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. So overboard was Barbour that he forbade his staff to report on Israel's nuclear development facilities at the "development town" of Dimona in the Negev desert.

During the October 1973 Arab-Israel war, coordinated Egyptian and Syrian surprise attacks to redeem their Israeli-occupied territories inflicted heavy casualties on Israel. Author Hersh is persuaded that Secretary of State Kissinger launched the gigantic military air bridge that saved Israel from ignominious defeat out of fear that if the US did not come to its rescue, Israel would use its nuclear weapons against Arab cities. It probably will neither surprise nor offend the author, however, to suggest that other Kissinger watchers may believe that the secretary was motivated by intensely personal sentiments as he labored in Richard Nixon's name, but apparently without the president's full knowledge, to turn Israel's setback into a military victory.

One of Seymour Hersh's most dramatic charges is that Israel's best-known American spy, Jonathan Jay Pollard, was stealing US military secrets as early as 1981. A main goal of Pollard's Israeli handlers, according to Hersh, was to obtain nuclear targeting data for Israel's own use against the Soviet Union. Hersh also alleges that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir personally provided to the Soviet Union many of the US secrets stolen by Pollard in exchange for a speedup in permits for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Hersh also charges that the late British publisher Sir Robert Maxwell betrayed to Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence service, Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli technician who took interior photos of the secret nuclear installation at Dimona and revealed them in the West.

In a remarkable series of events that accompanied publication of the Hersh book, Maxwell announced he would sue Hersh and any member of the British Parliament who repeated Hersh's charges outside of Parliament. Even before he could file charges, however, Maxwell died before or after a mysterious pre-dawn fall off the deck of his yacht in the seas off the Canary Islands.

Just as the suspicions raised by Hersh's charge about Sir Robert may never be dispelled fully, the truth and the motive for Israeli targeting of the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons remains elusive.

For the Israeli mouse to target the Soviet bear seems to involve a heretofore unimaginable level of chutzpah. But Hersh's reputation for investigative competence and accuracy forces the reader to treat his allegations with respect. Behind his easy writing style lie levels of interpretation that challenge the uninformed reader's assumptions about Israeli policies, and the most sophisticated reader's speculations about Israeli motives. This book will be a revelation to readers at both levels, and at all points between them.

A basic question demanding re-examination is whether Israel made the right decision in deciding to go nuclear. The Samson Option does not get into this area, but the thoughtful reader must inevitably wonder whether the greatest dangers facing Israel are external or internal. Nuclear weapons avail nothing against the Palestinian intifada that has so weakened Israel's standing in the world, dealing the Likud expansionists a potentially fatal blow in the critically important arena of American public opinion.

The damn-the-expense approach to Israel's development of the bomb also starved investment in Israel's industrial development. The result is an economy far too weak to provide jobs for further Jewish immigrants, without first making impossibly high financial demands of the United States.

Israel's obsession with security, not through accommodation with its neighbors but with the bludgeon of nuclear weapons, may prove to be the precipice over which its leaders take their followers, or the force that brings down the temple upon them all.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

Photo (Cover of book, 'The Samson Option')

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