Israel Pulse

Court could force Israel to rethink nuke policy

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Article Summary
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps issuing warnings on Iran’s nuclear program, but refuses to discuss the hazards of Israel’s own nuclear policy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returning next week to his favorite haunt: the speaker’s podium at the UN General Assembly meeting, where he is expected to address the assembly participants on Sept. 19. Sept. 27 will mark five years since his 2012 landmark horror show on that same podium regarding Iran’s nuclear bomb. “Where should the red line be drawn?” Netanyahu asked before marking his red line on a sketch of a bomb that he held up. “The red line should be drawn … before Iran gets to a point where it is a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.”

Years went by, and most of the bombs going off in Israel are metaphoric stink bombs related to corruption suspicions dropped on the residences of the prime minister and his wife.

With the Iranian nuke agreement signed and sealed, the issue of the bomb threat is off the international agenda. Netanyahu might actually feel himself bereft up on the podium without having a drawing of a nuclear bomb to clutch. Nevertheless, he could always try getting global attention by presenting another drawing — that of a North Korea-made bomb. But then, he will be confronted with another problem: His red marker — emphasizing the red line supposedly separating between a medium threat and a critical one — will be of no use. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is color blind in that regard. He enjoys poking US President Donald Trump in the eye. One day Kim conducts a nuclear test and the next he fools around with a missile launch over Japan. The US administration is helpless against a leader whose intentions are unclear and whose moves are unpredictable.

The prime minister can provide proof, of course, of the close cooperation between the Iranian ayatollah regime and the communist ruler in Pyongyang. For example, the cable sent by the US State Department to the embassy in Beijing, part of the batch of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, indicated that Iran and North Korea make use of their national airlines’ cargo flights to transport nuclear technology and components. According to information collated by Israeli experts, quite a few Iranian liquid-fueled ballistic missiles and related launchers were developed based on know-how and technology provided by North Korea.

Netanyahu can also rely on a Haaretz article by Uzi Even, a former senior scientist at the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. Even wrote that North Korea was taking part in the training and arming of Hezbollah and Hamas Islamists in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Even, who was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, warned that additional states and other terrorist organizations would soon have a “shortcut” to obtaining weapons of mass destruction. “Our technological hegemony is facing a crisis,” Even warned.

However, that same nuclear scientist has been calling for several years to shut down the aging Israeli reactor near the southern town of Dimona, to prevent a severe meltdown on the scale of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. Although an expert word juggler, Netanyahu would have a hard time explaining why he takes seriously Even’s warnings about the Iranian-North Korean nuclear threat but not his warnings about the Israeli nuclear threat to Israel, and his recommendation for Israel to ratify the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Even is not the only one losing sleep over the condition of the Dimona reactor built 54 years ago. Some 10 years ago, Eli Abramov, then-deputy director of the reactor, told US Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph that Israel had no solution for the problem of the reactor core’s erosion. Reactors of this kind are designed to operate for some 40 years, after which they may not be able to withstand the heat and radiation emitted by the core. Replacing the reactor’s core essentially requires building a new installation. But who would supervise the construction of a new reactor, which according to foreign publications is also used to manufacture nuclear weapons? Unlike Iran, but just like North Korea, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT, and its facilities are therefore not subject to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. An independent commission that reports directly to the prime minister is tasked with ensuring the safety of the Israeli reactor.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission is responsible for the licensing of facilities and their activities, the handling of nuclear waste and advising the government on nuclear policy. It operates by virtue of a secret 1952 decree issued by then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The state had tried already in 2016 to prevent a debate on a petition submitted to the Supreme Court by the Israeli Disarmament Movement (in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a board member of that nongovernmental organization), demanding to anchor the commission’s activities in Knesset legislation that would also enable oversight (instead of existing regulations mandated by the government). The petitioners are not asking to rescind the Israeli policy of ambiguity regarding the existence or lack thereof of nuclear weapons, but are seeking to provide transparency regarding aspects of public health and safety. Legislating the commission’s activities would enable reliable monitoring by professional agencies, such as the State Comptroller, and the ministries of environmental protection and health.

On Sept. 6, the country’s top court conducted the first ever public hearing in the history of the state about this important issue. The panel of three judges, chaired by newly appointed Chief Justice Esther Hayut, were quite obviously reluctant to deal with such an explosive matter, discussion of which is considered a threat to the country’s holy grail. They tried to convince attorney Itai Mack, representing the petitioners (Israeli anti-nuclear NGO), to withdraw his appeal. They claimed that despite the undeniable importance of the issue being raised, the place to discuss it was in the legislature and not the court. In response to a remark by Justice Menachem Mazuz to the effect that the activity of the Foreign Ministry is not anchored in legislation, either, Mack said the Foreign Ministry does not run two nuclear reactors, a nuclear waste site and licensing for nuclear facilities. Nonetheless, he assumes the court will reject the petition.

Whoever keeps complaining that others ignore world nuclear threats would do well to stop concealing the nuclear hazards hovering in his own backyard.

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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