The story behind one of the world's worst-kept secrets: the Jewish state's atomic arsenal.
The nuclear reactor at Dimona, photographed by Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistle-blower who was jailed for unauthorized disclosures (Mordechai Vanunu/from "The Bomb In The Basement")
Reviewed by George Perkovich
Sunday, February 19, 2006
THE BOMB IN THE BASEMENT
How Israel Went Nuclear and What That Means for the World
By Michael Karpin
Simon & Schuster. 404 pp. $26
In 1958, an American U-2 spy plane flying over Israel spotted an unusual construction site near the small Negev Desert town of Dimona. The facility featured a long perimeter fence, building activity and several roads. Israeli officials initially called the facility a textile plant; they later changed their minds and described it as a "metallurgical research installation." In September 1960, according to Israeli accounts, the United States got a better look at Dimona from a Corona reconnaissance satellite. By December, CIA Director Allen Dulles felt sure enough of what was going on to tell President Eisenhower that Israel was secretly constructing a nuclear reactor that would allow it to build the bomb.
Israel has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons, though it does not deny having them. As the Israeli journalist Michael Karpin suggests in his aptly titled The Bomb in the Basement , the United States has gone along with this charade because acknowledging the existence of Israel's nuclear arsenal would incite futile demands by Arabs and Iranians to get rid of it. Still, this worldly winking rankles at a time when the United States and Israel are leading the charge to make Iran, North Korea and other threatening actors come clean about their own nuclear activities. Many developing countries resist the idea of holding Iran to account for breaking nonproliferation rules when Israel is given a pass. But there's another way to think of the issue. Rather than pretend that Israel's nuclear posture is irrelevant, perhaps it's time to use Israel's muted approach to its atomic arsenal as an example for the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers to follow.
Unlike its adversaries, Israel has a deep-rooted democratic government and does not threaten the existence of other states. It also has an obvious goad; David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, began the Jewish state's nuclear quest in the 1950s with harrowing images of Dachau and Belsen still fresh in his mind. For him, the bomb was the ultimate guarantor of "never again."