What is Hidden in Dimona?

Jonathan Shamir

President Trump’s disdain for the Iran Nuclear Deal, the inflammatory exchanges with North Korea, and new pressure in Japan to respond to its volatile neighbour, have rewritten the nuclear landscape – and it could spell Armageddon. Meanwhile, the arid planes of Dimona are hushed. They are unremarkable and inconspicuous. Even Israel’s mass forestation projects never managed to tame the Negev desert, but these inhospitable conditions make the perfect location for Israel’s worst kept secret.

How did the young state of less than two million people get away with it?

When Israel began nuclear production in the fifties, the fledgling state was under existential threat: it knew that the new lines drawn on the map could be erased just as quickly. The retreat of Israel’s Western patrons from the Middle East did not placate these fears, either. Historically, the Jewish people had always been dependent on other nations, but Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided that to survive, Israel had to embrace their newfound independence and pursue the ultimate insurance policy – they had to go nuclear.

It was such vulnerability which contributed to Israeli exceptionalism. As countries were preaching non-proliferation, the components for Israel’s programme came from all over the world: the French, drawn into the project by the doubled-guilt of Vichy and Suez, provided invaluable technology and experience. Norway provided the deuterium oxide, while America and South Africa provided the uranium. Shimon Peres later wrote in his memoirs that half of the money for the reactor, over $40 million, came from Israel’s allies. Against all odds, the inconspicuous sliver on the world map joined the ranks of the most powerful nations on earth in acquiring nuclear weapons: the USA, the USSR, and the UK.

In the next decade, John F. Kennedy would express distaste at Israel’s nuclear activities, but the inspections are circumvented or delayed into farce. The mutually-acknowledged façade eventually turns into acceptance when Golda Meir presses Richard Nixon to halt pressure on Israel to sign the NPT. This unwritten understanding has been upheld ever since. This contrarian accommodation cannot simply be explained by what was sold as existential necessity. After all, diplomacy is governed by interests. For a long time, Israel has been perceived as a stable frontier in an otherwise tumultuous region. Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s abrasive gallivanting has raised questions about the unconditional bipartisan support in America, as well as antagonising many countries in Europe, this status endures.
Therefore, the former speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg’s description of Israel’s official line of non-disclosure as “childish and outdated” three years ago is wrong. The proclamation of nuclear power from other non-signatories of the NPT, such as an India and Pakistan, forces the hand of diplomatic pressure, but opacity can make this unpalatable truth easier to conveniently ignore.

The same tactic of denial did not work for Iran. Unlike Israel, Iran’s defiant enrichment of uranium prompted international outrage. While the concoction of an unstable regime and unstable weapons elicits the full force of diplomatic pressure, mutual interests can grant diplomatic immunity. After all, on the North Korean Day of Sun and the annual Iranian Quds Day, Israeli and American flags are set alight in common fire. Dimona therefore reveals an unsavoury truth about the nuclear arms race: Israel dilutes the heavy brunt of nuclear responsibility, and many Western nations want to turn a blind eye. The status quo, and the unique blend of historical circumstances, allows them to do so.