The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal & American Foreign Policy

Last fall during the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Pillar of Defense, Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, exclaimed “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods  in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima  – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.” This call for nuclear slaughter received little, if any, attention in the major press in the United States. President Obama instead condemned Hamas for shooting rockets into Israel, saying “no country would accept missiles raining down on its population.” The scant attention paid to Sharon’s statement, along with president Obama’s hypocritical refusal to condemn the Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza, is consistent with the policies of previous administrations. In fact, Sharon’s wish to “flatten” Gaza like Nagasaki was not a crazed statement made in the heat of the moment. It was a rearticulation of US-Israeli policy that goes back decades.

Seymour Hersh’s masterful analysis of US foreign policy and the Israeli nuclear arsenal, The Samson Option, explores, in great detail, the roots of this policy. Borrowed from the Biblical narrative of Samson who, after being captured and tortured by the Phillistines, “pushed apart the temple pillars,” and “[killed] himself and his enemies”, Hersh describes how the Israeli nuclear bomb was developed as a weapon to kill its “enemies”, mainly its Arab neighbors. Lies and criminality played a dominant role in the development of Israel’s nuclear program. French scientists, working for the French Atomic Energy Committee, were instrumental in constructing the Dimona nuclear facility located in the Negev desert. Cold war motivations drove Israel to steal reconnaisance intelligence gathered by US satellite technology and use this intelligence to target the Soviet Union.

Various illicit means were used improve the production capacity of the Dimona facility. Take for instance the seizure of 20 kilotons of Norwegian “heavy water” in violation of an agreement between the French and Norwegians that such material would not be shared with other countries. Hersh also details how the Isreali government, under the leadership of Manachem Begin, carried out a joint nuclear weapons test with South Africa in 1979. At the time South Africa was a strong ally of Israel that also supplied the country with uranium ore. Throughout this period the US maintained a policy of silence, what an internal state department memo called “stilling the atmosphere”, and recycled Ben Gurion’s line that there was no Israeli bomb or the nuclear program was “for peaceful purposes”, contrary to a voluminous record of US photographic intelligence. This historical fact clarifies maybe the most interesting component of Hersh’s study, namely its usefulness as a source to expose the hypocrisy of the US-Israeli stance toward the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Since its drafting in 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was never considered as a serious policy document by the Israeli government. President Lyndon Johnson attempted to sell Israel 50 F-4 fighter jets in return for their compliance with the treaty. Israel refused.

More revealing, Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion rejected IAEA inspections of Isreali nuclear facilities on the ground that such an inspection was a “violation of Israel’s sovereignty”. Instead US-led inspections were carried out by Floyd Culler, a nuclear reprocessing expert from Tennessee. Culler was subjected to the most outrageous forms of deception which included the construction of a fake control room to conceal the true contents of the facility. Iran, on the other hand, has long been a signatory of the NPT and allowed IAEA inspectors into their facilities despite unsubstantiated speculations that the facilities are “sanitized”. If Ahmadinejad were to adopt the principle of Ben Gurion, that IAEA inspections constitute a “violation of sovereignty,” there is little chance it will be given the same level of seriousness, if any.

Hersh also provides a extensive review of the trials of Mordecai Vanunu, a nuclear technician who released photographs from inside the Dimona facility to the UK-based Sunday Times. One cannot help but notice how Vanunu’s punishment at the hands of the Israeli government (18 years in a maximum security prison) is instructive in understanding the punishment Bradley Manning faced for allegedly leaking intelligence to Wikileaks. Though the cases differ radically they illustrate the repressive measures states take to keep the public in the dark when it comes to confronting state crimes. In this respect, The Samson Option is a essential read for anyone who wishes to have an informed discussion about US-complicity in nuclear proliferation. Without this crucial history, there is little chance we can understand the deeper meaning of US foreign policy and its portents for future generations. In the epilogue of the book Hersh states “American’s policy toward the Israeli arsenal . . . was not just one of benign neglect: it was conscious policy of ignoring reality”. “Ignoring reality,”  remains a key policy choice on the eve of president Obama’s second term, another prescription for suicide not unlike the fate of Samson.   



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