Israel’s nuclear hypocrisy

When Mordechai Vanunu, a humble Israeli technician who worked for years at Israel’s secret nuclear site at Dimona, spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons in 1986, very bad things happened to him.


He was lured from safety in England for an Italian holiday by a woman who was an Israeli secret agent, drugged and kidnapped from Italy by other Israeli agents, and imprisoned for 18 years (11 of them in solitary confinement).

When Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, said last month that Israel has both nuclear and chemical weapons (you know, like the nuclear weapons that Iran must not have and the chemical weapons that Syria must give up), nothing bad happened to him at all. He is protected by the Important Persons Act, the unwritten law that gets powerful and well-connected people off the hook in every country.

They didn’t even go after Burg when he said that Israel’s long-standing policy of “nondisclosure (never confirm or deny that it has nukes) was outdated and childish”. But even 10 years after Vanunu finished serving his long jail sentence, he is not allowed to leave Israel, go near any foreign embassy, airport or border crossing, or speak to any journalist or foreigner.

Vanunu defies the Israeli authorities and speaks to whomever he pleases, of course. But he really can’t get out of the country, though he desperately wants to leave, and his decision to live like a free man gives his watchers the pretext to yank his chain by arresting him whenever they feel like it.

The Israeli government’s excuse for all this is that he may still know secrets he might reveal, but that is nonsense. Vanunu hasn’t seen Dimona or talked to anybody in the Israeli nuclear weapons business for 30 years.

What drives his tormentors is sheer vindictiveness, and he may well go on being punished for his defiance until he dies — while lives out his life undisturbed and offers occasional pearls of wisdom to the public.

So here are the “secrets” that Vanunu and Burg revealed, in rather more detail than Burg chose to give and in a more up-to-date form than Vanunu could give from personal knowledge.

Israel has a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 400 nuclear weapons, those limits being based on calculations of the amount of fissile material that it has enriched to weapons grade. The best guess is that the total is around 200 warheads, most of them two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs).

At least some dozens are “tactical” weapons designed to be fired by 175 mm and 203 mm artillery pieces at ranges of 40 to 70 kms. The remainder are meant to be delivered by missiles or aircraft, and Israel maintains a full “triad” of delivery systems: land-based missiles, sea-launched missiles and aircraft.

The missiles are mostly Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Europe and most of western Asia. Since 2008 Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have also been entering service, with a range that would allow Israel to strike any inhabited point on the planet except some Pacific islands. Both can carry a one-megaton warhead.

Why such remarkably long ranges, when Israel’s avowed enemies are all relatively close to hand? One speculation is that this is meant to encourage caution in other nuclear states (Pakistan? North Korea?) that might, at some future time, be tempted to supply nuclear weapons to Israel’s near enemies.

The maritime leg of the triad is highly accurate cruise missiles that are launched from underwater by Israel’s German-built Dolphin-class submarines. These missiles constitute Israel’s “secure second-strike” capability, since it is extremely unlikely that even the most successful enemy surprise attack could locate and destroy the submarines. And finally, there are American-made F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft that can also carry nuclear bombs.

Israel probably tested its bomb in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 in co-operation with apartheid South Africa, which was also developing nuclear weapons (subsequently dismantled) at that time. The test was carried out under cover of a storm to escape satellite surveillance, but a rift in the cloud cover revealed the characteristic double flash of a nuclear explosion to an American satellite, Vela 6911.

This was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbids open-air nuclear tests, but the United States did not pursue the matter, presumably in order not to embarrass Israel.

The United States did not help Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place (France did that), and even now Washington does not really approve of Israel’s nukes, although it tolerates them in the interest of the broader alliance. But why, after all these years, does Israel still refuse to acknowledge that it has them?

The only plausible answer is: to avoid embarrassing the United States in ways that would make it restrict its arms exports to Israel. But realistically, how likely is that to happen? The US Congress will ensure that Israel goes on getting all the money and arms it wants no matter what it says about its nukes, and it is high time to end this ridiculous dance around the truth.

Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.

4 thoughts on “Israel’s nuclear hypocrisy”

  1. wamaromo says:

    I think Israel has all the rights to defend itself. In most of the stories I read about the gulf crisis nowhere is it mentioned Israel as the aggressor. may be to be helped has there evr been a country called Palestine and Arabs just want to create it? We can follow Israel’s history but I have tried to follow Palestinian History I can’t find it where it says its a country. Someone said and I quote’ If Israel puts down its weapons there will be no Israel, If Arabs put down their weapons there will be peace in the Middle East” I think Palestinians should just accept the authority of the government of Israel and the Arab world respect that because I don’t think Israel will stop palestinians from praying Allah or follow their Islam religion. We hear of Holy Wars as if the people who are fighting the war are holy, holy to who. Kids are indocrinated from birth and hey a small boy can throw a stone like a missile.

  2. Charles Frizell says:

    Well, well, well. It makes my blood run cold to think of religious fundamentalists who think that “dying is good” having nuclear weapons. Pakistan is bad enough. And if you think about it, most of the violence in the world is actually Muslims killing Muslims.

  3. simon ncube shoko says:

    We all know Israel was created in 1948. To create the state Arabs/Palestinians were thrown out of the country: it was a racist operation! Yes I agree that the two sides should live side by side . What I cant understand is the shear cruelty on both sides. If indeed Hitler killed so may Jews why are they so cruel. Just imagine the Palestinian farmers being thrown off their land to make way for Jewish homes! I think this bad .

  4. says:

    Israel was never created by anyone because it was there before 1948,way back for that matter then you need to search what happened to israelites then and their displacements,1948 was the return of jews to their promised land .where were these so called palesitinians then ?aven the bibles tells you about all the places israel is reclaiming from colonialists ,palestines and them should sought themselves or else ……………………..

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