THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
For the men in the White House, the first day of President George Bush's Persian Gulf War couldn't have gone better. As America -- and the world -- watched on television, U.S. cruise missiles and Air Force and Navy planes struck their targets in downtown Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq with precision. War seemed almost too easy. But the euphoria disappeared on the second day, as the Iraqi army carried out Saddam Hussein's pre-war pledge and fired eight Scud missiles at Israel from launchers that had supposedly been destroyed in the first hours of the war. Two Scuds landed in Tel Aviv and another near Haifa, and the world listened with dread to the initial, and erroneous, newscasts reporting that the Scud warheads contained nerve gas. Frightened Israelis, wearing gas masks, huddled in specially sealed above-ground rooms, waiting out the Iraqi bombardment; the streets below, as seen on television, were eerily quiet.
A senior American defense official rushed to Israel with a promise of future support, but it seemed inevitable that Israel would enter the Gulf War by sending its air force and its specially trained commando units into western Iraq, where the Scuds were located.
Adding to the tension was the fact that American intelligence had miscalculated in its predictions that Iraq had a limited number of Scud warheads and launchers -- some estimates before the war put that number at fewer than 20. It had been thought that Iraq could launch its Scuds only from fixed launcher sites or from mobile launchers -- no one had foreseen that Saddam Hussein's troops would convert a newly purchased fleet of flatbed trucks into makeshift launching pads. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the American commander, eventually acknowledged that Iraq could have as many as fifteen battalions of launchers, each supplied with fifteen Scuds -- a total of 225 missiles.
There was another element involved in those first hours, not known to the public but detected by an American satellite making its ninety-six-minute orbit around the earth. The satellite saw that Shamir had responded to the Scud barrage by ordering mobile missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons moved into the open and deployed facing Iraq, ready to launch on command. American intelligence picked up other signs indicating that Israel had gone on a full-scale nuclear alert that would remain in effect for weeks. No one in the Bush administration knew just what Israel would do if a Scud armed with nerve gas struck a crowded apartment building, killing thousands. All George Bush could offer Shamir, besides money and more batteries of Patriot missiles, was American assurance that the Iraqi Scud launcher sites would be made a priority target of the air war.
Such guarantees meant little; no Jews had been killed by poison gas since Treblinka and Auschwitz, and Israel, after all, had built its bomb so it would never have to depend on the goodwill of others when the lives of Jews were being threatened.
The escalation didn't happen, however; the conventionally armed Scud warheads caused -- amazingly -- minimal casualties, and military and financial commitments from the Bush administration rolled in. The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir received international plaudits for its restraint.
American officials were full of private assurances for months after the crisis that things had been under control; newsmen were told that Israel, recognizing the enormous consequence of a nuclear strike, would not have launched its missiles at Baghdad.
The fact is, of course, that no one in America -- not even its President -- could have dissuaded Shamir and his advisers from ordering any military actions they deemed essential to the protection of their nation. Such sovereignty isn't new or unusual. What is unusual is that one of America's most important allies -- a beleaguered ally surrounded by avowed enemies constantly threatening war -- has secretly amassed a large nuclear arsenal while Washington looked the other way.
America's policy toward the Israeli arsenal, as we have seen in this book, was not just one of benign neglect: it was a conscious policy of ignoring reality.
By the mid-1980s, the technicians at Dimona had manufactured hundreds of low-yield neutron warheads capable of destroying large numbers of enemy troops with minimal property damage. The size and sophistication of Israel's arsenal allows men such as Ariel Sharon to dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East aided by the implicit threat of nuclear force. Israel also has been an exporter of nuclear technology and has collaborated on nuclear weapons research with other nations, including South Africa.
In September 1988, Israel launched its first satellite into orbit, bringing it a huge step closer to intercontinental missiles and a satellite intelligence capability -- no more Jonathan Pollards would be needed to steal America's secrets. Scientists at Z Division concluded that the rocket booster that launched the Israeli satellite produced enough thrust to deliver a small nuclear warhead to a target more than six thousand miles away. Israeli physicists are still at the cutting edge in weapons technology, and involved, as are their American and Soviet counterparts, in intensive research into nuclear bomb-pumped X-ray lasers, hydrodynamics, and radiation transport -- the next generation of weaponry.
None of this has ever been discussed in the open in Israel, or in the Knesset. Meanwhile, Israeli field commanders have accepted nuclear artillery shells and land mines as battlefield necessities: another means to an end. The basic target of Israel's nuclear arsenal has been and will continue to be its Arab neighbors. Should war break out in the Middle East again and should the Syrians and the Egyptians break through again as they did in 1973, or should any Arab nation fire missiles again at Israel, as Iraq did, a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a last resort, would now be a strong probability. Never again.
The Samson Option is no longer the only nuclear option available to Israel.