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A new chapter has been revealed in the fascinating saga of Israel’s invisible nuclear weapon’s program. According to documents released by the National Security Archives, in 1963-64 Argentina played a major role in providing Israel with 80-100 tons of uranium oxide (“yellowcake”) vital for Israel’s clandestine nuclear program.
(It’s not mentioned in the press release, but Argentina’s aid may well have been tit-for-tat—since Israel was also an important supplier of weapons to Argentina.)
Equally fascinating as the news of Argentina’s assistance, is the fact that those “secret” shipments were fairly quickly discovered by Canadian intelligence officials in 1964, who ultimately passed on the news to their British and American colleagues, who passed it on to their civilian leaders.
That news of course cast strong doubts on Israel’s claims that its nuclear program was completely peaceful.
So, what happened? “In response to U.S. diplomatic queries about the sale, the government of Israel was evasive in its replies and gave no answers to the U.S.’s questions about the transaction.”
Over the following months and years, the U.S. and its allies showed no appetite to seriously challenge Israel’s on-going evasions.
Indeed, according to the NSA release, the story of the Argentina yellowcake sale to Israel has remained largely unknown, not just because of Israel’s passion for secrecy, but because the U.S. government and its close allies kept secret for years what they knew at the time.
In fact that policy was nothing new, but the continuation of a refusal by the U.S. and its partners to refuse to publicly recognize Israel’s nuclear weapons program—that began under Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950’s—and continues to this day.
The official deception is chronicled by in Seymour Hersh’s authoritative “The Samson Option,” written in 1991.
As Hersh wrote, it was impossible for the Israelis to to hide the massive new construction of their nuclear weapons facility from America’s high-flying U2 spy plane.
In late 1958 or early 1959, CIA photo intelligence experts, spotted what looked almost certainly to be a nuclear reactor being built at Dimona.
They rushed the raw images to the White House, expecting urgent demands from the Oval Office for more information. This was, after all, a development that could initiate a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
But there was absolutely no follow-up from the White House. As one of the analysts later told Seymour Hersh “Nobody came back to me, ever, on Israel.” Though the analysts continued regular reporting on Dimona, there were no requests for high-level briefings. “ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘this isn’t going to be disseminated is it?’ It was that attitude.”
“By the end of 1959,” writes Hersh, “the two analysts had no doubts that Israel was going for the bomb. They also had no doubts that President Eisenhower and his advisers were determined to look the other way.”
The reason was evident: Eisenhower publicly was a strong advocate of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If he was formally to “know” of Israel’s nuclear program, he would be obliged to react–against Israel. Which, in the U.S. could mean serious political consequences.
It was only in December 1960, that the Eisenhower administration, nearing its end, leaked word about Dimona and France’s involvement to the New York Times. The administration hoped that, without having to make any official accusations itself, it could oblige the Israeli government to sign the NPT.
But Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times report. He assured American officials –as well as the Israeli Knesset–that the Dimona reactor was completely benign. French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).
The Eisenhower administration, however, had no stomach to take on Israel and its American lobby. Despite the reports of CIA analysts, Ben Gurion’s denials went unchallenged.
That hypocrisy would remain official America’s policy to this day–even as U.S. presidents decried the attempts of countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria, India, Pakistan, Libya and Iraq to themselves develop the bomb