by David Eberhart
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001
American bombing raids into Afghanistan and a tough President Bush
intimating more of the same for other terrorist-harboring nations,
experts and armchair war-watchers are inserting nuclear powerhouse
Israel into the calculus of potential Armageddon in the Middle East.
yet other variables, a defiant Saddam Hussein issued an ominous warning
in late August, just weeks before the terror attacks on New York City
and the Pentagon: “The battle [against the U.S.] continues on the
economic, political and military fields. We are convinced we will be
All that the saber-rattling Iraqi dictator left out
of this latest diatribe was a bold repeat of his 1991 pre-Desert Storm
boast that if America attacked, the first to feel his wrath in the
“mother of all battles” would be Israel.
After decades of living
among hostile neighbors, Israel has yet to be attacked by an enemy using
nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. One reason may be the horrific
plan some claim Israel drew up to prevent such an attack. The plan was
called the Samson Option. An astute investigative journalist and student
of history chalked a dramatic potential solution to the volatile
equation on the blackboard – a decade ago.
“Should war break out
in the Middle East again and should the Syrians and the Egyptians break
through again as they did in 1973 [Yom Kippur War], or should any Arab
nation fire missiles again at Israel, as Iraq did [in the 1991 Gulf
War], a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a last resort,
would now be a strong possibility.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“My Lai 4”) Seymour M. Hersh made this hypothesis in his 1991 best seller “The Samson Option.”
and cruelly maimed, the book’s biblical namesake uttered the ultimate
fighting words, “Let my soul die with the Philistines.”
the divinely empowered Samson pushed apart the temple pillars –
collapsing the roof and killing himself as well as his enemies.
his exposé of Israel’s clandestine nuclear arsenal, Hersh suggested
that in the early days (late 1960s) of crude big-flash-and-bang nukes,
one defensive option to counter an attack on Israel with weapons of mass
destruction was for the beleaguered nation to mimic Samson and grimly
trade holocaust for holocaust.
Hersh’s 1991 prognostication of a
“strong possibility” of the use by Israel of nuclear weapons rested on
his knowledge that by the mid-1980s, Israeli technicians at the
super-secret Dimona nuclear plant had produced hundreds of low-yield
neutron warheads capable of destroying large numbers of enemy troops
with minimal property damage.
Israel’s ability to use nukes
tactically and surgically, however, has evolved a great deal since the
Samson option was still realistically an option.
Israel’s Military Might
1997, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly examined satellite photographs of what
it described as an Israeli military base at Kfar Zechariah, concluding
academically, “Israel’s nuclear arsenal is larger than many estimates.”
to Jane’s, the site was said to house about 50 Jericho-2 missiles,
believed to have a maximum range of about 3,000 miles with a warhead of
about 2,200 pounds.
According to the report, the installation contained nuclear bombs, configured for dropping from bombers.
Furthermore, five bunkers at the site were cited as capable of safeguarding 150 weapons.
… supports indications that the Israeli arsenal may contain as many as
400 nuclear weapons with a total combined yield of 50 megatons,” the
In 1998 the New York Times reported a Rand Corp.
study commissioned by the Pentagon that opined Israel had enough
plutonium to make 70 nuclear weapons.
More light was shed on the
issue in February of last year when the Israeli Knesset (parliament)
held the first public discussion on the country’s nuclear arms program.
Mahoul, an Arab Israeli MP and member of the Hadash (Communist) Party,
petitioned that country’s Supreme Court to force the government to
permit a parliamentary debate on the forbidden subject.
of this bold and generally unpopular tactic was an unprecedented
televised session of the Knesset at which Mahoul stated that, according
to experts’ estimates, Israel had stockpiled huge numbers of nuclear
This had increased to what he described as the “insane
amount of 200-300.” The weapons had been developed with the help of the
South African apartheid regime.
Working up a head of rhetorical
steam, Mahoul grandly alleged that three new German-built submarines
just purchased by Israel were to be fitted with nuclear weapons.
stated purpose, he said, was “to cruise deep in the sea and constitute a
second strike force in the event that Israel is attacked with nuclear
Mahoul also announced what was hardly a news bulletin –
Israel was producing “biological warfare” weapons at the government’s
Biological Institute in Ness Ziona.
The obstreperous MP concluded
that the government’s official policy of “nuclear ambiguity” was the
height of self-delusion. “All the world knows that Israel is a vast
warehouse of atomic, biological and chemical weapons that serves as an
anchor for the Middle East arms race,” he said.
bristling inventory of nukes, the Israelis have a laudable history of
restraint in brandishing, much less using, these most destructive of all
weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, for most of the latter half of
the 20th century, the Israeli Bomb remained invisible and
unacknowledged. Israel’s official position was to neither confirm nor
deny its nuclear status, only pledging on the record “not to be the
first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.”
A Show of Restraint
According to Hersh, the best example of Israeli restraint in the face of great provocation came during the Gulf War.
the second day of the American invasion, Saddam Hussein fired eight
Scud missiles at noncombatant Israel. Two of the conventionally armed
missiles landed on Tel Aviv. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir
responded by ordering mobile missile launchers armed with nuclear
weapons moved into the open and deployed facing Iraq.
The Samsonesque strongman of the Middle East had stirred – and the world held its breath.
Patriot missile batteries and loads of future aid, the United States
pressured Israel to keep cool. After all, the allied coalition included a
number of Arab nations, and the U.S. feared that dramatic Israeli
retaliation could fragment the fragile alliance.
By the end of the Gulf War, Israel had dutifully absorbed 26 Scuds – none armed with biological or chemical weapons.
And therein lies the rub. What if the missiles had featured biochemical agent warheads?
Israel’s prime ministers have plenary jurisdiction over their country’s nuclear activities.
refrain used consistently by the Israeli leaders has been and remains
an unqualified: “Israel reserves the right to retaliate if attacked.”
Israeli leaders have pigeonholed nuclear weapons as a psychological
insurance policy for unthinkable contingencies, under the heading of
The hope of those in the inner sanctums of national
security is that the exigencies of America’s New War send no such
unthinkable contingencies in the direction of America’s quiet ally.
Eberhart is the former news editor for The Stars and Stripes and
Stripes.com. A retired military officer and the published author of five
novels, he recently contributed to the New York Times best seller
“Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul.”