Israel's worst-kept secret, on Web

Satellite photos of a nuclear reactor complicate US policy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

First the Web brought you real-time stock quotes, instant messaging, and cybershopping.

Now comes a new pinnacle in transparency: high-resolution satellite imagery of some of the world's most sensitive sites, available to anyone online.

In recent months, images of a US Air Force base in an off-limits part of the Nevada desert known as Area 51 have been published in cyberspace, as have pictures of North Korea's secrecy-shrouded missile-launching facilities.

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Last week the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) placed on its Web site satellite photographs of Israel's top-secret Dimona reactor and an Israeli daily prominently published some of the same images.

For decades Israeli leaders have denied that their country has nuclear weapons while letting slip the odd remark that ensures everyone knows they possess the deadliest of deterrents. But in the Internet age, when technology allows invasions of personal and national privacy, this policy of "deliberate ambiguity" is looking much more deliberate than ambiguous. "This publication does make a difference," says a former US National Security Council official about the availability of the Dimona images. "It exposes what has been officially denied."

Israel's nuclear-weapons program has long been secret in name only; some experts estimate that Israel has 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. Considering the extensive reach of Israel's missiles and its well-funded conventional forces, this tiny nation of 6 million people is the military powerhouse of the Middle East.

Indeed, says Daniel Goure, an international security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, greater awareness of their nuclear capabilities may serve the Israelis' interests. "They're increasingly facing long-range threats" - such as Iran's missile program - "for which conventional forces are not a solution," he says.

The United States, Israel's ally and a nation that has tried to appear as an honest broker in disputes between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, has long ignored the public evidence of Israel's nuclear-weapons program.

"There is a massive American effort against proliferation," notes Abdel-Monem Said, director of Egypt's state-funded Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo. "But when it comes to Israel, [this effort] is highly disappointing."

Part of the US justification for the 1991 Gulf War was to attempt to eliminate Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. The US has alternated between cold-shouldered warnings and peaceful entreaties to convince North Korea not to develop atomic bombs. These policies stand in contrast to the Washington's don't-ask-don't-tell handling of Israel.

"Every additional publication of documentation," says Joseph Alpher, an independent researcher who is an expert on Israel's defense, "is another blow at the doctrine of ambiguity." And the growing public awareness of Israel's nuclear capability "doesn't make it easier for the US to maintain its posture."

Mr. Goure says that the appearance of a double standard complicates nonproliferation efforts in the region: "The Arabs can say, 'Don't talk to us about chemical and biological weapons when you turn a blind eye to what the Israelis are doing."

The former National Security Council official concedes that the Dimona pictures will serve the cause of Egypt and other countries that demand a tougher US line on Israel's nuclear program. But he doubts that the US will change its stand.

The satellite images published by FAS, a non-profit group founded by the scientists who helped to develop the first US atomic weapons and now campaigns for nuclear disarmament, follow the publication of a landmark study of Israel's nuclear program.

"Israel and the Bomb," by scholar Avner Cohen, was published by Columbia University Press in late 1998. It details the history of this country's nuclear program, including the accommodation reached with the US.

The nuclear version of "don't ask, don't tell" was the logical solution to a situation where Israel felt compelled to develop weapons to defend against its neighbors and where the US was pushing for global nonproliferation.

Israeli officials, without ever breaking from their coy refusal to acknowledge their nuclear abilities, have said they would be interested in ridding the Mideast of so-called weapons of mass destruction, but only once a comprehensive regional peace is in place.

If the peace processes between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria yield agreements, the next step will be to try to curb the military power in the region.

In that context, Israel's nuclear program may serve as a useful bargaining chip in attempting to convince Iran and other countries to abandon some of their weapons programs.

But in a world where nations are flexing their atomic powers - India and Pakistan exploded nuclear devices in 1998 - the Israelis may have a hard time forsaking such weapons.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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