advancement-arrived late in the year. He contacted a senior official in the American nuclear intelligence community with whom he had dealt professionally in the past, and immediately revealed the fact that Israel had assembled well over one hundred nuclear warheads. There would be more than two hundred warheads, many of them low-yield devices, by the year 1980, the Israeli added. The American official, who is Jewish, understood why the Israeli was willing to talk: "He was a technical person looking for favors. This guy wanted to become a U.S. citizen." The fact that Israel had nuclear weapons, the American rationalized, was "general knowledge throughout the U.S. government. My feeling was this one individual wanted to hustle information for personal advantage. I decided to ignore it."
And so he did not forward the information to his superiors and colleagues, although he had no doubt that the information was accurate. The American said he knew of Israelis in other technical fields, apparently dismayed by the election of Begin, who had approached their American counterparts with offers to trade information and intelligence for a chance to emigrate to the United States.
There were other, and more traditional, approaches, as the relationship between Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin became increasingly strained in the wake of Camp David, and as some Israeli officials tried-apparently without high-level approval- to get some strategic help for Israeli ambitions and put an end to America's refusal to recognize the reality of the Israeli nuclear arsenal.
Their starting point was an appropriately obscure corner of the Pentagon known as the Office of Net Assessments, whose director, Andrew W. Marshall, a former Rand Corporation analyst, has been providing secretaries of defense with an independent flow of intelligence and analysis for two decades. In the last months of the Ford administration, Marshall won acceptance of a plan to begin a strategic dialogue with Israel; one goal was to investigate a possible cooperative U.S.- sraeli defense treaty. Some of Israel's most sophisticated strategic thinkers were assigned by Prime Minister Rabin to the ad hoc group, including Avraham Tamir, an Israeli Army general who would later serve as director general of the foreign ministry. It was Tamir, one member of the Marshall group recalled, who repeatedly sought to discuss nuclear issues after Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, the first step toward the Camp David talks.  The question was: would Marshall and his Defense Department staff discuss contingency plans for joint nuclear targeting of southern Russia in case of war?
That question was supersensitive, as all involved understood -America was still officially accepting Israeli assurances it had no nuclear arms-and it was referred in writing on at least two occasions to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown for guidance. The answer, in both cases, came back quickly: there was to be no discussion of nuclear doctrine by Marshall's shop.
Brown, interviewed later about Tamir's initiative, at first dismissed it as another example of the need for military planners to make contingency plans. He then spoke hypothetically: "If such a request did come to me, it didn't take me long to think about it." He finally acknowledged that he had rejected the Israeli approach without discussing it with President Carter. The Carter administration, Brown asserted, "would not have wanted to get involved in an Israeli-Soviet conflict. The whole idea of Israel becoming our asset seems crazy to me. The Israelis would say, 'Let us help you,' and then you end up being their tool. The Israelis have their own security interests and we have our interests. They are not identical." Andrew Marshall and his colleagues in the Office of Net Assessments viewed Brown's position as-as one American put it- a foolish constraint," but followed his instructions and, of course, told no one else in the U.S. government about the Israeli request for joint nuclear targeting. 
It was another disconnect as the American bureaucracy instinctively continued to protect its President from learning the facts about the Israeli nuclear capability-and from having to act on that knowledge. That instinct reached its height in the fall of 1979, when the Israelis and the South Africans finally pulled off their test.
1. The hotel, which was the headquarters for the British military in Jerusalem, was destroyed after months of planning, following a major British sweep against the Jewish resistance movement in Palestine that resulted in many arrests and the capture of some weapons. The explosion killed eighty-two people, including forty Arabs and seventeen Jews, and led to international condemnation. The British responded a week later by hanging three suspected Irgun terrorists, and Begin, in turn, ordered the execution of two British sergeants held captive by Begin's terrorist organization; their bodies were booby-trapped and left hanging upside down, to the long-lasting horror of many Jews.
2. Ben-Menashe served more than ten years in the External Relations Department of the Israeli Defense Force, one of the most sensitive offices in Israel's intelligence community. He left the ministry in 1987, he said, to work directly for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as an adviser on intelligence affairs. He was arrested in 1989 in the United States on charges of conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act by attempting to sell Israeli-owned C-130 military aircraft to Iran; he was acquitted in November 1990 by a federal jury in New York City. During preliminary proceedings and the trial, the Israeli government provided a series of conflicting statements about Ben-Menashe, who claimed that the illegal sale had been sanctioned by his government and the United States. Israel initially told the court that it had no knowledge of Ben-Menashe. It later accused Ben-Menashe of forging the four letters of reference that he had obtained upon leaving his job in External Relations. After acknowledging that the letters were genuine, it then depicted Ben-Menashe as nothing more than a low-level translator for the Israeli intelligence community. Ben- Menashe, in turn, accused his government of betrayal after Israel insisted to the court that he had been moonlighting as an arms salesman, and he began to talk publicly about what he alleged was his involvement in hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of authorized arms sales to Iran in the early 1980s that had been secretly endorsed by the Reagan administration. He also accused Robert M. Gates, a senior CIA official under Reagan, of direct involvement, despite Israeli protests, in the sale of arms, including chemical weapons, to Iraq from 1986 to 1989. Ben-Menashe's allegations, which have been strongly denied in Washington and Jerusalem, were still under congressional review as of summer 1991.
The author was initially contacted by Ben-Menashe in mid-1990 and began interviewing him in Washington and elsewhere in early 1991, about the Israeli nuclear arsenal and his activities inside the Israeli signals intelligence establishment. Ben-Menashe agreed -- as no other Israeli would -- to be directly quoted by the author on nuclear issues and other matters. In June, he left America for exile in Australia.
3. Mordecai Vanunu, in one of his many interviews with the London Sunday Times, told of finding a newspaper clip about the rebuff of the senators derisively taped to a wall in Machan 2, the chemical separation plant at Dimona, when he began working there in August 1977.
4. Victor Gilinsky, the NRC commissioner, said he had been at a Washington dinner party shortly after the legislation was passed and listened intently as Symington made an informal speech about the importance of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. "When he sat down," Gilinsky said, "I asked him, 'What about Israel?' 'Oh, they need it,' the senator responded. 'I've been telling Dayan for thirty years they have to have the bomb.'"
5. The April 1976 visit was denounced by the Organization of African States (GAS) and the Cairo-based Arab League, as well as by the Soviet Union and the Netherlands.
6. The plant's name, Valindaba, hints at its real purpose: it means "the council is closed" or "the talking is over" in the local African Sotho dialect.
7. Third World nations, not without reason, accused the Nuclear Suppliers Group -- convened after India's 1974 nuclear test--of instituting what amounted to an international cartel to perpetuate the advanced positions of the major powers; there were further claims that the agreements violated the promise given to nonĚnuc1ear states in Article Six of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which explicitly calls on all parties to facilitate "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy." The NPT also called for special attention to the "needs of the developing areas of the world."
8. Sadat met privately with Begin shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, and, according to Israeli officials, his first questions dealt with the Israeli nuclear arsenal. One Israeli who has seen a high-level summary of the Begin-Sadat meeting said that the Egyptian leader sought assurances that Israel would pledge not to use nuclear weapons against Egypt if a peace treaty between the two nations was signed. Begin did not reply, according to the Israeli account.
9. A senior American intelligence official recalled that the French had occasionally made similar requests to the Pentagon for joint nuclear targeting and intelligence sharing and invariably been rejected out of hand, without the issue being raised at the secretary of defense level, as was done with Avraham Tamir's proposal. "It was manifest that no one was afraid of the French," the official said, "but they were afraid of the Israelis. We all knew the French didn't have a back-door relationship" with the White House, as Israel did.