Israeli officials have begun hinting strongly at the possibility of direct action against Iraq to block the development of that country's nuclear capability.
The hints follow France's rejection of appeals not to ship weapons-grade uranium to Iraq.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Mordecai Zippori, said recently that Israel had many ways of acting against the shipping of uranium to the Arab country.
"We will explore all legal and humane avenues," he said. "If pressure doesn't work, we'll have to consider other means."
Transportation Minister Chaim Landau declared that Israel "won't permit" Iraq to utilize for aggressive purposes the nuclear reactor it has received from France. The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Matti Shmuelevitz, told a reporter that "Israel could not wait until an Iraqi atomic bomb falls on it."
Israel has been linked in foreign press speculation to two actions already taken against Iraq's nuclear potential. One was the sabotage last year of two French nuclear reactors in a Toulon plant just before their planned shipment to Iraq, which set back that country's nuclear plans by two years.
The other action was the murder in Paris in June of an Egyptian-born Iraqi nuclear scientist who apparently had been subjected to intensive questioning before being killed. (Some speculation has linked the murder to Iran, which also is uneasy about its unfriendly neighbor's growing nuclear potential.)
Israel's leading military correspondent, Zeev Schiff of the newspaper Haaretz , has publicly raised the question of whether Israel might consider as a causus bellim the acquisition by Iraq or any other hostile Arab state of nuclear weapons.
He notes that the absence of a common border with Iraq might make conventional military action more difficult in such a case but suggests that there may be unconventional options. "Israel must make every effort to block Arab [nuclear] development," writes Mr. Schiff. "This effort must be in the political area and other areas as well."
France maintains that the reactors and uranium it has sold to Iraq are for research purposes only and that strict controls will ensure against the fule being used for weapons. Israel and other governments maintain, however, that these controls can be circumvented.
One of Israel's leading nuclear physicists, Prof. Yuval Neeman, said that the 80 kilograms of highly enriched uranium sold by the French to Iraq could be used for construction of eight bombs even without being processed through the reactor. With the assistance of foriegn scientists, he said, a uranium bomb might be ready for use in 6 to 12 months.
France already has shipped the first consignment of uranium to Iraq, according to diplomatic sources, even though a nuclear reactor will not be ready for use until next year. A senior Israeli intelligence officer who briefed the Knesset (parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee recently said that Iraq could have several atomic bombs by the mid-1980s. Even the strictest supervision, he said, could not prevent a country illegally developing nuclear weaponry.
The Knesset committee issued a statement afterward noting that Iraq had never signed an armistice agreement with the state of Israel after its emergence in 1948, unlike the other Arab states involved in that conflict. This means that a state of war still technically exists.
"When an extremist and aggressive regime such as Iraq's gets nuclear manufacturing potential, Israel must regard the development as a threat to its existence," said the statement. "Israel will therefore have to make a sober assessment of its response."
Israeli strategists apparently are reconciled to the notion that the Arab states one day will gain nuclear capability, but they want to put that day off as far as possible, it is hoped until there is a general peace settlement.
Although foreign sources long have maintained that Israel has nuclear capability, Jerusalem's official position is that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.
But former foreign minister Moshe Dayan declared in July that if Israel is ever faced with destruction, it would be able to tell its enemies they faced destruction, too.
"We never said we won't use atomic weappons," said Mr. Dayan. "We only said we wouldn't be the first to bring them in."