Put Israel’s Nuclear Program on a Diet

Now is the time to introduce top-down change to what has become one of Israel’s most powerful pressure groups.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Shaul Chorev’s term as head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission will end at the end of this year. This is an almost unrepeatable opportunity to shake up Israeli nuclear policy and introduce change in this important area in which concealment is an art and whose figures have for decades served as a spendthrift lobby that is one of Israel’s most powerful pressure groups.

Such change must start at the top, with the hiring of a new director brought in from outside the organization. Any internal hire, however qualified to head Israel’s nuclear community, would only perpetuate the serious problems that weigh down the state budget like bars of uranium.

Chorev is a career military man, with the exception of a brief stint as deputy to his predecessor at the IAEC, Gideon Frank. A rear admiral in the Israel Navy who served on submarines and missile boats, he also headed the Defense Ministry’s special projects division. But as head of the nuclear agency, instead of being the state’s representative in the organization he became its ambassador to the government in general and to his immediate superior, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular.

Tens of billions of shekels every decade – the precise numbers are classified – have been poured into the nuclear program with no accounting, to the chagrin of the very few figures, from the Finance Ministry to the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who are privy to the secret. Each superfluous shekel allocated to Dimona means one less shekel for the needs of the army, as well as for Israel’s social welfare budgets. But the sign-carrying demonstrators at Israel’s social protests cannot know what hides behind the national budget’s “defense” rubric.

In the 1960s, when Israel’s nuclear program took off, then-Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin stood up against the budgetary favoritism toward the nuclear reactor in Dimona and for the planes and tanks that would win the Six-Day War. Even without declaring a winner in the debate – Rabin on one side, Shimon Peres and the other proponents of the “atomic insurance policy” – it’s clear that a voracious teenager is not the same as a grown-up glutton: The former grows, the latter simply gets fat.

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, knew that rebellious organizations, which identify the best interests of the system as a whole with their own best interests, can only be tamed by bringing in a director from outside, albeit from a related field. To damp the Air Force’s struggle for independence, commanders were appointed from the ground forces: generals Shlomo Shamir (a former navy chief) and Haim Laskov. When Isser Harel resigned as head of the Mossad espionage agency, he was not succeeded by one of his trusted subordinates. Instead, Meir Amit was brought in from Military Intelligence. And it was Ami Ayalon, from the navy, who was parachuted into the Shin Bet to lead the security service out of the crisis that Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination brought upon it.

Former Israel Air Force commander Dan Halutz was appointed chief of staff to implement two challenging plans: Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and a structural reform of the IDF. In the Second Lebanon War, this gamble on a chief of staff whose main goal was to build up the forces, not to command them in war, turned out to be a bad one. But the war was a political decision, and the IDF desperately needed a housecleaning of the sort that two of Halutz’s generals are now trying to carry out, then-Ground Forces Commander Benny Gantz and then-Operations Directorate head Gadi Eizenkot.

Barring force majeure, Deputy Chief of Staff Eizenkot will be the next chief of staff; the decision is expected this fall. The vengeful supporters of Yoav Galant, whose previous appointment to the post was rescinded, hope that if they cannot realize their goal of having him become the next chief of staff, they can at least prevent Eizenkot from getting the job. Some of these rumors seem to have reached Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who a year ago approved the appointment of Eizenkot as Gantz’s deputy. Weinstein will not let such a conspiracy succeed.

Eizenkot’s appointment will leave the other candidate, Yair Naveh, free to lead. Naveh, who could be an efficient Defense Ministry director general, knows exactly where deep budget cuts can be made. He would be an excellent director of the IAEC, because of his broad understanding of Israel’s national security issues. But that can only happen if Netanyahu makes the decision to put a master dietician in charge of Israel’s nuclear program.

The nuclear reactor near Dimona.Credit: AFP

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