The Elephant in Congress: Netanyahu's Own Nukes

03/03/2015 10:25 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

It's astonishing that in the breathless run-up to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress to warn of a nuclear-armed Iran, no one -- politicians, editorial writers, media pundits -- point out that there already is a nuclear power in the Middle East -- Netanyahu's Israel.

Estimates are that Israel has about 80 nukes, roughly the same number as Pakistan and India.

Although it has possessed nuclear weapons for more than half a century, Israel still refuses to own up to that fact, and the United States blandly continues to go along with that fiction. When asked in 2009 if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, Barack Obama avoided the trap by saying only that he did not wish to "speculate."

The question is, whether you support Netanyahu's policies or not, how can the U.S. and Israel and their allies attempt to block Iran from acquiring the bomb, while pretending that Israel doesn't already have one? How do you justify such a flagrant double standard?

How to have a realistic assessment of a possible Iranian threat to Israel, without recognizing that any Iranian leader crazy enough to attack Israel, would have to act with the knowledge that Israel would retaliate with a nuclear arsenal that would obliterate not just Iran's nuclear facilities, but all of Iran?

But, if they were to recognize the truth about Israel's arsenal, American leaders would have to do something about it.

Which is the reason they've dodged the issue ever since the CIA first came to President Eisenhower in 1958-59 with news that Israel was developing a nuclear facility at Dimona with French covert assistance. As Seymour Hersh detailed in "The Samson Option," Eisenhower's White House made it clear they didn't want to know.

One major reason was that by admitting that Israel was a nuclear power, the U.S. would undermine its campaign to get the countries of the region to sign on to the new Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

(Ironically, beginning in 1974 under the Shah, and continuing under Khomeini, Iran would consistently call for a non-proliferation zone in the Middle East. To protect Israel, the U.S. would constantly dodge the issue.)

"Don't be so naive," Israel's supporters will argue. "Sure, Israel has nukes, but its people live in a very dangerous neighborhood. They're our only real allies there. Our relationship is one of mutual trust and respect.

"The Iranians, on the other hand, are a deceitful lot who have lied through their teeth about their nuclear goals since the beginning."

The fact is, however, that from the start, the Israelis also lied about their nuclear ambitions.

In December 1960, for instance, the Eisenhower administration finally leaked word about Dimona and France's involvement with the Israeli reactor 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 Israel's David Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times' report.

He assured American officials-as well as his own Israeli Knesset-that the Dimona reactor was completely benign.

For their part, French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).

The deceit and denials have continued ever since.

"O.K." Netanyahu's backers will argue. "So, Israel was not exactly forthcoming about its nuclear arsenal. They had no choice. But their nukes are in safe, responsible custody.

"On the other hand, there's no way we can let those crazed mullahs in Iran get anywhere near a nuclear weapon. No telling whom they might give them to."

There are a couple of problems with that argument. First, over the past fear years Israel's own set of crazies -- those calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank, for instance, or demanding preemptive strikes against Iran, have gained increased influence in Israel. Once considered kooks beyond the pale, they no longer are.

Secondly, even when supposedly wise, sober men were running Israel, some of their most respected leaders were willing to help the apartheid regime of South Africa develop nuclear weapons.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky researching a book on Israel's relations with apartheid South Africa, uncovered a set of "top secret" documents including the minutes of meetings between senior officials from South Africa and Israel on March 31, 1975. The minutes related how South Africa's defense minister, PW Botha, requested nuclear warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel's defense minister, responded by offering them in "three sizes."

The two men also signed an agreement for military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that "the very existence of this agreement" was to remain secret.

According to the Guardian, a spokeswoman for Peres said the report was baseless and there were "never any negotiations between the two countries." She didn't comment on the authenticity of the documents.

In any case, partially because of cost, South Africa ultimately did not purchase those warheads. Nor was it sure that Israel's prime minister would have approved the deal.

But South Africa did go ahead, with continued clandestine assistance from Israel, to develop its own nuclear weapons -- missiles and warheads.

For its part, South Africa also provided much of the yellowcake uranium that Israel required to develop its nuclear arsenal.

Ironically, apartheid South Africa wasn't the only country attempting to get nuclear assistance from Israel. So was Iran -- under the Shah.

Documents seized by Iranian students from the US embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, revealed the Shah expressed an interest to Israel in developing nuclear arms.

Indeed, in the 1970's Israel and Iran launched a secret joint project to develop a nuclear capable ground-to-ground missile. This according to Gary Sick, an Iranian expert who served on the staff of the National Security Council under several U.S. presidents.

The two countries undertook the project after the U.S. turned down each of their requests to buy the missile from America. They kept the program secret from the U.S. It was still in the works when the Shah was overthrown.

After the revolution, the new Islamic government of the Ayatollah Khomeini renounced the Shah's nuclear policies. It looked like the entire program would be scrapped.

According to Sick, the Iranians stuck to that position even after Saddam Hussein attacked Iran's cities with long-range missiles equipped with chemical warheads. The Ayatollah Khomeini was adamant that nuclear weapons violated Islamic principles.

After Khomeini's death the views of Iran's new leadership changed.

They were shocked by the extent to which Saddam had developed his own nuclear arsenal, and unnerved by the prospect that they would have been the first victims of the Iraqi dictator's new weapons. Who knew what a future Iraqi leader might do?

They were also concerned by the ease with which the U.S.-led forces overthrow Saddam, and worried that they might also become a target of American attacks -- a threat that U.S. (and Israel) officials have never ceased to brandish. Having their own nuclear weapons was a sure defence.

According to Sick, "Iran may also want to have a counterweight to Israel's extensive nuclear arsenal, and it may believe that a nuclear program would bolster Iran's position as a regional power."

Good luck in trying to find such a sober and thoughtful analysis in the current firestorm that passes for a debate over Iran's nukes, where Israel's arsenal is not even mentioned.