Israel – atom bomb program 1

Travel 50 miles southeast of Beersheva  and you’ll reach groves of palms and gardens,  specially planted to conceal Israel’s  “worst-kept secret” – the Dimona nuclear  installation, home to Israel’s “bomb in the  basement” project that currently employs  about 2,700 scientists and workers. 

After the Holocaust, Jews felt that any  measure was justified to prevent a similar  recurrence. Consequently, they were motivated  to consider the nuclear option. By  5709/1949, Israeli scientists were already  scouring the Negev for uranium reserves,  without success. All they found were lowgrade  deposits near Sidon and Beersheva.  However, three years later, Israel founded  the Israel Atomic Energy Commission  (IAEC), under the control of the Defense  Ministry.

The commission was headed by the father  of Israel’s bomb, the brilliant German  refugee, Ernst David Bergman (5663/1903 –  5735/1975), who had rejected a prestigious  position at Oxford University in order to  immigrate to Palestine before World War II.  Bergman was convinced that a bomb was the  best insurance policy and would compensate  for Israel’s poor natural resources and tiny  army. The bomb’s “political stepfathers”  were David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres,  who pulled political strings to get the project  started.

Soon after the founding of the state,  Chaim Weizmann sent six of the country’s  most promising young scientists to study  nuclear physics in America and Europe. A  joint research effort was set up with France,  whose scientists had helped America build  the bomb and now began passing on their  know-how to Israel. When France begged  Israel’s assistance in the upcoming Sinai  Campaign of 5717/1956, Israel made a deal.  In return, France would help Israel build a  nuclear reactor. The details were hammered  out at a secret meeting near Paris.

France was eager to offer its assistance  because Egypt was helping rebels, who were  ousting France from Algeria. Also, America  had barred certain nuclear-related computer  technology from France, which France now  hoped to obtain via Israel.

In 5718/1958, hundreds of French engineers  and technicians arrived in the Negev  and began construction of Israel’s first  nuclear facility at a price tag of $75 million,  eight miles from the tiny Sefardi settlement  of Dimona. Israel gave a number of excuses  for the frenzied activity, claiming that the  place was a textile plant, an agricultural station  or a metallurgical research faculty.

But America became suspicious after U2  reconnaissance planes brought back photos  of railway lines, chimneys, vast concrete  workshops and, most incriminating of all, the  project’s huge, ball-shaped reactor dome. In  5720/1960, the Central Intelligence Agency  (CIA) informed President Eisenhower that  Israel had a reactor capable of turning out  enough fissionable material to produce 1.2  nuclear weapons a year. Two weeks later, the  whole world learned the secret after London’s  Daily Express announced, “British and  American intelligence authorities believe  that the Israelis are well on their way to  building their first nuclear bomb.” 

To appease the world, David Ben-Gurion  stood up in the Knesset and told a blatant lie,  promising that the complex “is designed  exclusively for peaceful purposes” and  “would serve only the needs of industry,  agriculture, health and science.” Three years  later, Shimon Peres reiterated to President  Kennedy that Israel “will not introduce  nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly  will not be the first.”

But if these assertions were true, why was  Dimona the most secret installation in Israel,  and why were even Knesset members barred  from visiting the site?

Ever since then, Israel has never admitted  to possessing nuclear weapons and that is  why the government was in a frenzy after  Dimona employee, Mordechai Vanunu,  leaked the secret to the London Sunday  Times in 5746/1986. As the recently published  book, Israel and the Bomb, explains,

“Opacity has been successful in Israeli eyes,  allowing Israel to enjoy a regional nuclear  monopoly without incurring the political  cost of possessing nuclear weapons. This  brought many Arabs to the realization that  the conflict could not be settled by military  means, but only through negotiation.’’  In other words, Israel had the best of both  worlds. On the one hand, it possessed an  affective deterrent against its hostile neighbors,  while its official denials have fended  off American pressure to join the Nuclear  Non-Proliferation Treaty and to open its  facilities to international inspectors.

All this time, America has benignly turned  a half-blind eye to the situation, allowing  Israel to trick American inspectors who  inspected the place seven times in the 5720s/1960s, by installing false control panels,  concealing access to hidden underground  floors and bricking over elevators which led  to the secret underground plutonium reprocessing  plant. America accepted the inspectors’  report that there was no evidence of  “weapons-related activities” with barely a  complaint.

In fact, it is claimed that Walworth Barbour,  the US ambassador to Israel in the  5720s/1960s, who regarded it as part of his  job to insulate the President from overembarrassing  facts, allegedly said, “The  President did not send me there to give him  problems. He does not want to be told any  bad news.” According to Israel and the  Bomb, Israel and Washington reached an  agreement in 5730/1970, that Washington  would look the other way so long as Israel  kept a low profile and did not conduct  nuclear tests.

The reactor went critical in 5724/1964,  and soon afterwards, Israel became the sixth  nation to produce nuclear weapons. In fact, it  was widely reported that Israel had enough  plutonium to cobble together two working  atom bombs just before the 5727/1967 Six-  Day War. Allegedly, Prime Minister Levi  Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel’s first  nuclear alert. During that war, the Israelis  were so jittery about the reactor’s security  that they shot down some of their own  Mirage fighters that had strayed over  Dimona’s airspace. 

Immediately after the Six-Day War,  Israel’s nuclear program fell into crisis when  President Charles de Gaulle of France  became highly critical of Israeli policies and  imposed an arms embargo. To produce  enough Plutonium-239 for even one bomb  required almost 20 tons of uranium and  Israel wanted to build about a dozen. France  would not supply anymore and no other  country wanted to be accused of being  Israel’s accomplice. The only alternative was  to acquire the uranium by stealth. The  Mossad was handed the job of procuring 200  tons of uranium, the minimum required to  build up an affective nuclear deterrent, while  simultaneously, not leaving a shred of evidence.  It was decided to buy the uranium through  a third party in Europe where nuclear safeguards  were loose, and to have it sent 4,000  miles overseas to Israel in a project codenamed  Operation Plumbat, which means  lead.

The company chosen to buy Israel’s uranium  was the Asmara Chemical Company,  run by two Germans, Herbert Scharf and  Herbert Schulzen, the latter being as an ex-  Luftwaffe man, jokingly nicknamed “The  Nazi Pilot” by Mossad agents. Schulzen was  overjoyed with the deal, which was the  biggest his tiny company had ever handled  since its inception. He happily placed an  order for the uranium with the Belgium company,  Societe Generale des Minerais (SGM)  in Brussels, claiming that Asmara needed the  uranium as a chemical catalyst, but first  needed to ship it to Italy to be refined.  SGM had a small mountain of uranium  oxide imported from the Congo and was  eager to get rid of it. Because all the countries  involved were inside the European Economic  Community, Euratom, Europe’s  nuclear watchdog, gave the project the go  ahead.

Meanwhile, a fake corporation purchased  a worn-out German-built cargo boat, the  Scheersburg, for about $160,000 and registered  it under the Liberian flag.

In November 5729/1968, 200 tons of uranium  oxide, called “yellowcake” as it is the  color of egg yolk and the consistency of  sand, was loaded onto the Scheersburg,  renamed the Scheersburg A in Antwerp and  the ship set out for the high seas. However,  instead of heading up the Italian coast, the  ship continued eastward to Israel. Because  agents of Lloyd’s Insurance Company of  London record every ship arriving in harbor,  the Scheersburg A could not actually dock in  Israel. Instead, it was met on the high seas by  an Israeli freighter protected by two gunboats.  There, the drums of uranium were  pulled out of the hold and swung across onto  the freighter. The Israeli freighter then proceeded  to Israel while the Scheersburg A  continued to a Turkish port. 

It was months before the inept Euratom  agency realized that anything had gone  wrong. Five months of wasted time and poor  investigation passed until Euratom discovered  that the uranium never arrived in Italy  and, when Euratom demanded to know who  bought the uranium from the Asmara company,  they received an attorney’s letter in  return, warning that Euratom’s charter  expressly forbade the invasion of commercial  confidentially. Thus, Euratom was told  that the identity of Asmara’s client was none  of its business.

With this Belgian Congo uranium, Israel  built a small arsenal of bombs in time for the  5734/1973 Yom Kippur War.

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