Israel’s current leaders have plenty to bemoan. Besides an economy in shambles, a government in transition, the threat of peace breaking out, and an American president who does not grant their every wish, they must contend with Seymour Hersh, one of America’s preeminent journalists. His important new book on the making of Israel’s atomic bomb, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, will reinforce growing doubts in the United States as to whether the Israeli government is an honest, reliable, and peace-loving ally. In the course of Hersh’s narrative, Israeli leaders lie to the world about their nuclear ambitions, sell U.S. secrets to the Soviets, and manipulate American politics through a powerful lobby. All this painful detail amounts to a reality check for Americans who still think the U.S.-Israeli relationship is based on sentiment and trust rather than hardheaded calculations of political and national self-interest.
His title is a biblical allusion to the Israeli variant on Mutually Assured Destruction: just as Samson took the Philistines with him when he pulled down the temple, so Israel plans to turn the Middle East into a mushroom cloud if its neighbors ever seriously threaten the Jewish state. Hersh reports that Israel actually put its nuclear forces on alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when its forces were reeling from the Suez Canal, and again in the 1991 war with Iraq, as Scud missiles crashed into Tel Aviv. And that past may be prologue to even more dangerous nuclear confrontations in the future, as ballistic missiles proliferate throughout the Middle East, Pakistan perfects its “Islamic” bomb, and hundreds of footloose Soviet nuclear technicians go looking for work.
The news in Hersh’s thorough account is not that Israel has the bomb, but how it got it and why the United States closed its eyes for so long. Israel’s status as a nuclear power has been widely discussed for more than two decades and was confirmed beyond doubt several years ago when the London Sunday Times published photographs taken by the now-imprisoned technician Mordecai Vanunu of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona in the Negev desert. Indeed, as far back as December 1960 the New York Times ran a story, based on a CIA leak, revealing Israel’s plans to use the Dimona facility as a nuclear reactor and plutonium-reprocessing plant. (Only then, Hersh relates, did Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reveal to Israel’s parliament that the “research reactor” was even being built.) Not long afterward, Times columnist C.L. Sulzberger wrote that Ben-Gurion “hints grimly that in its nearby Dimona reactor Israel itself may be experimenting with military atomics.” As Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser Walt Rostow once observed, “Everybody and his brother knew what Israel was doing.” Indeed, many analysts believe that Israel wanted the world to know, or at least to suspect; after all, a nuclear arsenal cannot deter unless your enemies know it exists.
The father of the Israeli bomb was Ernst David Bergmann. A refugee from Nazi Germany and a rabbi’s son, Bergmann was director of the chemistry division at the Weizmann Institute and chairman of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), established in 1952. His interest in a made-in-Israel bomb predated the founding of Israel itself and was sparked by his discovery in 1947 of low-grade uranium in the Negev desert. Bergmann’s AEC was for many years overseen by the director of the defense ministry, Shimon Peres, today’s Labor Party rival to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Under the guidance of Ben-Gurion, Israel pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the top-secret project. Peres once called his 13-year collaboration with Bergmann “the best years of my life” but warned that the full story might not come out for 100 years.
For all his brilliance, Bergmann made quick progress only with French help, secured in exchange for Israel’s intelligence support in the Arab world, where France was fighting to hold onto its colonies. Around 1955 the French Socialist government of Guy Mollet agreed to help Israel build a nuclear reactor and a secret underground plutonium-reprocessing plant at Dimona. One year later the two countries would conspire (with England) to overthrow Gamal Abdel Nasser by invading Egypt, an adventurist folly that led the Soviets to accuse Ben-Gurion of “criminally and irresponsibly playing with the fate of peace” and of “sowing a hatred for the state of Israel among the people of the East.” Spurred to action by Soviet military threats, President Dwight D. Eisenhower finally forced Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai by threatening to support UN sanctions.
As the French and Israelis began building the Dimona reactor, the CIA kept an eye on their progress. It ran regular flights of the U2 spy plane over the Negev and rushed the results to the Eisenhower White House–where, as with every administration since, nothing was done.
One reason for inaction was the lack of proof; without a Vanunu, who shot the inside of the facility, the CIA could only guess what was going on beneath the building shell. Another was the low priority placed by successive U.S. presidents on nonproliferation; witness the benign neglect of Pakistan’s nuclear program during the Reagan years, when Washington counted on that country’s help in resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
More important, however, was the fact that many American officials tacitly supported Israel’s nuclear objectives. The near destruction of the Jewish people in World War II and the widespread perception that they were threatened again with destruction in the Middle East were reasons enough to keep quiet while Israel acquired the ultimate deterrent.
One of Bergmann’s potent American allies was Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in the 50s, whom Hersh accuses of “dual loyalty” for privately championing Israel’s nuclear program. But Hersh acknowledges that “Jews and non-Jews alike looked the other way when it came to Israel’s nuclear capability.” Democratic senator Stuart Symington, who sat on the Armed Services Committee, told Peres during the height of the Kennedy administration’s nonproliferation campaign, “Don’t stop making atomic bombs. And don’t listen to the administration. Do whatever you think best.” Similarly, former defense secretary Robert McNamara (misidentified as “secretary of state”) told Hersh, “I can understand why Israel wanted a nuclear bomb. . . . The existence of Israel has been a question mark in history, and that’s the essential issue.”
Even when past presidents did not explicitly approve of Israel spreading nuclear weapons to the Middle East, they were inclined to avoid the serious political hassle of going to the mat with Israel and its allies. By sweeping Israel’s bomb under the rug, they could leave the problem to future administrations. When CIA director Richard Helms brought Lyndon Johnson a report calling Israel a nuclear power, LBJ chewed him out, Hersh writes, “for once he accepted that information, he would have to act on it.” Johnson had a war to fight in Vietnam; he was too busy to start another battle.
But time and again Hersh returns to a more sordid explanation for Washington’s willful blindness: the hardball politics of Israel’s well-organized and well-heeled supporters in the United States. They do not dictate Middle East policy, but they ensure that Israel receives a handsome aid allowance (now around $4 billion a year) and every benefit of the doubt in regional disputes.
The “Israel lobby” is famed far and wide for its clout in Washington; countries as diverse as Turkey and Zaire have curried favor with Israel in the hope of receiving the help of that lobby during foreign-aid debates. It owes its extraordinary strength to several factors: the strong sympathy of most Americans for the democratic homeland of a people decimated in the Holocaust; the high degree of political participation by American Jews, who overwhelmingly support Israel; the concentrated focus of the lobby on a narrow agenda, which has few organized opponents; and the huge bipartisan campaign contributions it makes in a political system where money is king. Hersh offers graphic evidence of the power of this lobby’s dollars in American politics.
For many years the king of campaign money was Abraham Feinberg, whom Hersh calls “perhaps the most important Jewish fund-raiser for the Democratic Party.” Feinberg had one and only one agenda: to ensure continued U.S. support for Israeli policies. Feinberg claimed to have raised about $400,000 for President Truman’s whistle-stop campaign in 1948, helping to assure Truman’s strong support for the fledgling state of Israel. (Feinberg also backed another prominent Missouri politician, Senator Symington.)
During the 1960 presidential campaign Feinberg put together a group of Jewish contributors, including Chicago real estate mogul Philip Klutznick, who met with John Kennedy and pledged half a million dollars on the spot. Hersh reports that Kennedy later complained to a friend about the quid pro quo. Kennedy described the donors’ crude approach as: “We’re willing to pay your bills if you’ll let us have control of your Middle East policy.” But JFK took the money and ceded control. After his victory, the new president met Ben-Gurion and crudely said (as cited in Ben-Gurion’s biography), “I know that I was elected by the votes of American Jews. I owe them my victory. Tell me, is there something I ought to do?” The Israeli leader was savvy enough to respond innocently, “You must do whatever is good for the free world.”
Israel’s bomb program ran squarely up against Kennedy’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, and he pressed Israel to allow inspections of Dimona. But Feinberg intervened to stop him. “I fought the strongest battle of my career to keep them from a full inspection,” he recalled to Hersh. Feinberg passed the word through McNamara to back off or face the loss of his fund-raising prowess–and the White House backed off. The administration finally agreed to a watered-down procedure allowing no surprise inspections and only limited access to the facility. The Israelis actually built a fake control room, a high-tech Potemkin Village, to fool the inspectors.
Preoccupied with the Big Muddy, Johnson was not inclined to block Israel’s nuclear ambitions. But he had other reasons for looking the other way. Feinberg got in on the ground floor with Johnson by raising money for his notoriously corrupt 1948 Senate campaign. In later years, according to Hersh, Feinberg delivered cash–on the order of a quarter-million dollars–directly to LBJ’s personal aide, Walter Jenkins, who stuffed it in a White House safe. Johnson’s aide for Jewish affairs, Myer Feldman, remarked, “Abe only raised cash–where it went only he knows.” Feinberg told Hersh, “A lot of people were afraid publicly to give as much as they could, so they arranged sub rosa cash payments. It had to be done laboriously–man-to-man.”
Feinberg not only kept successive U.S. presidents in line but, according to Hersh, provided even more direct service to the Israeli government’s nuclear-bomb program. Along with other Jewish investors, including Baron Edmund de Rothschild of France, Feinberg raised at least $40 million to help defray the staggering expenses of the project. Hersh leaves little doubt that they knew what they were buying. “I told them what would be here,” Peres later told an Israeli interviewer. The CIA learned that Israel was raising money for Dimona from American Jews but did nothing.
Feinberg’s long-standing service to Israel raises the question, which Hersh does not address directly, of whether he was acting only as cheerleader and supporter or whether he was an unregistered foreign agent.
Feinberg made his personal fortune in the hosiery and apparel business, but favors from the Israeli government certainly augmented it. In 1963, according to Barron’s reporter Richard Karp, the Israeli government installed Feinberg on the board of the American Bank & Trust Company in New York, which it controlled through a Swiss corporation; under his chairmanship the bank collected powerful New York City politicians on its payroll until it collapsed in 1976. In 1966, Israel allowed Feinberg to receive a lucrative Coca-Cola franchise, awarded after Jews in New York City threatened a nationwide boycott of the soft-drink company for its de facto boycott of Israel. That arrangement worked so well that in 1977 Coke’s chairman, J. Paul Austin, was awarded a medal for “his distinguished service to democracy and freedom and his company’s outstanding support for the economic well-being of Israel.”
The franchise award to Feinberg seems to fit a pattern. Hersh notes that Israel awarded another major funder of Dimona, Edmund de Rothschild, a profitable concession on an oil pipeline between Eilat and Haifa. It is possible that such protected business ventures allowed Israeli leaders to steer funds to their friends, either for use in foreign politics or for unbudgeted donations for special projects–including their own electoral campaigns. (Feinberg was a contributor not only to U.S. presidential campaigns and Dimona but also to Israel’s then-ruling Labor Party.)
Did individual Americans help the Israelis acquire not only money and political influence but secret technology to advance their nuclear program? Several Jewish nuclear physicists, including some who worked on the Manhattan Project, emigrated to Israel; according to Hersh, one scientist caused a particular stir when he left for Israel in 1957 after gaining access to weapons-design information at the Lawrence Livermore lab. But Hersh has nothing to say about the claim of an American nuclear physicist, quoted in Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s recent book Dangerous Liaison, that the French traded technology to Israel in return for its help in stealing U.S. nuclear secrets the French needed to perfect their own warhead designs.
If true, then Israel was guilty not simply of manipulating the American political system but of breaking its chief ally’s laws and trust–a gamble that illustrates how recklessly Israel’s leaders pursued their nuclear ambitions. There is plenty of evidence that technology theft was, in fact, a standard Israeli modus operandi: they made no secret of their theft of Mirage jet plans from the French, for example. In 1985, the Israeli newspaper Davar recounted an earlier incident in which a member of an Israeli military team visiting the United States told one of his hosts that he should sell Israel some secret technology, “because if we decide that it is important for us, we shall steal it.” In 1986, numerous press accounts revealed charges that Israel had stolen U.S. cluster-bomb technology and tried to steal plans for a sophisticated aerial reconnaissance system from a Pentagon contractor.
Hersh plays down the theft of technology and materials from the United States as an important factor in Israel’s bomb program, however. He is notably silent about the 1985 indictment of an American (Richard Smyth, who became a fugitive) for illegally exporting nuclear trigger devices to an Israeli company owned by the Israeli arms dealer Arnon Milchan. (Someone should ask Oliver Stone why Milchan, who represented several U.S. armaments firms in the Middle East, served as executive producer of the movie JFK.)
Hersh does deal with the oft-told tale of Zalman Shapiro, an American Jew, ardent Zionist, and brilliant nuclear chemist suspected of diverting enriched uranium to Israel from a nuclear-reprocessing plant he ran in Apollo, Pennsylvania. When Shapiro’s firm, NUMEC, could not account for more than 200 pounds of uranium supplied by Westinghouse and the Navy, Shapiro came under intense investigation in the 60s by the FBI. Probers found that NUMEC was shipping mysterious packages to Israel and that Shapiro was a friend of the founder and head of Israel’s nuclear-bomb program.
For Hersh, however, Shapiro is not a villain but a latter-day Dreyfus. Hersh states flatly that Shapiro “did not divert uranium . . . to Israel.” The missing uranium was ostensibly buried in a waste pit, absorbed into a concrete floor, or vented into the surrounding community. This was an environmental disaster, Hersh concludes, not nuclear espionage. The Samson Option specifically denigrates as “misinformation” the Cockburns’ compelling account of the case against Shapiro.
But Hersh’s verdict of “innocent,” as opposed to “not proven,” ignores several salient facts. Shapiro and NUMEC were frequently visited by Israeli spies, including Rafael Eitan, an officer in Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, then working on special assignment to LAKAM, the Israeli espionage agency that gathered scientific and nuclear technology. (Years later, as head of LAKAM, Eitan directed the notorious spy Jonathan Pollard, whom Hersh credits with gathering secrets of profound benefit to Israel’s nuclear program.) In 1962, according to the Cockburns, Shapiro received a warning from an official of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that NUMEC’s relationship with a French atomic firm could violate the Espionage Act, which outlaws the communication of state secrets to foreign powers. And Hersh does not adequately justify his assertion that the missing uranium has now been fully accounted for.
At least one of Hersh’s sources also denies a statement Hersh attributes to him. The book quotes Peter Stockton, who investigated the NUMEC incident for the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight, as admitting that a key source for the story of uranium diversion, a former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv, had proved unreliable. But in an interview Stockton called Hersh “full of shit” for quoting him to this effect. Stockton said Hersh caught him at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and “twisted something that I said.” (Stockton did not assert, and I certainly do not assume, anything more than that Hersh honestly misunderstood a muddled conversation.) Stockton still believes that the evidence weighs heavily against Shapiro.
Hersh exonerates NUMEC’s boss in part on the basis of claims made by a scientist Shapiro himself hired to take charge of nuclear-materials accountability at the plant, and in part on Shapiro’s own word that the packages he sent to Israel were innocuous. Hersh asserts that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, which inherited the Atomic Energy Commission’s duties) found and recovered the lost uranium as it decommissioned the NUMEC plant, but he cites only an unnamed NRC technical official who reviewed reports from the company that took over the plant and who may or may not have been conversant with all the details.
In short, Hersh’s case is not supported by his evidence. Under the circumstances, and given the security clearances Shapiro needed to operate NUMEC, was it really such an “injustice” (the title of Hersh’s Shapiro chapter) for officials to investigate the mysterious disappearance of uranium? I think not.
Hersh’s verdict on Shapiro allows him to treat the espionage of Jonathan Pollard as an aberration–a point of view in line with Israeli government claims. Pollard, a bright but deeply troubled American Zionist, was a classmate of mine in college who openly boasted of being a Mossad officer. (He identified himself in the class yearbook as “Colonel Pollard.”) He turned that fantasy into a reality in the early 80s, after dallying briefly with the CIA and South African intelligence. Somehow acquiring a top-secret clearance to work as a civilian analyst at the Navy’s Anti-Terrorism Alert Center, he gained access to an extraordinary variety of U.S. intelligence secrets–some 800,000 pages of which he turned over to his Israeli paymasters by the time of his arrest in November 1985.
Hersh takes at face value the Israeli cover that recruitment of Pollard by LAKAM violated “an unwritten law prohibiting the recruitment of an American Jew” as too risky. But a 1979 CIA study of Israel’s intelligence services noted that the Israelis had tried at least several times to recruit American Jews and “were prepared to capitalize on nearly every kind of agent motivation” including “appeal to Jewish racial or religious proclivities, pro-Zionism.” The CIA report also claimed that “the Israeli intelligence service depends heavily on the various Jewish communities and organizations abroad for recruiting agents and eliciting general information” and added that Israeli intelligence operatives were instructed to handle such recruitments “with the utmost tact to avoid embarrassment to Israel.”
This is not meant to suggest that American Jews who support Israel’s right to exist–I’m one of them–should be suspect as agents of a foreign power. Open support for Israel is a legitimate political choice and a position taken by the majority of non-Jews in this country, including Americans who dissent from the policies of some Israeli leaders. The point is that in their search for nuclear and other secrets, Israel’s intelligence services have risked the status of American Jews by playing upon their sympathies to recruit from their ranks. This fact illustrates the lengths to which Israeli officials, working with few of the (imperfect) political checks and balances taken for granted in the United States, have gone to realize their own definition of “security.”
The Pollard case gets even worse: there’s a possibility that he was duped by the Israelis he loved into passing secrets indirectly to the Soviets. But Hersh’s handling of this sensational revelation is as indirect as the route of Pollard’s stolen documents.
Hersh begins his discussion of Pollard with a startling claim: “He was Israel’s first nuclear spy.” As we have seen, this is almost certainly untrue. Hersh adds that “one of [Pollard’s] main assignments was the gathering of American intelligence relevant to Israel’s [nuclear] targeting of the oil fields and Soviet military installations in southern Russia, a fact that was hidden from Justice Department investigators and prosecutors by Israeli officials.”
Though Hersh generally makes a commendable effort to reveal his sources, he offers not the slightest clue as to the source of this allegation. Yet it dovetails with a central theme of the book.
Hersh opens The Samson Option with an account of how, in the late 70s, Israel asked for and received from the Pentagon top-secret satellite data on western Russia, including Moscow. But when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon demanded in 1981 that a special station be built in Israel for its sole use in receiving U.S. satellite images, Washington balked. Relations between Sharon and the United States got nasty, even more so after Sharon sent Israeli troops storming into Lebanon. Deprived of unlimited access to this intelligence, Sharon turned for help to LAKAM, headed by his friend (and NUMEC spy) Rafael Eitan. Why? Hersh writes, “Israel was itself a nuclear power that was targeting the Soviet Union with its warheads and missiles.”
This explanation of Israeli motives is inherently implausible. Israel did not have enough nuclear warheads to need a detailed satellite search for targets. Its missiles probably did not have the pinpoint accuracy to hit the kind of “hardened” military targets–missile silos, command bunkers, and the like–for which satellite targeting is useful. Above all, Israel had absolutely no need to aim at such targets to achieve its purpose–deterrence of a Soviet-backed invasion of Israel. For that, the ability to wipe out cities like Odessa and Damascus was sufficient. And Israel did not need U.S. spy satellites to find Odessa or Damascus.
There is a more plausible explanation, supplied from Hersh’s own documentation, for Sharon’s interest in U.S. satellite imagery and Pollard’s alleged collection of similar material: that Israeli leaders were trading priceless American secrets to the Soviets in exchange for information on Arab military deployments and weapons systems or for expanded emigration of Soviet Jews. The Cockburns make exactly this claim, citing two anonymous but well-placed U.S. sources who confirm that Pollard’s material “was almost certainly passed to the Soviets.” UPI reporter Richard Sale first disclosed this conclusion by U.S. counterintelligence officials in 1987.
Such intelligence swapping may have long predated Pollard. Hersh notes that in the 60s, CIA director Richard Helms had “come to a personal conclusion about Israeli intelligence, repeatedly telling his deputies and aides that he was convinced Israel was funneling American satellite information to the Soviet Union.” Hersh dismisses this suspicion in favor of his own notion that “Israel wanted the satellite imagery of the Soviet Union because of its own nuclear targeting needs.” But as we have seen, neither logic nor evidence offers any support for that interpretation.
Hersh’s detailed list of what Pollard stole for the Israelis further bolsters the case for an Israeli-Soviet intelligence connection. It included “top-secret American intelligence on the location of Soviet military targets, as well as specific data on the Soviet means for protecting those targets, by concealment or hardening of the sites.” It also included “American intelligence on Soviet air defenses, especially the feared SA-5 surface-to-air missile system, which was so effective against U.S. B-52s in the Vietnam War.” Last but not least, it included “a copy of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual review of the Soviet strategic arms system . . . considered one of the most sensitive documents in the U.S. government” and equally sensitive “codes for American diplomatic communications.”
The Israelis hardly needed all that for nuclear targeting or for their own security. Such secrets had far more value in Moscow than in Jerusalem. The Soviets could have gleaned from such material what military sites the United States was targeting, how fine was the resolution of U.S. spy satellites, how well their own camouflage measures were working, how much the Pentagon knew about their weapons systems, and vital tips on how to read top-secret American communications.
What the Israelis didn’t trade from Pollard’s haul, the Soviets may well have stolen. Several celebrated Soviet “moles” have been exposed in the past in Israel, and more certainly existed. Hersh discloses that the Israelis discovered that many of their most secret military decisions, including those dealing with nuclear weapons, “were being reported to Moscow within, in some cases, twelve hours.” But counterintelligence agents never figured out who the mole was.
Despite his spurious preoccupation with nuclear targeting, Hersh supplies a controversial source who alleges that American secrets were hemorrhaging to the Soviet Union through Israel: Ari Ben-Menashe, an Iraqi Jew and former employee of Israeli intelligence who claimed to have worked as an intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Shamir in 1987. Ben-Menashe claimed that Shamir opened up a secret channel to the Soviet bloc in 1983, through a Mossad representative in Bucharest, and authorized the exchange of information on U.S. weapons systems, including material from Pollard.
Ben-Menashe was also Hersh’s supersource for his far less important, but far more publicized, allegations against Robert Maxwell, the late newspaper czar, and his Daily Mirror foreign editor, Nicholas Davies. Ben-Menashe claims that both conspired with the Israelis to discredit and ultimately betray Mordecai Vanunu, who took his photographs of Dimona to the British press.
After Hersh aired these claims an incredible spectacle ensued, including multiple denials, press conferences and lawsuits, the death (by accident, suicide, or murder) of Maxwell, and the discrediting of Davies. It made great publicity for a new book, but was Hersh on solid ground?
Certainly Maxwell’s effort to discredit Vanunu was public enough, and Maxwell never made any secret of his devotion to Israel. The man was buried in Jerusalem amid eulogies from such Israeli leaders as Shamir, Peres, and Ariel Sharon. Given these circumstances, he hardly needed special prompting to turn his journalistic empire against Vanunu.
Beyond that, the truth is hard to glean. Hersh and his publishers prepared for the suit they knew Maxwell would file; Hersh has boasted that he knows far more than he ever put down on paper. In effect they may have set a trap for the notoriously litigious Maxwell by offering only flimsy substantiation in the book for some of its charges. If so, the loser here is the reader, denied access to the full range of Hersh’s information.
But another loser is Hersh himself, tainted by the dubious reputation of his source, Ben-Menashe. Ben-Menashe clearly played some role in Israeli intelligence, and some of his claims, including those of involvement in arms deals with Davies, seem to stand up. (The Daily Mirror fired Davies for lying about his business deals.) But many of the details of the Ben-Menashe/Vanunu story have been disputed by the London Sunday Times reporter who worked closely with Vanunu to bring the secrets of Dimona to light. And Ben-Menashe is the last source I would have expected Hersh to hang so much disputed information on.
Ben-Menashe is part of a dubious crew of “superwitnesses” (including Richard Brenneke) who have kept a small army of investigative reporters running in circles chasing claims about the October Surprise, Irangate, and other scandals. For example, he asserted that CIA director Robert Gates attended meetings in Europe with George Bush and William Casey to cut a deal with Iranian officials in 1980. He claimed to have been the source of the historic leak that blew the lid off the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages deals with Iran in 1986. According to journalist Steven Emerson (a rather devoted admirer of the Israeli intelligence services, it is true), Ben-Menashe also boasted of playing key roles in the raid at Entebbe and in the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. None of these claims by Ben-Menashe has stood up under investigation, and he has come to be regarded as either a disinformation agent, a delusional storyteller, or a con artist.
I haven’t met the man, so I cannot fathom his motives. But neither can I understand why Hersh quoted him so extensively. If Hersh had corroboration for each of Ben-Menashe’s claims, which is possible, he should have cited his more reliable evidence. If not, one of America’s most careful reporters was gambling recklessly with his own reputation.
It should be added that Hersh is not the only reporter to use Ben-Menashe. Gary Sick relies heavily on Ben-Menashe in his new book, October Surprise. The Cockburns also cite him once in their otherwise superb Dangerous Liaison, but they at least have the good sense to acknowledge that he failed a lie detector test in regard to another claim. Hersh, by contrast, glosses over the controversy over Ben-Menashe’s bona fides in a footnote. (Alexander Cockburn, who slammed Hersh in a recent Nation magazine column for relying on Ben-Menashe, did not mention brother Andrew’s use of him, too.)
For all the hoopla over Maxwell and Ben-Menashe, they are only bit players in a large book that, despite minor flaws, should stand up well as an investigative account of Israel’s secret nuclear history, one of the most politically sensitive topics Hersh has taken on. But The Samson Option will stand up less well as a thoughtful reflection on that history.
Few readers will come away with any doubt that Hersh deplores Israel’s single-minded determination to acquire the bomb and Washington’s seemingly spineless failure to stop it. But he offers no sustained analysis to support such moral and political judgments.
Instead he poses rhetorical questions. “Can the world afford to pretend that Israel is not a nuclear power because to do otherwise would raise difficult issues?” he asks. “Can any international agreement to limit the spread of nuclear weapons be enforced if Israel’s bombs are not fully accounted for? Can the Arab nations truly be expected to ignore Israel’s possession of atomic weapons simply because the weapons are not publicized? Should Israel, because of its widespread and emotional support in America, be held to a different moral standard than Pakistan or North Korea or South Africa?”
Although Hersh’s drift is clear, those questions can be readily answered in Israel’s favor. Pretense and ambiguity may be useful stances for the United States and other countries, precisely in order to avoid inflaming Arab public opinion and forcing the hand of Arab governments. Even so, Arab states need not and are not expected to ignore Israel’s possession of atomic weapons; Israel wants them to be deterred. Finally, it may be appropriate to hold Israel to a different standard than some other emerging nuclear powers because its moral situation is different: Israel’s very existence is at stake (many would argue) and therefore it has as great a claim as any nation to a defensive deterrent.
The most credible argument against an Israeli bomb may be that it could make Israel’s leadership more unyielding at the peace table and more inclined to reckless adventures at the expense both of security and of regional stability.
That argument, resting on a political judgment of modern Middle Eastern history, is admittedly speculative. Readers will find ample, if controversial and sometimes overzealous, documentation in Dangerous Liaison for the aggressive aims and unscrupulous means of Israeli leaders emboldened by their military power. The bomb cannot be the only explanation of these traits (which are not, in any case, unique to Israeli leaders); they were in evidence long before the country acquired nuclear weapons. (Witness the 1954 Lavon affair, in which Israeli agents posing as Muslim fundamentalists bombed official U.S. targets in Egypt, hoping to drive a wedge between Nasser and the West.) But might Israel’s nuclear superiority have played some small part, for example, in Golda Meir’s dismissal of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s proposal for a peace agreement after Nasser’s death in 1970 and in the 1982 Lebanon war, which risked a major confrontation with Syria?
Less speculative is the general proposition that if power corrupts, nuclear power–and even more, the relentless drive to obtain that power–corrupts nearly absolutely. In the case of Israel’s bomb, that drive has (speaking loosely here) corrupted American politics with the money of a single-interest lobby. It has corrupted Israeli politics by silencing debate over a vital issue of national security and finance. And it has corrupted the two countries’ relationship with mutual spying and distrust.
The tendency of military power to overwhelm political virtues of compromise, honesty, and openness is powerfully reflected in America’s own post-WWII history. Given Washington’s own record of swaggering and deceit during the cold war, perhaps it never had any business lecturing Israel about the virtues of nonproliferation. Even so, it might have done Israel a favor by making the issue public and forcing Israel’s secretive leaders to confront their own voters about the merits of going nuclear.
Now that Israel has the bomb, the issue is moot. Still an open question, however, is the future of U.S.-Israeli relations, which Hersh’s story will do nothing in the short run to strengthen. A succession of outrages, including two invasions of Lebanon, the Pollard affair, several instances of technology theft, and Israel’s behind-the-scenes role in promoting arms-for-hostages deals with Iran in the Reagan years, has eroded much of the goodwill that Israel used to bank on in the United States. So has its sometimes brutal suppression of the Palestinian intifada, for which traditional military power proved a poor deterrent. Now, when Israel comes to the United States seeking $10 billion in housing-loan guarantees while it boots Arab families out of their homes in East Jerusalem, it can no longer count on its usual carte blanche. American leaders are less inclined to look the other way, as they did for so long when Israel appeared to be the weak and beleaguered David.
With the bomb, Israel’s government can no longer credibly claim that a swap of land for peace puts its very survival at stake. (Most Israelis are in fact willing to make such a trade, unlike their hard-line leadership.) At the same time, it must realize that atomic weapons cannot defend against a restive, occupied population denied the right to manage its own affairs. With Egypt a peaceful neighbor and Syria weakened by economic decline and political fragmentation, Israel’s biggest enemy now is arguably itself. Nuclear weapons can either make things worse by fostering arrogance or better by letting Israelis overcome their fears long enough to achieve true security through peace.
Israel’s possession of an atomic arsenal is a documented, unquestioned fact; the country can no longer benefit from misleading denials and cultivated ambiguity about its status as a nuclear power. Perhaps the time has come to make two things clear to its Arab neighbors: military confrontation with Israel can only be suicidal, but political compromise will get them more than just an argument about the size and shape of the negotiating table.
The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy by Seymour M. Hersh, Random House, $23.00.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.