Rutland Herald and Montpelier(Barre) Times Argus

Sunday December 8th, 2013


Why is the world seemingly willing to go to war to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - while it is perfectly happy to accept Israel’s nuclear weapons?

It is a relevant question posed in a thoughtful Washington Post Oped this past week by Max Fisher. 

Fisher writes, “Of course, many Westerners would likely argue that Israel’s weapons are morally and historically defensible…..both because of Israel’s roots in the Holocaust and because it fought a series of defensive wars against its neighbors.”  But as Fisher himself notes, Israel’s neighbors are not comforted by that rationale. 

The new state of Israel came into being, at the dawn of the nuclear age. And the Israeli nuclear program is a product of the fears of its founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. According to Avner Cohen’s authoritative book, ‘Israel and the Bomb’, Ben-Gurion decided after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 in which it had to fight off both the Egyptian and Jordanian armies, that his country’s survival required a massive military deterrent- namely nuclear weapons. But at that moment in history Israel had neither the friends nor the wherewithal to make that happen.


Until August 29th, 1949 the United States was the sole nuclear power. That was the date on which the Soviet Union joined the club, although President Harry Truman waited nearly a month to announce that fact, and when he did it was also to commit America to building a far more powerful thermonuclear device that would make the bomb dropped on Hiroshima seem like a fire cracker.  This was not a time in which the United States was eager to be sharing nuclear secrets- even with its friends. The British, who had been partners in the Manhattan Project, didn’t get their first nuclear device until 1952. The French, only in 1960.


But in the 1950’s, a very young protégé of Ben- Gurion’s was already making a significant French connection. As the Deputy Director General of Defense, Shimon Peres was sent to Paris to join the planning for the joint French- British- Israeli Invasion of Suez of October 1956. That turned out be a fiasco and President Dwight Eisenhower was furious at all three for keeping this secret from him.  Either in spite of, or because of the “Suez Crisis,” Peres was able to persuade the French to become Israel’s main weapons supplier - and eventually to help Israel create its own nuclear program. As Princeton scholar Gary Bass wrote several years ago,” the relationship only grew warmer when Charles de Gaulle, the World War II hero, took over as French president in 1959. He recognized the historic justice of a Jewish ‘national homeland’ which he saw, ‘as some compensation for suffering endured through the long ages’ and he heaped praise on David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime Minister as one of the ‘greatest leaders of the West’”. 

 About the same time France began testing its own nuclear device in 1960, an Israeli bomb was in its infancy in a secret plutonium nuclear reactor in the Israeli city of Dimona on the edge of the Negev desert, thanks to the French.  

The Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations all pressed Israel for information about its nuclear program. As a Max Fisher describes it, even when U.S. intelligence did finally discovered the Dimona plant, “Israeli leaders insisted this was for peaceful purposes only and that they were not interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon. Quite simply, they were lying, and for years resisted and stalled U.S. backed nuclear inspectors sent to the facility.”  

The end of the French connection with Israel and the beginning of the American one, came quite dramatically as the result of the 1967 Middle East War.

A few days before Israel’s pre-emptive strike, which was provoked by threatening moves by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, de Gaulle publicly warned the Israelis to avoid hostilities and he imposed a temporary arms embargo on the region. As the Israelis were entirely armed by the French this might have hurt them, but the embargo did not involve spare parts and the war was over in six days - in large part because of the aerial victory won by the Israeli Air Force flying French made Mirages and Mysteres combat jets. Nevertheless unlike de Gaulle, in this fight President Lyndon Johnson had provided Israel both military and diplomatic support. 

Six months later, President de Gaulle used his annual news conference to lecture the Israelis for their conduct in the newly occupied Arab territories and urged a speedy withdraw.  And then he dropped this bombshell when he referred to the Jewish people as “an elite, sure of themselves, and domineering.” While de Gaulle could easily have been describing himself, his remarks were widely interpreted as anti- Semitic.

Today’s American historians tend to see de Gaulle’s shift as grandstanding for the Arabs. Perhaps. But based in France at the time, and having covered the ‘67 war, I heard his words as those of a proud old man, angry that his warnings had been ignored by those he’d so generously befriended.  I also felt he may have feared that Israel was now moving into Washington’s orbit- and so into the camp of dreaded Anglo-Saxons. Remember, also at that time de Gaulle had expelled NATO’s military command from France, rejected British membership in the European Common Market– and had gone to Montreal to urge “liberty” and “freedom” for French Canadians. To understand de Gaulle one had to realize the Anglo-Saxons were forever, France’s historical adversaries.

The CIA concluded in 1968 that Israel had the bomb. (It now may have as many as 400 warheads and the missiles, planes and submarines to deliver them.)  And within a year then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir made a secret agreement with President Richard Nixon that Israel would neither openly test nor publicly speak of its nuclear capabilities - while the United States would implicitly accept Israel’s nukes with its silence. That deal pretty much holds true to this day.

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