The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb 
by Seymour Hersh.
Faber, 256 pp., £15.99, October 1991, 0 571 16619 9
Show More
Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the US-Israeli Covert Relationship 
by Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn.
Bodley Head, 423 pp., £17.99, January 1991, 0 370 31405 0
Show More
Show More

It has long been accepted in the Arab world and in Iran that US foreign policy towards the Middle Last is a conspiracy devised by the American Jewish lobby. It has long been accepted in Europe that the Arabs and Iranians, although prone to exaggeration, had a legitimate grievance about Washington’s automatic bias in favour of Israel since the departure of Eisenhower. The recent Middle East peace conference in Madrid may therefore come to be seen as a watershed. With the Cold War over and the Gulf War won, President George Bush and James Baker, his Secretary of State, have adopted an attitude which the Israelis find so alarmingly even-handed that they have begun to suspect another sort of conspiracy, this time concocted by pro-Arab Texas oilmen. Bush says in private that there is not much point kowtowing to the Jewish lobby when most of its members vote Democrat, and he won as great a political victory in forcing Congress to delay $10 billion in US loan guarantees for Israel (to smooth the way to the peace conference) as in convening the conference itself.

The Samson Option and Dangerous Liaison both examine the dilemmas produced by the US-Israeli relationship at a time when it is undergoing a profound transformation. Walworth Barbour, then US Ambassador to Israel, is quoted in Seymour Hersh’s book as saying alter the 1967 war that ‘Arab oil is not as important as Israel is to us. Therefore I’m going to side with Israel in all of my reporting.’ Such a statement would sound out of place in late 1991, after the despatch of half a million American troops to defend Saudi Arabia’s oilfields and recapture those of Kuwait in the war against Iraq. Even in the depths of the Cold War, in 1968, Henry Kissinger came out with an intriguing three-point dictum which suggested that Israel could not rely on unconditional US assistance: ‘The main aim of any American President is to prevent World War Three. Second, no American President would risk World War Three because of territories occupied by Israel. Three, the Russians know this.’

Israel itself was nevertheless an obvious strategic asset in the confrontation with Moscow. But the continuing disintegration of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of useful Soviet support for Syria now make Israel – still in a state of war with most of its neighbours – look more and more like a source of tension and strategic liability. The West’s preferential treatment of Israel has partly been based on the understanding that Israel is a country with ‘Western’ values, a belief already undermined by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its harsh response to the Intifada and its enthusiastic adoption of ‘Middle eastern’ practices such as hostage-taking. Europeans have also looked sympathetically at Israel because they felt guilty about the Nazi genocide and their own inadequate response: but to Israel’s dismay a whole generation of Europeans has now grown up with only the sketchiest knowledge of the death camps. Israel’s time as a special case to which normal standards of morality, international law and strategic cynicism do not apply is rapidly coming to an end.

The reluctance of Israel to allow its people ever again to be cast in the role of helpless victims is reflected in the title of Hersh’s laboriously researched book. Israel would prefer to bring down the Middle Eastern temple with its nuclear arsenal, he suggests, than to repeat the experience of Masada, the stronghold where more than nine hundred Jews committed suicide in 73 AD to avoid mistreatment at the hands of their Roman attackers. By the time his book has dribbled away to a close, Hersh has made it abundantly clear that successive American administrations, full of ‘ambivalence and hypocrisy’, looked the other way as Israel built its nuclear bombs. To reach this unstartling conclusion, he has listened to numerous sources and ploughed through plenty of old material, from the early involvement of France in the Israeli nuclear programme and the revelations of Mordecai Vanunu, the former technician from the Dimona nuclear plant kidnapped by the Israelis and now in jail, to the arrest of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who passed some 500,000 pages of secret documents to Israel (which in turn is said to have passed some of the information to Moscow in sanitised form in order to ingratiate itself with the Soviet Union).

The late Robert Maxwell, the publisher, and Nicholas Davies, the former foreign editor of the Daily Mirror, have inconsequential British bit parts in the saga as told by Hersh. But Maxwell’s Jewish origins, his escape from the holocaust, his identification with Israel – he was buried in Jerusalem – and his close ties with the Israeli leadership serve to illustrate what is probably Hersh’s most important theme: the conflict of interests facing American Jews committed to Israel, Hersh calls it a problem of ‘dual loyalty’, although he points out that it is not merely an issue for Jews.

The Jewish survivors who became Israelis, with their incredible travails and sufferings during World War Two, had and still have enormous appeal to Americans of all backgrounds. The primary effect of ‘dual loyalty’ has been a form of self-censorship that has kept the United States government from dealing rationally and coherently with the strategic and political issues rained by a nuclear-armed Israel ... Can the Arab nations truly be expected to ignore Israel’s possession of atomic weapons simply because the weapons are not publicised? Should Israel, because of its widespread and emotional support in America, be held to a different moral standard than Pakistan or North Korea or South Africa.?

In the age of a nation state, dual loyalty is not a concept or a criticism unique to America. It applies equally to the British Moslems who accept the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea of justice and sympathise with his call for the death of Salman Rushdie. Norman Tebbit would doubtless use it for immigrants who fail what he called the cricket test (‘Which side do they cheer for?’). Yet the Israeli-American connection is fraught with particular emotional and political significance. Israel, for a start, grants to every Jew in the world the right of citizenship, a unique offer on purely religious grounds which has prompted the US to waive its normal restrictions on dual citizenship; and even the most cynical political observer in America must gulp at the brazen pro-Israeli activities of the likes of Abraham Feinberg, who bankrolled Harry Truman and the Democrats and expected something for Israel in return. On the other hand, Leonard Garment, a lawyer hired by Israel for the Pollard case, knew which side of his dual loyalties was stronger when he hesitated over his clients’ demands concerning the wording of a legal document. He was asked: ‘What kind of a Jew are you?’ He replied: ‘I’m an American citizen too.’

Hersh questions whether Zalman Shapiro – a dual loyalty stereotype who headed the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation – actually did smuggle enriched uranium to lsrael, as suggested by the CIA and the authors of the earlier Dangerous Liaison. The lost material, Hersh decides, ended up on the concrete floor and in the surrounding countryside. In other respects, the two books cover similar ground and reach similar conclusions. Like Hersh, the Cockburns say the White House was frightened into resupplying Israel with arms in the 1973 war by the preparation of Israeli nuclear missiles; like Hersh, they speak of nuclear landmines in the Golan Heights and suggest that Israel passed some of the fruits of Pollard’s espionage to the Russians; like Hersh, they suggest that Israel targeted the Soviet Union with its missiles as a precaution against Soviet support for the Arabs in wartime.

The Cockburns have deliberately taken a much broader look at the US-Israeli relationship, and the book opens with an Israeli journalist expressing horror at the sight of soldiers ‘performing like seals’ for the visiting blue-haired women and pseudo-athletic men who give money to Israel. The role of dual loyalty in espionage, however, quickly establishes itself as a theme. The authors cast suitably jaundiced eyes over the military-industrial nature of the alliance, the so-called ‘KK Mountain’ of secret US funds for Israel, and Israel’s unsavoury underground activities in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, often in concert with the CIA. Both books convincingly dismiss the claim that Israel eschewed reliance on Diaspora Jews for much of its intelligence, showing how the Israelis traded information from Jewish communities behind the Iron Curtain and in Algeria with the Americans and the French. Dual loyalty, it emerges, is something of an Israeli speciality. As one anti-Communist supporter of David Ben-Gurion put it, in a reference to leftist immigrants from the Soviet Union: ‘In our relations with the USA we have in that country a fifth column, whereas in our dealings with the Soviet Union they have a fifth column here.’

The problem of dual loyalty has provoked unpleasant if inevitable reactions. Just after World War Two, the Cockburns say, the US Army Security Agency established a special unit, codenamed Gold, to monitor Israeli agents and their sympathisers in the US and elsewhere. ‘So far as I know,’ a former intelligence official is quoted as saying, ‘the NSA [successor to the ASA] still has a group like that, buried somewhere deep.’ According to Hersh, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s director of counter-intelligence, created what amounted to a ‘Jewishness index’ of officials with access to classified information of use to Israel.

Dangerous Liaison and The Samson Option, studded with unmemorable miniature pen-portraits of their casts of characters, both read too much like very long Sunday Times ‘Insight’ articles to be classed as great books. Recording every twist and turn of the nuclear and espionage debates, they serve a sort of historical purpose by researching new and repackaging old information – with full acknowledgments, it must be said – to suit their particular topics, but readers could be forgiven for demanding of the publishers of such works that they print any genuinely new facts in red ink to save everybody time.

There are nonetheless, some enjoyable anecdotes. Hersh relates that after Israeli jets had bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Menachem Begin boasted that the bombs had also destroyed a secret underground facility 40 metres below for the manufacture of nuclear bombs. Iraq, it turns out, had no such facility, but Israel did, and Begin had got them mixed up. Innumerable interviews with former US officials also remind us that the great men of our time are as foul-mouthed as anyone when they speak in private. ‘If I get in,’ Jimmy Carter is reported to have said when fighting for re-election in 1980, ‘I’m going to fuck the Jews.’ That was offer the National Security Agency had intercepted discussions between Ed Koch and Menachem Begin’s office in Jerusalem about how to defeat Carter.

Carter was indeed defeated, but the end of the Cold War and the waging of the Gulf War have jump-started the Middle East peace process in a way hardly anyone foresaw. Syria, abandoned by its protectors in Moscow, turned to Washington and went reluctantly to the negotiating table. The West, having fought a war against Iraq based on international law and the will of the United Nations, was forced to think about implementing Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 (which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land in exchange for peace and recognition) instead of merely mouthing support for it. Israel, frantically settling the West Bank and determined to keep the whole of Jerusalem, was reminded that Western countries are without embassies in Jerusalem, not because of absent-mindedness, but because they do not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Arab half of the city.

As the Cockburns point out, Israel’s new image as a strategic liability was underlined in the Gulf conflicts by the fact that it was rewarded by the US, not for its actions, but for its lack of action; and as for the intelligence about Soviet weaponry, which lsrael was once happy to trade after the capture of Soviet-made Arab equipment, the Americans were able to go straight to the Russians and ask them. ‘Despite the fervent loyalty of many American Jews to Israel throughout its brief history,’ the Cockburns write, ‘it is a fact that a large proportion failed for a long time to realise how closely official American support for the state was linked to the Cold War in general.’

Bush and Baker can hardly be accused of being unfair to Israel as they attempt to secure a Middle East peace agreement. Still wary of Congress, they yielded to almost every Israeli demand on the Madrid conference, including the exclusion from the direct negotiations of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. But they still have cards to play.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences