Cover of The Samson Option

The Samson Option
Seymour Hersh
354 pages, including notes and index
published in 1991

The Samson Option is a book about one of the fundamental truths about the Middle East: Israel always has the biggest and best weapons, including nuclear weapons. Israel has long been known to posses them, though has never officially confirmed (or denied) their existence. It is in this twilight zone between official confirmation and actual existence that these weapons can do their work best: serve as a deterrent without becoming a liability. Nuclear weapons hardly fit the carefully crafted image of Israel as the peaceful little country besieged by enemies bound on its destruction, after all. At the same time they're very handy as the ultimate deterrent though, this ability to "pull down the roof of the temple" and take your enemies with you.

In The Samson Option the history of how Israel obtained its nuclear deterrent and how US foreign policy dealt with this is laid out. Parts of it are speculative, as it was written without any access to official Israeli sources or Israeli governmental help and so had to rely largely on publically accesible sources and US intelligence material. There has also been some unofficial support from people involved with Israel's nuclear project though, despite the official policy of "neither confirming nor denying" its existence. I know Seymour Hersh primarily from his articles about the War on Iraq; I know he can ferret out hidden truths therefore. He has certainly done well to present the strange history of the Israeli nuclear bomb project clearly.

It turns out that the Israeli quest for nuclear weapons started in the fifties, which was much earlier than I thought it was. I was under the impression the Israeli nuclear weapons programme only got started in the early seventies, but instead it was developed more or less in lockstep with the French nuclear programme. The French helped Israel set up a nuclear reactor / reprocessing plant in 1956 and the two countries shared research for a number of years, of which the Israelis profited far more than the French, until the French unilaterally stopped cooperating.

Not that this stopped the Israelis for long, who at any rate had started to resent the French specialists lording it over them. They moved steadily on to more and more advanced nuclear weapons, as well as delivery systems. Currently Israel may have as many as 200-300 nuclear bombs, which could be fired from long range artillery guns, delivered by long range strike aircraft like the F-15, or by Jericho rocket.

Since Israel, which already has the most powerful military in the Middle East, has a nuclear strikeforce capable of wiping out all its enemies at one stroke, it enjoys a degree of military invulnerability that has made it reckless, because its leaders knows they can always rattle the nuclear sabre if things get too rough, which may just have happened in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Worse, according to Hersh (and other sources), Israel helped South Africa gets its own nuclear weapons in the late seventies. Fortunately, after the end of Apartheid the South Africans were sensible enough to destroy them...

Even more shocking are the revelations about how much the US knew about the Israeli nuclear programme. It turns out that the intelligence services almost knew from the beginning that Israel had one, though they consistently underestimated its extent. However, there never was the political will in succesive US governments to deal with it, as that could be politically very costly, thanks to the powerful pro-Israel lobby in American politics.

Over the past year, both Israel and the United States have been threatening military action against Iran, for allegedly starting its own nuclear weapons programme. So far , I haven;t seen any evidence this actually exists and Iran, unlike Israel, has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There's a large element of hypocrisy in the Israeli/US position therefore. How could an Iranian Bomb be destabilising and dangerous when Israel has hundreds in its arsenal and the US has thousands?

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Webpage created 14-07-2006, last updated 06-11-2006
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