Inside Intel Electricity, Indian-style

What are the chances the U.S. would help Israel, a non-signatory to the NPT, build a nuclear reactor for energy purposes?

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Israel has been interested in building a nuclear power plant since the 1970s. To that end, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the Israel Electric Company located a geologically suitable site - one where earthquakes are rare - in Halutza, in the Negev. They concluded that four reactors producing 1,000 megawatts each could be built in Halutza at a cost of $1 billion per reactor.

A cooling tower and nuclear power plant in Germany on August 25, 2010.Credit: Reuters

The desire to build such a facility has grown recently due to rising demand for clean nuclear energy as an alternative to the world's dwindling supplies of fossil fuels (despite the recent discoveries of gas off Israel's coast ). The problem is that Israel does not have the know-how, technology, equipment and funds to do this itself. And because it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, countries that do have the technology and knowledge, like the United States, are forbidden to sell Israel a reactor or help it build one.

Nonetheless, Israel hopes the U.S. will agree to replicate the nuclear agreement that former president George W. Bush signed with India. That agreement, born of strategic considerations, made India an exception to the NPT ban and allowed the U.S. to sell it nuclear technology and know-how. In return, New Delhi agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nonmilitary nuclear plants, though its nuclear weapon sites continue to operate off limits such supervision.

Israel hopes that in light of the Indian precedent, the U.S. will make an exception for it, too, and sign an agreement that would permit it to acquire reactor technology while leaving Dimona as a secret facility outside international supervision.

Uzi Eilam, a former chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, recently told Alex Doron of the Energia News website (www.energianews.com ) that as far as he knows, "There is some kind or understanding, or even agreement, on this matter with [U.S. President Barack] Obama, under which the U.S. would supply the reactors for the plant or plants on the basis of the arrangement made with India."

"The U.S. expressed willingness to invest effort in convincing the organization of countries supplying technology for nuclear power plants that the Indian precedent should apply to Israel exactly, clause-by-clause, with regard to electricity," Eilam added. "In other words, there would be no need to sign that problematic treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

"The challenge facing the Americans is to convince the international organization to apply the Indian arrangement to Israel," he continued. "But as far as I know, Obama is willing to apply the exception to Israel and he has talked to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu about this."

For all Eilam's optimism, however, it seems unlikely that such an agreement between the U.S. and Israel will be signed anytime soon, for two reasons. First, it would undermine the American drive for tougher sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. And second, the U.S. would almost certainly condition such a generous favor on Israel's agreement to dismantle settlements and sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Norwegian refusal

A year and a half ago, Rabintex, which manufactures military equipment, sought to participate in an international tender to supply 16,000 helmets to the Norwegian army, a deal valued at $2 million. The Norwegian defense ministry refused to let Rabintex bid, due to a regulation that allows it to shun defense ties with countries in "conflict zones." But that did not prevent it from conducting feverish negotiations at the same time to sell old Norwegian naval ships to the Egyptian navy.

It is possible to understand Norway's refusal to sell equipment to Israel, given the argument that Israel might use it against the Palestinians. But in this case, the issue was helmets for the Norwegian army. Could Norway have imposed a de facto boycott on all defense deals with Israel, thereby discriminating against it in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries?

The Norwegian defense minister, Grete Faremo, said in an emailed response: "The Norwegian government does not have a boycott policy against Israel ... the incumbent Norwegian government has approved purchase orders of Israeli defence equipment in ten cases (with a total value of USD 28 million ), four of which were approved after the rejection of Rabintex' offer ... The rejection of Rabintex' offer was a result of the extraordinary situation that occurred as a consequence of the Israeli military operations in Gaza at the time."

Perhaps we'll never know

This week marks the second anniversary of the death of Colonel Benjamin Gibli, a former head of Military Intelligence who is best known for his involvement in the affair known as Esek Bish ("dirty business" ) - the operation of an Israeli spy and sabotage network in Egypt in 1954 that ended in a tragedy. Two of its members were executed and the rest served heavy prison sentences.

When Gibli died, the media raised the question (for the umpteenth time ) of who gave the orders (Gibli, then-Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Dayan or then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon ) and who was in on the secret.

In the 1990s, Gibli worked on his memoirs with the writer Aryeh Krishak. Due to disagreements between them, the manuscript was shelved. But after Gibli's death, Krishak claimed Gibli had revealed that the person who gave the order was Moshe Dayan.

After her husband died, his widow, Elisheva Gibli, said, "My most important mission is to publish Benjamin's book." But this week, sources in the Gibli family said the book will never be released. Inquiries to the widow have not been answered.

Krishak said this week that he considering what steps to take, and may sue the estate. He also said he is in advanced negotiations to make a documentary film.

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