The Unclear Bomb – Investigating Israel’s Samson Option

The Unclear Bomb – Investigating Israel’s ‘Samson Option’ – Blake Lovewell

Israel’s secret nuclear programme is the unspoken backstop to all of their negotiations. When threatened, Israel will take the ‘Samson Option’ and take the whole Middle East with them. The trouble is, nobody knows exactly how many, or what type of nuclear bombs that Israel manufactures and holds.

For a summary and interview about the article you can listen back to this segment of Patrick Henningsen’s TNT Radio show on 31st October 2023

The Unclear Bomb

Nuclear research is understandably done in secrecy. The USA’s Manhattan project, taking place from 1942-45, was their project to create a nuclear bomb. It is reported by the US Department of Energy that they successfully kept the plan largely hidden from Germany. History tells of those scientists’ unfortunate success. Though Hiroshima and Nagsaki cities have thankfully risen from the ashes, the spectre of nuclear holocaust is one that stalks the halls of power and haunts geopolitical negotiations to this day. The Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union is testament to this game theory – both sides engaged in a nuclear arms race, but the war remained ‘cold’ as neither side wished to re-open Pandora’s box and engage in mutual destruction.

There is much out in the public about the USA’s nuclear program nowadays. Part of the strategy of modern military powers is to display their nuclear arms as a deterrent. The logic is sound, even if most pacifists would agree that building and hoarding devices that could render our only habitable planet a wasteland, is not the best use of our human geniuses. Thus we have the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China to be officially designated nuclear powers: i.e. states which hold at least one nuclear weapon in their arsenal. Yet despite a mountain of evidence, both public and private, Israel is not officially on the list. This ‘policy of deliberate ambiguity’ has a history almost as old as the nation and shines a light on the geopolitics of Israel. It is a subject that has historically been ignored and sidelined, an inconvenient truth. However, I hold it is one of the most salient factors which inform the strategies on the Middle Eastern political chessboard. Let us take a look through the history of Israel’s nuclear program up to the brink of disaster with a perspective on how their nuclear program affects events to this day.

Let us start in 1958, in the Negev Desert, near a small desert town called Dimona. American U-2 surveillance planes had noted a large area of cleared land fenced off. CIA photo interpreters initially assumed it was an ammunition testing range. However, after later photographs were developed, it appeared huge amounts of construction was going on. It was unclear what the Israelis were building, as not only were vast amounts of concrete being used but there were unusually deep excavations. Lundhal, the CIA’s head of U-2 surveillance noted a circular dome of concrete being poured in the Negev desert, a sure sign of a nuclear reactor. He then took these photos and reported them to Allen Dulles and then president, Dwight Eisenhower. He expected to be green-lit for further investigations into the site; an Israeli nuclear reprocessing plant was a matter of national interest. However, after this report, he was not tasked with further investigation. Lundhal was never asked for a follow-up on any of the CIA’s Israeli photography. It is known that Eisenhower was in private communication with Ben-Gurion, the Israeli state’s founder and first leader. Very little is known as to the exact reasons why Israeli nuclear ambitions were a subject non grata for the US administration.

The Dimona Facility in the Negev Desert as seen from aerial photography

It was known to the USA that French expertise was being given to Israel at the time. France and Israel had forged close ties during the Suez crisis. There was a bustling community of French engineers and technicians in Beersheba, near Dimona from 1957, allegedly to work on a nuclear reactor. The French treated the Israelis with some disdain, the French viewed themselves as superior. In turn; the Israelis hired in Moroccan and Algerian Jews to do work at the site in Dimona. They were given 59 day contracts to skirt socialist labour regulations and were often treated like slaves. By the early 1960s, under Charles De Gaulle, there was a steady pullout of French assets from Israel, but by that point they were no longer needed. The foundations were laid for Israel’s covert nuclear program.

John F. Kennedy had run-ins with the Israel lobby early in his presidential campaign. He was visited by Abe Feinberg and eventually given $500,000 for his campaign. Feinberg is an important Jewish figure to have on side as his vote swayed the opinion of many Jewish businessmen in the USA at the time. Simultaneously he had a foot in Israeli politics, campaigning for the Zionist cause. Kennedy had needed the funding but was uncomfortable about the level of control Feinberg and other Zionists wanted to have over the President’s Middle East foreign policy.

Kennedy was committed to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. It was one of the planks of his moral case for presidency and it sat well with a war-weary public. He would routinely pressure Ben-Gurion about inspections of the Dimona facility only to be stonewalled. He confided in his friend Charles Bartlett after a meeting with Israeli politician Shimon Peres: “Sons of bitches lie to me constantly about their nuclear capability.” Without inspection the USA couldn’t know what was happening at Dimona, whether it was an innocent nuclear power plant, or a reprocessing plant capable of enriching uranium to fill nuclear warheads.

 It was also true that even under De Gaulle’s leadership, having stated he would not support Israel’s intention to create the bomb, that French technicians were back working in the Negev. France had undertaken its first test of a nuclear bomb in the Sahara in 1962 with Israeli scientists present. Furthermore, French missile company Dassault entered into a contract with Israel for $100 million to deliver 25 Jericho I missiles. These Jericho Missiles were capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

Here we bear witness to the dual-nature of Israel’s nuclear weapon development. Despite the leadership of both the USA and France ostensibly opposing Israeli proliferation, both the funding and materielle were continually made available one way or another. Israel was able to staunch internal critics too, who railed against the high cost of a doomsday device in a nation with many more pressing problems. The nuclear program was a brain-drain from Israels burgeoning computer technology sector. Yet the fanatical leadership of Israel was dead-set on getting the bomb.

Kennedy had managed to secure a bi-annual inspection of Dimona, though these were repeatedly postponed and obfuscated and Israel would never allow the IAEA, the Independent Atomic Energy Authority to inspect their facility. In fact the Israeli determination to keep their nuclear project secrett lead to a most farcical American inspection. I quote here from Seymour Hersh’s eye opening ‘The Samson Option’ – an unparalleled research into Israeli nuclear ambitions with an array of primary sources in the US and Israeli intelligence services.

“Ben-Gurion took no chances: the American inspectors – most of them experts in nuclear reprocessing – would be provided with a Potemkin village and never know it.

              The Israeli scheme, based on plans supplied by the French, was simple: a false control room was constructed at Dimona, complete with false control panels and computer-driven measuring devices that seemed to be gauging the thermal output of a twenty-four megawatt reactor (as Israel claimed Dimona to be) in full operation.

              There were extensive practise sessions in the fake control room, as Israeli technicians sought to avoid any slips when the Americans arrived. The goal was to convince the inspectors that no chemical reprocessing plant existed or was possible. One big fear was that the Americans would seek to inspect the core physically, and presumably discover that Dimona was utilizing large amounts of heavy water – much of it illicitly obtained from France and Norway – and obviously operating the reactor at far greater output than the acknowledged twenty-four megawatts. It was agreed the inspection team would not be permitted to enter the core ‘for safety reasons’”.

Thus the semi-secret nuclear reprocessing could continue under wraps, the Kennedy government none the wiser. Following Kennedy’s assassination Israel had a much easier time under Lyndon Johnson. He would not only look the other way on the nuclear weapons issue, but would go on to approve missile and fighter jet deliveries to Israel. At the heightened speed of processing Israel could produce enough enriched Uranium for 4 or 5 nuclear warheads per year, from the late 1960s. Ben-Gurion’s successor, Moshe Dayan, continued in this stead following some pressure from the Zionist lobby in Israel and globally to keep Israel ‘safe’ by arming herself with nukes.

Israel walked a fine line on the nuclear issue. On the one hand they wanted to appease the wider Jewish population and not come off as too extreme and draw ire – perhaps one of the keenest reasons for Israeli secrecy on the issue. On the other hand, there were those avid Zionists who wished to ensure the safety of Israel as an extension of the Jewish population worldwide. Pinhas Sapir, an in Israeli finance minister said to have controlled the Israeli economy from his little black notebook, is said to have stated upon viewing Dimona in 1968: “There will be no more Auchwitzes”. Further to this point it is a commonly held urban myth that when the champagne was popped at the unveiling of the first nuclear warhead that it was welded with the inscription ‘Never Again’. Clearly the horrors of the holocaust informed this extreme pursuit of nuclear weapons among Israel’s ruling class.

The title of Seymour Hersh’s book, ‘The Samson Option’ takes after the biblical figure of Samson. Having been tortured by Philistines (non-Jews) and chained up in the temple awaiting further punishment, he calls upon God to give him power. His hair, having re-grown from Delilah’s power sapping haircut, he pulls down the pillar of the temple he is chained to and dies along with the Philistines. The Samson Option for Israel is the theoretical last-resort if the territory is invaded and heavily compromised. It would utilise its nuclear capability to bring the ‘temple’ down on itself and the ‘Philistines’ – those being the presumably Arabic invaders with it. In modern Israel, talk of their nuclear weapons is often censored so journalists and pundits will often use the euphemism to avoid punishment. Yet the ‘Samson Option’ is not just a theory for military strategy handbooks. During the Yom Kippur War, it became a very real threat.

Israel had a track record of military success, after the initial conquest and founding in 1948. There they had not only captured the UN declared area of Palestine set for the formation of Israel, but also 60% of Arabic Palestine. Next, during the ‘Six Day War’ in 1967 they were able to fend off Egyptian and Syrian attack and expand their territorial control further into Arabic Palestine. Thus they were taken off-guard when just after the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1973 both Syrian and Egyptian forces moved into the territories held by Israel. The co-ordination and strength of the attack led to significant losses of Israeli military assets and had them on the back foot. Morale melted away and suddenly Israel was under threat from being swarmed from the North and South. On Day 3 of the war, October 8th, bowing to significant pressure from the fearful military leadership, Israel declared their first ever nuclear alert. They notified the authorities in the USA and USSR that they had equipped nuclear warheads. Until this point the USSR believed the widely held assumption that Israel only had about 3 nuclear warheads, yet we now know they had many more. This threat was two-fold. One it was to deter the Arabic forces and their backers in the USSR from pushing any further – to provoke a cornered wounded animal is a folly too far. For the USA it was for the purposes of blackmail: cede to Israel’s demands for military support, or allow another nuclear catastrophe to unfold.

On October 9th, Israel’s ambassador to the USA held a private meeting with Henry Kissinger. We have no notes or recordings of this meeting, but Kissinger’s behaviour betrays the gist of the meeting. He had previously been cool on Israel, allowing Soviet build-up in Arabic states and would only step in when he could see an advantage for the US foreign interest. Yet following this meeting, he was unequivocal about the need to rush to immediately arm Israel, send weaponry and supplies, but to also come out publically and have the US openly back Israel. An illuminating quote demonstrating Kissinger’s position goes as such. Kissinger declared himself: “An American first, Secretary of State second, and a Jew third” – to which Prime Minister Golda Meir responded “You forget that in Israel, we read from right to left”. Israel was able to invert Kissinger’s geopolitical stance overnight.

On the same day: Israel left their missile silos open at Hirbat Zachariah. They knew full well that both American and Soviet satellites would be able to detect and photograph them. The message got through and both sides of the cold war were able to wind back their military endeavours and broker a shaky ceasefire. However, Israel repeatedly broke the ceasefire and began pushing into Egypt. They got to within 60 miles of Cairo when reports of a Soviet ship armed with warheads reached US and Israeli intelligence. These reports lead to Israel’s second nuclear alert and the arming of the warheads. The USA also sent over 50 B-52 bombers and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. The U.S.S.R. quickly pointed out that they had not sent nuclear weapons into the Mediterranean and it later emerged that the report was based on a false reading from a computer in the Black Sea. It is acknowledged much after the fact that there was a sense of panic in the Israeli political elite at the time and things got very close to somebody pushing the big red button.

From there to today we have had a continuation of the same shaky peace. Contested areas like the Golan Heights and Gaza are repeatedly targeted by Israeli military expansion boosted by the harder Zionist wing, meanwhile Arabic states are reluctant to poke the beast particularly whilst they wish to cultivate relationships with its owner, the USA. Israel has been able to continue its nuclear weapons research and manufacture without oversight. Estimates vary from between 200-400 Israeli warheads, but they could be substantially higher. Information is piecemeal base on quantities of Uranium being imported and other circumstantial information, but we may never know exactly the size and scope of Israel’s Samson Option. They have never allowed an IAEA inspection, nor did they sign up to the United Nation’s Nuclear Non-ProliferationTtreaty. There is to this day a policy of ‘nuclear opacity’ – even modern sources will say that Israel does not confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons. That is despite the events of the Yom Kippur war, as well as documented test explosions, and statements from high up US and Israeli politicians in conformation. It is a very convenient obfuscation for both parties as Israel doesn’t get officially chastised for her nuclear program and the USA doesn’t need to deal with the political baggage of supporting a rogue nuclear state.

Yet this massive nuclear gray zone in geopolitics, I argue, is a very dangerous thing. In the run up to the 2023 conflict, Qatar had publically stated its fears over Israel’s nuclear weapons. At the IAEA annual conference, they demanded that Israel join the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and allow inspections, for the purposes of furthering peace in the Middle East. As Israel continues to flout all calls for oversight on nuclear weapons, it opens up the legitimate cause of rival Middle East nations to ‘go nuclear’ themselves. A nuclear arms race is no-good for anyone and it would undo all of the hard work that nuclear disarmament campaigners have worked for over 50 years. It also shows the weakness in international law: when one country or group is allowed to continually flout the rules and laws, then they lose their meaning – when there is no enforcement then international institutions lose their teeth and we return to the basal assumptions of international politics – the dog-eat-dog competition, survival of the fittest.

I will end with a passing note on the current conflict in Israel/Gaza. Following attacks by Hamas on Israeli citizens, the Israeli pushback has been most extremely bellicose. Not only is it good enough to capture the assailants, or harden the border, Israel seems dogged in its pursuit of a greater Israel and the eradication of Palestinians.

Revital “Tally” Gotliv, an Israeli lawyer and member of the Knesset for the Likud, published multiple posts online advocating for a nuclear retaliation:

 “Jericho Missile! Jericho Missile! Strategic alert. before considering the introduction of forces. Doomsday weapon! This is my opinion. May God preserve all our strength,” Gotliv wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday 8th October 2023 – a fateful date, exactly 50 years on from the first Israeli nuclear alert. Another post says: “Only an explosion that shakes the Middle East will restore this country’s dignity, strength and security! … It’s time to kiss doomsday. Shooting powerful missiles without limit. Not flattening a neighbourhood. Crushing and flattening Gaza. … without mercy! without mercy!”.

So far, Israel’s military has been flattening Gazan neighbourhoods without the use of nuclear weapons, killing Palestinians indiscriminately. There are many different reports of Israeli war crimes in the current conflict and they have used banned chemical weapons such as US-supplied white phosphorous on civilian areas. We can only hope that this does not draw such a reaction from the Arab world as to push Israel back into the temple, and to unleash her Samson Option.


Project Manhattan Secrecy:

List of Nuclear Weapon States:

Kennedy : “Sons of bitches…”

Hersh: ‘The Samson Option’

Meir: “… Right to Left”

Gotliv: “Jericho Missile!…”

Qatar: Statement at IAEA annual meeting

Palestine live death toll: Al Jazeera (State funded by Qatar)

Israel uses US-supplied White Phosphorous

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