The big threat in the Middle East is Israel, not Iraq
As George Bush escalates the new cold war begun by his father, the attention of his planners is moving to the Middle East. Stories about the threat of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" are again appearing in the American press, this time concentrating on Saddam Hussein's "new nuclear capability". These are refuted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors have found no evidence that Iraq, in its devastated state, has a nuclear weapons programme.
The distraction, however, is vital. The only weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East are in Israel, an American protectorate. What is not being reported is that, as Israel's hawks fail to put down the Palestinian uprising, their leader, Ariel Sharon, may well remove the country's nuclear arsenal from its nominal strategy of "last resort".
This prospect is raised in the current Covert Action Quarterly (www.covertactionquarterly. org), by John Steinbach, a nuclear specialist whose previous work includes the mapping of deadly radiation hazards in the United States. He quotes Israel's former president Ezer Weizman: "The nuclear issue is gaining momentum [and the] next war will not be conventional." From the 1950s, writes Steinbach, "the US was training Israeli nuclear scientists and providing nuclear-related technology, including a small 'research' reactor in 1955 under the 'Atoms for Peace' program". It was France that built a uranium reactor and plutonium reprocessing plant in the Negev desert, called Dimona. The Israelis lied that it was "a manganese plant, or a textile factory". In return for uranium, Israel supplied South Africa with the technology and expertise that allowed the white supremacist regime to build the "apartheid bomb".
In 1979, when US satellite photographs revealed the atmospheric test of a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean off South Africa, Israel's involvement, writes Steinbach, "was quickly whitewashed by a carefully selected scientific panel, kept in the dark about important details". Israeli sources have since revealed "there were actually three tests of miniaturised Israeli nuclear artillery shells".
It was at Dimona that the heroic Mordechai Vanunu worked as a technician. A supporter of Palestinian rights, Vanunu believed it was his duty to warn the world about the danger Israel posed. In 1986, he smuggled out photographs showing that the plant was producing enough plutonium to make 10 to 12 bombs a year, and that at least 200 miniaturised bombs had been built. Vanunu was subsequently lured to Rome from London by Mossad, the Israeli dirty tricks agency. Beaten and drugged, he was kidnapped to Israel, where a secret security court sentenced him to 18 years in prison, 12 of which were spent in solitary confinement, in a cell barely big enough for him to stand.
Steinbach says that, whatever "deterrent effect" the founders of the Israeli nuclear programme may have intended, "today, the nuclear arsenal is inextricably linked to and integrated with overall Israeli military and political strategy". While Israel has ballistic missiles and bombers capable of reaching Moscow, and has reportedly launched a submarine-based cruise missile, "a staple of the arsenal are neutron bombs [which are] miniaturised thermonuclear bombs designed to maximise deadly gamma radiation while minimising blast effects and long-term radiation - in essence designed to kill people while leaving property intact".
These are the same "limited" nuclear weapons the Reagan administration seriously considered using in Europe and which Ariel Sharon's zealots may use as a "demonstration" that they have no intention of relinquishing the occupied territories.
"Arabs may have the oil, but we have the matches," said Sharon before he became prime minister. Steinbach says such a threat could be used to compel the Bush administration to act exclusively in Israel's favour were it to waver in the face of growing international support for the intifada. Francis Perrin, the former head of the French nuclear weapons programme, wrote: "We thought the Israeli Bomb was aimed at the Americans, not to launch it at the Americans, but to say, 'If you don't want to help us in a critical situation [when we] require you to help us . . . we will use our nuclear bombs'."
Israel used this blackmail during the 1973 war with Egypt, forcing Richard Nixon to resupply its badly shaken military. The Israeli nuclear threat is seldom raised in this country, in parliament and the media, and is a non-issue in the United States. This is in line with a news agenda on Palestine that is still set by Israel. However, since the election of Sharon, who has presided over massacres of Palestinian civilians since 1953, this may be changing. Television pictures from Gaza and the West Bank ought to leave little doubt that Israel is a terrorist state, with a policy of state murder.
One of the most impressive critics of his own government I met in Israel more than 25 years ago is Israel Shahak, then professor of organic chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen death camp. As Israeli society becomes more and more polarised, Shahak's courage and wisdom endure. Three years ago, he said: "The wish for peace, so often assumed as the Israeli aim, is not in my view a principle of Israeli policy, while the wish to extend Israeli domination and influence is." He added this prophecy, of which all but one element has so far proved correct: "Israel is preparing for war, nuclear if need be, for the sake of averting domestic change not to its liking [and is] clearly prepared to use, for the purpose, all means available, including nuclear ones."
For more on John Pilger's films and writing go to www.johnpilger.com