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Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity

07/08/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore says that it's interesting to see Israel's nuclear capability in the headlines again.


(Dunsmore) Back in the good old days of network television news, before the age of "celebrity" journalists, ABC had a Sunday program called Issues and Answers. The show was based on the quaint idea that the reporters covering the beat or the region should ask the questions when newsmakers from their area appeared.

So it was that one hot summer day in 1969, I, as the roving Middle East correspondent at the time, and Russell Jones, the Israel bureau chief, were asking the questions at the Tel Aviv home of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. There was an important question on our minds but we waited till the end of the program so that we might get an answer and not a filibuster.

With only seconds remaining, Jones jumped in, "Mrs. Meir, is it true that Israel now has nuclear weapons?" Golda never missed a beat. "No," she said, "And we won't use them."

In the 35 years since, Israel has maintained that policy of "nuclear ambiguity" - never admitting to having such weapons but being quite happy to have the Arabs think it did. For a time that was a policy of some merit. That may no longer be true.

First of all, let's be clear. United States intelligence agencies have no doubt that Israel has nuclear weapons - at least as many as 200 warheads - and the planes, missiles and probably submarines to deliver them up to a thousand miles.

The U.S. gave Israel its first small research reactor in 1955. But the big move came in the early sixties when France provided a nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant to remove plutonium from spent fuel. The reactor was set up near the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert where phosphate deposits contain large amounts of uranium. By the time of the 1967 War, Israel was a bone-fide member of the nuclear club. It's now ranked in the top six with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

Israel has never officially admitted having nuclear weapons and has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty - among other things that would require Israel to put its nuclear programs under international inspections. For many years, the U.S. and the Western Europeans, were willing to give the Israelis a pass on this issue, in the belief that its nuclear weapons would only be used if Israel's very existence were threatened.

Given Jewish history that was understandable. But now that Israel enjoys overwhelming military superiority in the region, the rationale for having such weapons is harder to argue. Israel's nukes make it very difficult for the U.S. and the United Nations to press countries such as Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, Pakistan now has the so-called "Islamic" bomb, and we know it has sold nuclear technology to Libya.

There is little doubt that a Mid-East free from nuclear weapons would make the world a safer place. But realistically, it's probably too late for that to happen.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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