Samson Option: Israel’s Plan to Prevent Mass Destruction Attacks

Samson Option: Israel’s Plan to Prevent Mass Destruction Attacks

David Eberhart
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001

With American bombing raids into Afghanistan and a tough President Bush intimating more of the same for other terrorist-harboring nations, experts and armchair war-watchers are inserting nuclear powerhouse Israel into the calculus of potential Armageddon in the Middle East.

Adding yet other variables, a defiant Saddam Hussein issued an ominous warning in late August, just weeks before the terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon: “The battle [against the U.S.] continues on the economic, political and military fields. We are convinced we will be victorious.”

All that the saber-rattling Iraqi dictator left out of this latest diatribe was a bold repeat of his 1991 pre-Desert Storm boast that if America attacked, the first to feel his wrath in the “mother of all battles” would be Israel.

After decades of living among hostile neighbors, Israel has yet to be attacked by an enemy using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. One reason may be the horrific plan some claim Israel drew up to prevent such an attack. The plan was called the Samson Option. An astute investigative journalist and student of history chalked a dramatic potential solution to the volatile equation on the blackboard – a decade ago.

“Should war break out in the Middle East again and should the Syrians and the Egyptians break through again as they did in 1973 [Yom Kippur War], or should any Arab nation fire missiles again at Israel, as Iraq did [in the 1991 Gulf War], a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a last resort, would now be a strong possibility.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“My Lai 4”) Seymour M. Hersh made this hypothesis in his 1991 best seller “The Samson Option.”

Captured and cruelly maimed, the book’s biblical namesake uttered the ultimate fighting words, “Let my soul die with the Philistines.”

That said, the divinely empowered Samson pushed apart the temple pillars – collapsing the roof and killing himself as well as his enemies.

In his exposé of Israel’s clandestine nuclear arsenal, Hersh suggested that in the early days (late 1960s) of crude big-flash-and-bang nukes, one defensive option to counter an attack on Israel with weapons of mass destruction was for the beleaguered nation to mimic Samson and grimly trade holocaust for holocaust.

Hersh’s 1991 prognostication of a “strong possibility” of the use by Israel of nuclear weapons rested on his knowledge that by the mid-1980s, Israeli technicians at the super-secret Dimona nuclear plant had produced hundreds of low-yield neutron warheads capable of destroying large numbers of enemy troops with minimal property damage.

Israel’s ability to use nukes tactically and surgically, however, has evolved a great deal since the Samson option was still realistically an option.

Israel’s Military Might

In 1997, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly examined satellite photographs of what it described as an Israeli military base at Kfar Zechariah, concluding academically, “Israel’s nuclear arsenal is larger than many estimates.”

According to Jane’s, the site was said to house about 50 Jericho-2 missiles, believed to have a maximum range of about 3,000 miles with a warhead of about 2,200 pounds.

According to the report, the installation contained nuclear bombs, configured for dropping from bombers.

Furthermore, five bunkers at the site were cited as capable of safeguarding 150 weapons.

“This … supports indications that the Israeli arsenal may contain as many as 400 nuclear weapons with a total combined yield of 50 megatons,” the report concluded.

In 1998 the New York Times reported a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon that opined Israel had enough plutonium to make 70 nuclear weapons.

More light was shed on the issue in February of last year when the Israeli Knesset (parliament) held the first public discussion on the country’s nuclear arms program.

Issam Mahoul, an Arab Israeli MP and member of the Hadash (Communist) Party, petitioned that country’s Supreme Court to force the government to permit a parliamentary debate on the forbidden subject.

The upshot of this bold and generally unpopular tactic was an unprecedented televised session of the Knesset at which Mahoul stated that, according to experts’ estimates, Israel had stockpiled huge numbers of nuclear warheads.

This had increased to what he described as the “insane amount of 200-300.” The weapons had been developed with the help of the South African apartheid regime.

Working up a head of rhetorical steam, Mahoul grandly alleged that three new German-built submarines just purchased by Israel were to be fitted with nuclear weapons.

Their stated purpose, he said, was “to cruise deep in the sea and constitute a second strike force in the event that Israel is attacked with nuclear weapons.”

Mahoul also announced what was hardly a news bulletin – Israel was producing “biological warfare” weapons at the government’s Biological Institute in Ness Ziona.

The obstreperous MP concluded that the government’s official policy of “nuclear ambiguity” was the height of self-delusion. “All the world knows that Israel is a vast warehouse of atomic, biological and chemical weapons that serves as an anchor for the Middle East arms race,” he said.

Despite the bristling inventory of nukes, the Israelis have a laudable history of restraint in brandishing, much less using, these most destructive of all weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, for most of the latter half of the 20th century, the Israeli Bomb remained invisible and unacknowledged. Israel’s official position was to neither confirm nor deny its nuclear status, only pledging on the record “not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.”

A Show of Restraint

According to Hersh, the best example of Israeli restraint in the face of great provocation came during the Gulf War.

On the second day of the American invasion, Saddam Hussein fired eight Scud missiles at noncombatant Israel. Two of the conventionally armed missiles landed on Tel Aviv. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir responded by ordering mobile missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons moved into the open and deployed facing Iraq.

The Samsonesque strongman of the Middle East had stirred – and the world held its breath.

Promising Patriot missile batteries and loads of future aid, the United States pressured Israel to keep cool. After all, the allied coalition included a number of Arab nations, and the U.S. feared that dramatic Israeli retaliation could fragment the fragile alliance.

By the end of the Gulf War, Israel had dutifully absorbed 26 Scuds – none armed with biological or chemical weapons.

And therein lies the rub. What if the missiles had featured biochemical agent warheads?

Israel’s prime ministers have plenary jurisdiction over their country’s nuclear activities.

The refrain used consistently by the Israeli leaders has been and remains an unqualified: “Israel reserves the right to retaliate if attacked.”

Traditionally, Israeli leaders have pigeonholed nuclear weapons as a psychological insurance policy for unthinkable contingencies, under the heading of “last resort.”

The hope of those in the inner sanctums of national security is that the exigencies of America’s New War send no such unthinkable contingencies in the direction of America’s quiet ally.

David Eberhart is the former news editor for The Stars and Stripes and Stripes.com. A retired military officer and the published author of five novels, he recently contributed to the New York Times best seller “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul.”