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.”
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
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.