Mon, 21 Aug 2000

'Secret' nuke arsenal now publicly debated

By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON (DPA): Through the magic of two new technologies -- publicly available satellite photography and the Internet -- one of the world's bestconcealed pieces of information has now become the world's worst kept secret: Israel has nuclear weapons, with the means to deliver them.

Photos from the American commercial Ikonos and the French Corona satellites have now been published around the world -- including in Israel -- on an Internet site of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The detailed images of the Israeli installation at Dimona -- once described by the Israeli government as a "textile plant" -- leave no doubt that it is a nuclear facility producing both enriched uranium and plutonium, the essential elements for nuclear weapons.

The main tip-offs are the characteristic cooling towers and the dome-like reactor building. Sophisticated analysis by FAS says that Israel could have produced more than 100 nuclear warheads, but probably not many more than 200.

The information comes out when a former Israel nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, who was kidnapped in Rome by Israeli intelligence, is still serving an 18-year prison sentence for revealing the existence of the Israeli program. A further irony is that, under an American law passed by the U.S. Congress at the urging of the powerful pro-Israeli lobby, it is against the law to take or publish satellite images of Israeli territory.

The chances that the satellite companies will be prosecuted under the law are non-existent, since neither the Israelis nor the Americans want to draw further attention to the now undeniable fact that Israel has had nuclear weapons for some 30 years, with American knowledge and forbearance.

The pictures could not have come as a surprise to the American intelligence community, which has been taking such images for decades, but never revealed publicly the information about the Israeli nuclear installation.

What is the point of having a nuclear deterrent, while keeping it secret from those whom Israel was trying to deter? The fact is that Israeli officials have obliquely threatened its enemies with the nuclear weapons, while publicly denying they had them.

During the Iraq war, Israel pointedly moved some of its ballistic missiles with the nuclear warheads out of their underground silos as a warning to anybody with satellites that Israel was moving closer to the nuclear threshold.

In response, Iraq fired four Scud-type missiles in the general direction of Dimona, but the notoriously inaccurate Scuds caused no damage.

So, now that the information about Israel's formerly secret nuclear arsenal is available to everybody, what is different? It appears that the new public information will make it more difficult for the United States to put pressure on other nuclear states such as Pakistan and India to give up their nuclear weapons when the United States has never attempted to put any pressure on the Israelis, either to give up their weapons or open up their nuclear installations to international inspections.

It will also increase the public pressure on other Middle East countries to match the Israeli arsenal and to resist American demands that they give up their nuclear ambitions. It will make American insistence that Iraq open up its nuclear secrets less convincing to other countries which oppose the American embargo against Iraq.

There are further secrets and further potential surprises from Israel. What about chemical weapons? What about biological weapons in the nuclear arsenal? There have been frequent leaks and suggestions that Israel has been experimenting with both. But both types of weapons are not easily detected by satellite photography so the issue will remain ambiguous.