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Tel Aviv's worst kept secret

Nuclear arsenal makes it hard for Obama to press for non-proliferation in Middle East

  • By George S. Hishmeh, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 August 5, 2010
  • Gulf News

Americans of all walks of life have lately been mesmerised by the drama launched by WikiLeaks, which published on its website a major portion of 92,000 classified and embarrassing US documents on the Afghan war, now in its ninth year and the longest US military intervention.

The documents claimed that Pakistan, or actually its spy agency known as Inter-Services Intelligence, had been arming, training and funding the Taliban for years.

Whatever these revelations would precipitate remains to be seen. But it is interesting to note that the focus of US (and international) attention dwarfs another "amazing" but little noticed revelation last May when the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) partially declassified another secret document held behind closed doors for 32 years "in spite of the best efforts of researchers to dislodge it".

Notwithstanding the ‘tantalising' title of the revealed document — ‘Nuclear Diversion in the US? 13 Years of Contradiction and Confusion', Grant F. Smith, director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep), asserted that the "quest for more information about the US-Israel nuclear relationship is far from over".

IRmep followed up with holding a panel discussion on this sensitive issue publicly and boldly under the heading, ‘Israel's Nuclear Arsenal: Espionage, Opacity and Future', at, of all places, the impressive International Spy Museum in Washington.

Smith detailed "how coerced ‘ambiguity' about Israel's nuclear weapons undermines accountability here in the United States". Disappointingly, IRmep's panel discussion received little press attention in the US or in the Arab world despite the shocking details which merit full exposure.

Military edge

A week later, the Brookings Institution invited (coincidentally?) Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, to detail the Obama administration's generous approach to "preserving Israel's qualitative military edge".

Smith acknowledged at the outset that "few Americans are aware of how heavily Israel relied on weapons stolen and smuggled from the US in the past."

He proceeded to identify how many American Jewish leaders were involved in the scam, and sometimes with help from some American presidents.

The 62-page GAO investigation and correspondence, according to Smith, "confirms the US refusal to mount credible investigations that would enable warranted prosecutions of the perpetrators."

To cite but one example, the report reveals that the "opaque" relationship started when the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), established in 1957, had then received "more than 22 tonnes of taxpayer-funded, highly enriched Uranium-235, the key material used for manufacturing nuclear weapons".

It turned out that David Lowenthal, then head of Israeli intelligence, had helped in launching NUMEC. Its co-founder was Dr. Leonard P. Pepkowitz, who later moved to the famed Los Alamos (National) Laboratory in New Mexico.

In the early 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission, according to the GAO report, began documenting suspicious lapses in NUMEC's security, inexplicably lax record-keeping and the ongoing presence of large numbers of Israelis at the plant. In 1965, NUMEC could not account for another 220 pounds of highly enriched uranium, and a year later the FBI began monitoring NUMEC's management and Israeli visitors.

Smuggling

A CIA official, Carl Duckett, reported Smith, came to the conclusion that "NUMEC material had been diverted by the Israelis and used in fabricating weapons."

Smith protested that "few perpetrators of highly illegal conventional and nuclear smuggling activities for Israel have never faced any meaningful consequences." He added that "the drive to extend the cover-up has now extended beyond the CIA and FBI right into the US Senate" where, for example, Senator Arlen Specter had tried but failed, to clear Zalman Shapiro, a former head of NUMEC.

Anyhow, today's worst kept secret is that Israel is now recognised as the world's sixth nuclear power, possessing anywhere between 100 to 400 nuclear bombs. (Former US president Jimmy Carter believes that Israel has at least 150 nuclear weapons, the first time a US president publicly acknowledged Israel's nuclear arsenal).

John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, a New York Times best-seller, argued at IRmep's seminar that "the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons is making it very difficult for the US to stem the tide on proliferation and to move to a nuclear-free Middle East.

This should give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an opportunity to get Israel to agree to a nuclear-free Middle East as part of a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Go for it, Abu Mazen! And then we all can tell whether Netanyahu is anxious for peace.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted by emailing ghishmeh@gulfnews.com

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