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The secret bomb that's no secret

Published January 8, 2006


How Israel Went Nuclear

and What That Means for the World

By Michael Karpin

Simon & Schuster, $26, 404 pp

Reviewed by MAX FRANKEL

Special to the Times

Israel has long been one of the world's nuclear-armed nations but has uniquely refrained from boasting about it. Even in private discussions with American officials, the subject has been treated with mirrors: neither side quite admitting that it knows what the other knows it knows. The purpose of this pretense has been to create an unspoken deterrent - an invisible shield - so as to frighten Israel's enemies without provoking them, to shatter Arab dreams of destroying Israel without goading them into producing their own nuclear arsenal.

Michael Karpin's new book, The Bomb in the Basement, claims a brilliant success for this policy of "ambiguity," even as it demonstrates that the pretense has just about run its course. The author, a respected Israeli journalist, has gotten his quite candid history of Israel's nuclear weapons program past Israeli censors, thereby leaving little doubt that the policy of reticence is losing its luster.

To be sure, the censors still require a few euphemisms. Karpin is allowed to write about Israel's nuclear "project," "capability," "deterrent" and "option" or, when locating the main bomb factory in the Negev Desert, "the product of Dimona." But he may refer to nuclear "weapons" only by citing foreign sources. Consistent with this code, Israeli officials deny possessing nuclear weapons, because they choose to pretend that a device is not a weapon until it has been fully armed and tested. Because their bombs and warheads have been tested only by computer simulation (or once perhaps in distant waters in cahoots with South Africa), the Israeli government feels entitled to keep asserting that it will never be "the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."

That lie and other deceptions served to protect Israel's nuclear project in the late 1950s, when France secretly helped design the Dimona installation, and in the early 1960s, when American inspectors were guided through a phony control room and kept away from the underground plant for plutonium production. As numerous other books and studies previously reported, the United States failed to corroborate its suspicions until the late 1960s, by which time the assembly of perhaps 10 weapons a year was well underway and unstoppable.

With hostile neighbors vowing their destruction and the fate of Europe's Jews fresh in their minds, the organizers of the state of Israel decided soon after independence that nuclear weapons would be their salvation. Karpin's most dramatic passages track the success of their obsessive pursuit past tough foreign maneuvers and bitter domestic quarrels. When Washington's suspicions bubbled over, the Israelis refused to give up the quest in exchange for vague American "security guarantees" or shipments of nonnuclear weaponry. And once fooled, America's leaders preferred to keep on appearing fooled rather than admit a major failure in their continuing "nonproliferation" campaign.

In return for planes and missiles that could carry nuclear arms, Israel was persuaded to preserve the charade. Nonetheless, most of the world now knows that by 1969-70 it had joined the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China in the nuclear club. India and Pakistan entered next, after Saddam Hussein's Iraq was kept out by Israeli bombs and a U.N. boycott. South Africa and Libya approached the door, then backed away. North Korea may yet yield for a stiff price but Iran, spouting threats against Israel, seems beyond easy purchase. In response, Israel vows quite loudly to keep Iran at bay.

And there rests the explanation for the censor's light hand on Karpin's book. Its many obvious euphemisms and citations of foreign sources prove that it reveals no great new secrets. What it asserts, without much evidence, is that Israeli leaders uniformly credit their Mideast nuclear monopoly for the grudging acceptance by their neighbors. And what the book shows, by its appearance, is that Israel now finds it more profitable to assert than to deny its nuclear prowess. A degree of discretion still serves to support the U.S. effort to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. But where Iran and other regional adversaries are concerned, the message is unmistakable: If the world won't defend its regional monopoly, Israel will.

As Kaplin asserts with his proven insider's authority: "There is no chance at all that Israel will reconcile itself to living with a strategic threat posed by the ayatollahs' regime in Iran, for example, which regularly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state." That decision has already been made, he insists: "Clearly Israel would prefer American military intervention - but Israel would not hesitate to take military action."

Thus this largely familiar history bears importantly not just on the past but the future. Israel's ultimate weapon is the capacity to compel the protection of others if they want to deter its resort to you-know-what.

- Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 09:41:02]

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