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Israel's Nuclear Weapons (2) - 2004-07-22

The combined French, British, Israeli attack on Suez in 1956 ended in failure and retreat. The Israelis seized the Sinai peninsula, but were forced to withdraw after the Soviets threatened a nuclear response.

That decided the Israelis. They needed nuclear weapons, and France, embarrassed by the setback, was glad to help with supplies and technicians. The secret operation at Dimona in the Negev desert was under way and producing nuclear weapons by the late 1960's.

In those years, notes a report by the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, an insecure Israel sought protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. It was not granted, says the author, Colonel Warner Farr, and the United States lost a chance to prevent Israel from going nuclear.

Today it is another matter with Israel having the only nuclear weapons in the region as well as the strongest conventional forces. There is, for better or worse, no countervailing power. That's as it should be, says Louis Rene Beres, a leading authority on Israel's nuclear weapons. Are they essential for Israel's security?

"Utterly, existentially required. I believe firmly that in the absence of Israel's nuclear arsenal the generally genocidal attitudes in the Arab and Iranian worlds would translate into massive conventional attacks."

Mr. Beres is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and chairman of Project Daniel, a group that has recently issued a report, "Israel's Strategic Future," which warns of the spread of nuclear weapons:

"There is always the fear that the Pakistani weapons might get into the hands of more front-line foes of Israel. The purpose of Project Daniel, among other things, is to advise the prime minister not to allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of any Arab state or Iran."

That brings up the matter of preemption, crucial for Israel's survival, says Professor Beres. He cites the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq's nuclear installation before it became active:

"When Israel destroyed the Osirik nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad before it went on line, it saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans who would otherwise have died facing nuclear weapons in the 1991 Gulf War. We believe a conventional, non-nuclear preemption by Israel would be preferable, if necessary, to sitting back and allowing Arab and/or Iranian nuclear weapons."

The Osirik attack was less than it seems, contends Joseph Cirincione, director of nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He doubts it sets a useful precedent for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, as some propose:

"That strike was not effective. It simply drove the program underground, and in fact, Saddam expanded the program after 1981 to produce a program that had several thousand people working for it by 1991. And Iran's facilities are much more dispersed, much more comprehensive than Iraq's were." Professor Beres does not rule out a preemptive attack on Iran, but concedes the difficulties:

"It would be advisable if it got to a certain stage, although operationally and tactically, a preemptive attack which we call anticipatory self-defense under international law would likely be much more difficult against pertinent Iranian targets today than it was against Iraqi targets on June seventh 1981."

"Mr. Cirincione says the repercussions of a raid on Iran would be huge both for Israel and the United States. He adds there is no guarantee Arab nations would not continue to try to go nuclear:

"Even if Iran can be convinced not to go ahead with its nuclear program, the long-term pressures are just unstoppable that sooner or later countries are going to acquire those nuclear weapons. Israel might be presented with not just one but two, three, maybe four countries in the region with nuclear weapons." That is why Israel should work toward a nuclear free zone, says Mr. Cirincione. And that, responds Professor Beres, would be the end of Israel:

"If Israel were ever to accede to a Middle Eastern nuclear weapon free zone, it might wind up being the only country without nuclear weapons. The Arab states in the region and Iran would surely continue to violate this expectation, as they have others. This would be virtually a suicidal step by Israel."

Only in a situation of complete trust could Israel surrender its nuclear weapons, and that surely does not exist at present, says Professor Beres. Mr. Cirincione agrees Israelis are under great pressure:

"They feel insecure, and even though nuclear weapons do nothing to protect them against suicide bombers, they still are very hesitant to give up any military capability in the current situation. So the only way to bring about a weapons free Middle East is really simultaneously to address the regional issues, including resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

This is a challenging agenda, says Mr. Cirincione, but not as daunting as going to war.