The political power of Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear arsenal

One of the key photos that Mordechai Vanunu took, of a control room in Dimona

Helena Cobban

Mondoweiss  /  August 18, 2022

Palestinians suffer from the effects of Israel’s nuclear-weapons blackmail every day of their lives.

All this month, representatives of the 191 states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are meeting in New York for the tenth of the “Review Conferences” they regularly hold to assess the effectiveness of this creaking, 52-year-old treaty. The last RevCon, held in 2015, ended in a deadlocked failure—because the U.S. delegate refused to let the other conferees hold Israel accountable for its decades-long flouting of the world’s non-proliferation rules. In other words, the Obama administration, like every U.S. administration since JFK, refused to do anything that might publicize or challenge Israel’s possession of a large arsenal of very advanced and destructive nuclear weapons.

Might Washington’s shielding of Israel’s nuclear arsenal be repeated at this year’s NPT RevCon, and might it yet again lead to the failure of the RevCon to produce any meaningful results? That’s a distinct possibility, but don’t expect the titans of the corporate media to be reporting this significant story any time soon. By common agreement, the barons of the corporate media adhere almost wholly to a strict vow of omertà regarding any news about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Their longstanding practice has been to keep the attention of their readers and viewers focused elsewhere: either on the possibility that Iran might edge closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon, or on “threats” from a range of non-nuclear weapons around the region, primarily alleged chemical-weapons threats in Iraq, or Syria, or wherever.

One tiny recent exception to the vow of omertà was last year’s NYT op-ed by Peter Beinart, “America needs to start telling the truth about Israel’s nukes.” Apart from that, crickets.

Israel put its first Hiroshima-style, nuclear- fission weapons together in 1967. It had benefited from technological help from the French government and from other actors in Norway and the United States. Less than two decades later, Israel had developed the ability to build a large number of the much more destructive thermonuclear type of weapon. We know that, because in 1986 nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu heroically blew the whistle on what he and his colleagues had been doing at Israel’s main nuclear facility in Dimona.

Based on the information that Vanunu provided, the British nuclear-weapons expert Frank Barnaby concluded that at that point, “Israel could produce about 7 nuclear weapons a year and may now have well over 100.” Barnaby added that Vanunu’s evidence about Dimona “implies that Israel has thermonuclear weapons.”

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, U.S. presidents made some (usually half-hearted) attempts to get Israel to join the NPT. But the Israelis always refused. If they had joined, they would have had to make an open declaration as to whether they were a nuclear-weapons state or not. The obligations on states that are members of the treaty are different for nuclear-weapons “haves” and “have-nots.” Crucially, the “have-not” states have to submit to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, of all the facilities they have for peaceful nuclear purposes—nuclear power, research, medical-related devices, etc—to ensure that all weapons-capable nuclear materials are carefully safeguarded and accounted for, and that none gets diverted to weapons development.

Did you know that Iran has been a member in good standing of the NPT since 1970, whereas Israel has never joined it? If you did know that already, you are in a tiny minority of Americans! And you almost certainly didn’t learn these facts from the corporate media, which goes to great lengths to obfuscate this essential point.

One of the main ways in which, for over more than 30 years now, the media have cloaked the essential fact of Israel’s scofflaw status is, as noted above, by diverting the attention of readers interested in the Middle East to claims about the much vaguer, more amorphous category of “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” WMDs. That’s a category that includes nuclear weapons—but along with chemical and biological weapons, as though all those types of weapons have roughly the same kinds of (mass) destructive effects.

That is not the case. Chemical and biological weapons have horrible effects, it is true. Thousands of people in the trenches of WW-I were killed, blinded, or maimed by them. Saddam Hussein used (U.S.-supplied) CWs to horrible effect against Kurdish villages in the north of Iraq in the mid-1980s. (And did you know that the best-documented case of biological weapon use in the Middle East was their use by Zionist militias in Acre, in 1948?)

But all those terrible types of harm pale into insignificance compared to the damage that even one, very “primitive” nuclear bomb can have. The one single atomic bomb the U.S. Air Force dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 created a firestorm that engulfed the city and ended up killing 200,000 people. Some died instantly and some over the months and years of often excruciating pain.

In the early 1950s, the United States started developing thermonuclear bombs, in which a small, Hiroshima-type bomb is used just as a trigger for the much larger “nuclear fusion” explosion that can have the destructive power of up to a thousand Hiroshimas. In just one bomb. That is the kind of bomb whose existence in some numbers in Israel’s arsenal was revealed by Mordechai Vanunu.

There is another reason, in addition to the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons, why at the level of most global arms-control or disarmament efforts nuclear weapons are addressed separately from all other types of weapons, including chemical and biological weapons. That is because all the states that have nuclear weapons—of which there are currently nine—find they have to develop “doctrines” for using them that place all these nine nuclear arsenals on, essentially, a status of hair-trigger alert that can all too easily catapult all the world’s nuclear powers into a political-nuclear chain reaction that would speedily destroy all human life on earth.

By contrast, in none of the many known cases of the use of biological or chemical weapons did their use lead to any unstoppable “chain reaction,” or not in the same way the nuclear weapons doctrines of all the nine existing nuclear-weapons states predictably would.

This clear distinction between the effects (both destructive and globally chained) of nuclear-weapons use and those of the use of any other kind of weapons found today long ago led to a clear separation between efforts to control or dismantle nuclear arsenals and efforts to control or dismantle any other kinds of weapons. Hence, back in the Cold War we had all those nuclear arms-control agreements concluded between Washington and Moscow. And hence, globally, we had the NPT and now—much more recently and hopefully—the worldwide Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW, which came into force just last year.

Parallel to those efforts, but always separate, there were also international efforts to control or eliminate chemical weapons, biological weapons, land-mines, and so on.

Additionally, at the global level, there are now five good, formal treaties whose signatories have created Nuclear Weapons Free Zones in five different portions of the earth’s surface: in Latin America and the Caribbean (1969), in the South Pacific (1986), in ASEAN (1997), Central Asia (2009), and all of Africa (2009).

The U.S.-dominated United Nations has given robust support to the creation of these NWFZs. But how about those portions of West Asia that include Israel and its neighbors, you may ask? Nah. There is no NWFZ for that region. Because– well, I’m sure you can guess why there is no Middle East NWFZ…

But the story gets more interesting, too.

The 1970 NPT, as I noted above, placed different obligations between those states that joined it as nuclear-weapons states, of which there are five, and all the other members of the treaty. But in Article VI of the treaty, all the members vowed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to… nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The NPT also had an initially agreed term of 25 years, after which, its members agreed, they would convene a special conference to decide whether to extend its term.

When they held this meeting in 1995, a vast majority of the treaty’s 150-plus members noted that the five nuclear “have” states had done nothing effective to move towards nuclear disarmament. And a vast majority of the member-states also noted that Washington, which by then was clearly the world’s strong hegemon, had done nothing to meet the concerns that many of them had long voiced regarding Israel’s nuclear scofflawry. So after much haggling on the conference floor, the majority of NPT members agreed to extend the term of the NPT indefinitely—provided the NPT also support the creation of a “Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East.”

You can see how this proposal, for a clunkily named “ZFWMD” in the Middle East, already differed clearly from the NWFZ projects that were by then starting to spread in other parts of the world. But even with that concession to the Israeli-U.S. desire to obfuscate the role of nuclear weapons, over the 27 years since 1995 the United States has continued to block the implementation even of any plan to work for a Middle Eastern ZFWMD. And at each of the four NPT RevCons held since 1995, the failure to make any progress on this issue has been a bone of increasing contention among the NPT delegations.

As it still is, this year.

At an extremely lame online “event” that the UN hosted on the issue in early August, the most the participants could come up with was a complex “infographic” about all the still-differing “narratives” regarding the ZFWMD proposal.

Israel is committing so many terrible atrocities, on a daily and continuing basis, against Palestinians inside historic Palestine and far beyond. Why should we worry, additionally, about its arsenal of nuclear weapons? There are two main reasons, I think. The first is the ability this arsenal gives Israeli leaders to use nuclear blackmail against many of the world’s states—including, crucially, the United States.

Bill Quandt and other former U.S. national-security officials have talked clearly about the way that, in arms negotiations with Washington, Israeli officials have been prepared to use arguments along the lines of, “if you don’t give us X, Y, or Z version of an advanced fighter jet, then we might have to base our military planning on something less conventional.

There are also a number of other scenarios, especially those involving large-scale regional crises, in which the merest reference by Israel’s leaders to their ability to trigger a global nuclear-war chain reaction would serve either to compel other actors (including the United States) to act in a certain way, or to deter them from acting in other ways.

This fact of Israel’s ability to use nuclear blackmail for either compellence or “deterrence” needs to be clearly understood by anyone studying the country’s role in the global system—and not just within the Middle East. In Washington and elsewhere, military planners have long had a clear understanding of Israel’s ability to make its own decisions regarding the use or deployment of nuclear weapons, including decisions that might jerk the whole world into a nuclear confrontation. There is an instructive parallel here with France, which kept control of its powerful nuclear force de frappe (strike force) outside of NATO’s central military planning process until 2009, precisely in order to allow Paris more independence in its decision-making. (The same France, that is, that back in the 1950s gave Israel essential help in building its first nukes.)

Another reason to understand the nuclear dimension of Israel’s position in the world is the hypocrisy and outright lying with which this topic is treated at every level of U.S. public discourse.

This hypocrisy is always worth noting and exposing. It is a prime example of the “Israel exception” to just about all the rule-books followed by anyone in the Western political elite. Imagine if the editorial boards of The Washington Post, the NYT, NPR, or any of the TV networks devoted even one-tenth as much space to covering Israel’s large and super-destructive nuclear arsenal as they do to the latest breathless “exposés” about Iran’s (IAEA-inspected) nuclear facilities, or to claims about alleged “WMD” facilities in Iraq, back in the day (before all those claims were roundly disproven in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion), or to claims about chemical weapons in Syria.

Imagine if, every time there is a news report about the JCPOA—the 2015 “nuclear deal” with Iran, from which Pres. Trump abruptly exited in 2017—the reporter or commentator would also routinely remind viewers or readers that there is only one nuclear-weapons state in the Middle East (Israel) and that it (unlike Iran) is not even a member of the NPT.

Imagine if members of Congress who claim to be concerned about the global proliferation of nuclear weapons were to form a committee tasked with investigating the situation in Israel and demand that, to investigate these dangers, they intend to conduct their own inspection of Dimona and all of Israel’s other nuclear facilities!

Well, this last hypothetical is not going to happen any time soon. But that should not prevent any of us who care about Palestinian rights and are determined to counter Hasbara from raising this issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal at every possible opportunity.

If we let Israel and its vast cohorts of apologists in the West get away with lying to us repeatedly about Israel’s large and dangerous nuclear arsenal, then what else will we let them lie about?

Ever since the United States was the first—and only—state ever to use nuclear weapons in war, in August 1945, these apocalyptic devices have been a key ingredient of imperial power. Today, nine states have nuclear arsenals. Of these nine, China and India have made formal pledges that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict—that is, that they built and are keeping their arsenals only to retaliate if another state has used nukes against them first. The rest—including the United States and Israel—retain the option of using their nuclear arsenals even against opponents who have not used nukes against them first.

For its part, Israel long ago adopted the too-cute-by-half locution that it “will not be the first country in the Middle East to formally introduce nuclear weapons into the region.” But the country’s leaders have never been prepared to explain what they mean by “introduce.”

Mordechai Vanunu’s story is one that is both heroic and sad. It needs to be known and be told as often as those of other persecuted whistleblowers like Julian Assange or Ed Snowden. As we know, empires can be ruthlessly cruel to those who spill their most closely-guarded secrets.

Meanwhile, people in the Palestinian-rights movement should also be working to strengthen their links with the broad nuclear-ban movement that has erupted so successfully onto the world scene over the past decade. This movement has been led by many of the governments of the Global South that have chafed for more than half a century under the discriminatory, apartheid-like structure of the NPT. They’ve acted in concert with a smart, savvy civil-society network called the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and with two states in Europe that remained determinedly neutral between “east” and “west” throughout the Cold War, and until today—Ireland and Austria.

ICAN was established in 2006 and built on worldwide anti-nuclear networks established back during the Cold War. Then, in 2015, when that year’s NPT RevCon failed to make any substantive headway– because of, mainly, the ever-sensitive Israel issue—leaders of Global South nations, ICAN, and their allies decided to focus instead on building the treaty for the prohibition of all nuclear weapons.

They succeeded in concluding this treaty with remarkable speed. At a large gathering in the U.N. headquarters in July 2017, delegates from scores of countries agreed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). By the end of that year more than 50 governments had signed it. And then, in January 2021, the fiftieth government had also ratified the treaty, and that brought the treaty into full force among all its members. Since then, the number of full member states has risen to 66.

As of now (no surprise here) none of the nine states have nuclear weapons has signed the TPNW. But this global nuclear-ban movement is one that Palestinians and their allies should be enthusiastically joining—and helping to lead.

Palestinians suffer from the effects of Israel’s nuclear-weapons blackmail every day of their lives. In today’s world, nuclear weapons are an essential pillar of imperial control. If imperial control is to be dismantled, then so too must the nuclear arsenals that protect it.

Our organization, Just World Educational, has been producing a lot of materials on the urgency of banning nuclear weapons. You can check it out on our website here or here. Or you can follow our Instagram account, which offers a stream of info about the nuclear issue, the Palestinian issue—and their intersection. Check it out now!

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books