The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Option and American Foreign Policy

By Killgore, Andrew | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 31, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Option and American Foreign Policy


Killgore, Andrew, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Option and American Foreign Policy

The Book of Judges says the Philistines blinded Samson and made sport of him in Gaza. In revenge, he pulled down their temple, killing perhaps 3,000 Philistines, while taking his own life. This is a story of Jewish heroism, of hitting back at persecutors.

The 5th century BC Samson epic inspired the title and provided the theme of Seymour M. Hersh's The Samson Option, describing Israel's secret development of nuclear weapons to enable Israel, like Samson, to devastate its enemies. Hersh, probably the best investigative reporter writing in English today, also invokes Masada, a sere mountaintop above the Dead Sea where, in 73 AD, 1,000 Jewish defenders held off 15,000 besieging Romans for two years before committing suicide to avoid capture. Myriads of Israelis today make pilgrimages to Masada to pay homage to the heroism of its defenders.

Samson and Masada symbolize Jewish steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds in ancient times. The searing horror of this century's Jewish Holocaust, however, lies unassuaged in the Israeli psyche. The power and ruthlessness of the Nazi juggarnaut had been too overwhelming to resist.

Israel's granitic determination to develop the atomic bomb can perhaps best be understood as a delayed Jewish response to that Nazi nightmare. Sadly, however, this "never again" came half a century too late to save the millions who perished in the slave labor and death camps of Europe.

The Samson Option opens at the White House in September 1981. Three months earlier, Israel had bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak near Baghdad. Israel already had the bomb, although the US government had taken no official cognizance of that fact. Present at the White House meeting was then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. His purpose was to denounce the US as an "unreliable" ally for refusing to build a "downlink" in Israel to receive newly developed US satellite imagery. The downlink would have enabled Israel, but not the United States, to "see" both the Arab states and routes to, and inside, the southern part of the Soviet Union.

American participants at the meeting, including newly-elected President Ronald Reagan, assumed at the time that Israel sought only to be in a position to protect itself from attack by its Arab neighbors. Israel, however, already was a nuclear power, and, according to Hersh, it was seeking to target the Soviet Union with its nuclear warheads.

That Israel has nuclear weapons has long been known. What Sy Hersh describes in The Samson Option is how Israel developed the weapons (more or less) secretly, and how bitter was the opposition to the program within Israel. Thanks to his extensive research, Hersh is able to document that Israel's internal opposition to going nuclear was soundly based both on economic and on ideological grounds.

Hersh illustrates how basic US foreign policy objectives were twisted out of shape wherever Israel and its nuclear weapons program were concerned. The powerful interplay between domestic US politics and American foreign policy was all-compelling.

So technically authoritative is Hersh that his book might well be taken for the work of a nuclear physicist with narrative gifts. Hersh is not a scientist, but he set out to study all that is known about nuclear weapons and how they are made. This is characteristic of his relentless "digging," which produced such earlier works as The Price of Power, an entertaining as well as an authoritative dissection of Henry Kissinger's deceitful diplomacy and masterful media manipulation.

Several of Hersh's 22 chapters, all interconnected to the basic theme, will fascinate Americans who follow Middle East developments closely. Chapter 12, about the late long-time (1961-1973) US ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, is a good example. American ambassadors generally serve in Tel Aviv for extraordinarily long periods and, with one or possibly two exceptions, they are noteworthy for adopting, or already holding, views that vary little from those of Israeli government officials. …

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