Another contribution to the inevitable end of the fiction of nuclear ambiguity comes in the form of an article in the journal Foreign Policy, which reveals that in the 1960s Israel bought from Argentina between 80 and 100 tons of “yellowcake” − a mix of uranium oxides which is essential to fueling a nuclear reactor and can also be used to produce plutonium. The process of separating plutonium can also be used to produce nuclear weapons, and therefore this transaction, if the report is true, is evidence of Israel’s nuclear intentions.
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The article is based on 42 documents released for publication by the U.S. National Security Archive. These show that in July 1964 the CIA and the U.S. State Department contacted the U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires and asked them to find out if Argentina had indeed agreed to sell uranium to Israel. The answer was yes. It was shortly after French President Charles de Gaulle had ordered the French nuclear establishment to cease nuclear cooperation with Israel, forcing Jerusalem to seek new sources for the uranium needed to operate the reactor at Dimona.
The documents also reveal that in March 1964 a Canadian intelligence official prepared a secret report dealing with Israel’s nuclear program. The report came to the attention of the British; a British diplomat who read it established that it indicated Israel could separate enough plutonium to produce a nuclear weapon within 18-20 months from the beginning of 1964.
It turns out that over the years Israel managed to find additional sources of yellowcake after attempts to extract uranium from phosphate deposits proved to be too expensive. The article also claims that in mid-1968 Israel acquired 200 tons of yellowcake from Belgium, in a complicated undercover operation that involved a straw company the Mossad set up in Italy.
The revelations in Foreign Policy follow on a known case of Israel purchasing yellowcake from South Africa. That deal was revealed by chance in a ruling by a South African civilian court in 1988. Brigadier Johann Blaauw was prosecuted for extortion and offenses against the South African Atomic Energy Board. During the trial, which ended in Blauauw’s acquittal, details emerged of nuclear transactions between Israel and South Africa involving Blaauw, in which some 500 tons of yellowcake were sold to Israel.
It’s possible that the timing of the release of American papers was coincidental, a routine declassifying of archival material. But it could be that the United States is sending Israel some kind of signal. Since 1969, when an agreement was signed between Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon, Washington’s policy has been tacit acceptance of Israel’s nuclear status.
Three years ago it seemed as if President Barack Obama might be deciding to change the rules of the game accepted by his predecessors, but ultimately he did not pressure Israel and did not insist on holding an international conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East that had been slated for the end of last year.
Is the publication of documents attesting to Israel’s nuclear intentions designed to signal to Israel that it’s time to abandon the fiction and end the era of ambiguity?