Monday, 22 September 2008

The Samson Option

The Samson Option is a term used to describe Israel’s alleged deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a “last resort” against nations whose military attacks threaten its existence, and possibly against other targets as well.[1] Israel refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons or describe how it would use them, an official policy of nuclear ambiguity, also known as "nuclear opacity." This has made it difficult for anyone outside the Israeli government to definitively describe its true nuclear policy, while still allowing Israel to influence the perceptions, strategies and actions of other governments.[2]

It is estimated Israel has as many as 400 atomic and hydrogen nuclear weapons.[3] These can be launched from land, sea and air.[4] This gives Israel a second strike option even if much of the country is destroyed.[5]

Some mis-identify Israel’s whole nuclear weapons program as the "Samson Option".[6] The phrase also has been mis-applied to situations where non-nuclear actors, such as Saddam Hussein[7], Yassir Arafat[8] and Hezbollah[9] threatened conventional weapons retaliation, and even to United States President George W. Bush's foreign policy.[10]

Original Deterrence Doctrine

The original conception of the Samson Option was only as deterrence. According to American journalist Seymour Hersh and Israeli historian Avner Cohen Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan created the term in the mid-1960s. They named it after the Biblical figure Samson, who is said to have pushed apart the pillars of a Philistine temple, bringing down the roof and killing himself and thousands of Philistines who had gathered to see him humiliated. They contrasted it with ancient siege of Masada where Jewish radicals greatly outnumbered by Roman legions committed mass suicide rather than be defeated and enslaved by the Romans.[11]

Although nuclear weapons were viewed as the ultimate guarantor of Israeli security, as early as the 1960s the country avoided building its military around them, instead pursuing absolute conventional superiority so as to forestall a last resort nuclear engagement.[12] Nevertheless, during the Cold War one major use of the nuclear threat was to convince the United States to support Israel with conventional weapons sales to prevent it from using its nuclear weapons and possibly sparking a world nuclear war.[13]

Another use of the weapons was to discourage the former Soviet Union, which Israel regarded as its greatest enemy, from arming and aiding Arab nations. Israel went on nuclear alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, threatening to use nuclear weapons against Egypt, to encourage the United States to supply weapons to it and discourage the Soviet Union from interfering.[14] No nation has attacked Israel since 1973, though some have supported terrorist attacks on it.[15]

More Aggressive Doctrine After 1977

Seymour Hersh writes that once a coalition of right-wing political parties made Menachen Begin Prime Minister in 1977, the goal of Israel’s Samson Option began to change from deterrence only to also using “Israeli might to redraw the political map of the Middle East.”[16] Israel Shahak, an Israeli critic of its policies, claims: "Israel clearly prepares itself to seek overtly a hegemony over the entire Middle East...without hesitating to use for the purpose all means available, including nuclear ones."[17]

The political parties, which united in 1988 as the Likud Party, shared the goal of expanding the state of Israel to the Israeli-occupied territories.[18] Ariel Sharon, who was named Minister of Defense in 1981, publicly proclaimed that “his major goals included the overthrow of King Hussein of Jordan and the transformation of that country into a Palestinian state, to which Palestinian refugees would be ‘transferred’ or driven.” Sharon put his allies in charge of Israeli intelligence and Israel’s nuclear weapons.[19]

Because of the Soviet Union’s support for Arab nations, Begin immediately “gave orders to target more Soviet cities” for nuclear attack, which necessitated better targeting information.[20] Israel increased its espionage efforts, including by convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, in order to obtain nuclear targeting information on Soviet cities.[21]

In 1998 Israeli defense analyst Zeev Schiff opined in Haaretz: "Off-the-cuff Israeli nuclear threats have become a problem, even before the onset of the Iraqi crisis."[22] David Hirst notes that “The threatening of wild, irrational violence, in response to political pressure, has been an Israeli impulse from the very earliest days.” and “Israel will remain at least as likely a candidate as Iran, and a far more enduring one, for the role of 'nuclear-crazy' state.”[23] Some “Samson Option” threats seem to be directed against nations which have not attacked Israel. Ariel Sharon has said: "We are much more important than (Americans) think. We can take the middle east with us whenever we go."[24] and "No longer 'Masada Option' - now 'Samson Option.’”[25] A “former Israeli govt official” with “first hand knowledge of his government’s nuclear weapons program” told Seymour Hersh: “You Americans screwed us” for not supporting Israel in its 1956 war with Egypt. “We can still remember the smell of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Next time we’ll take all of you with us.”[26]

High profile Israeli supporters also brandish such threats. Martin Van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem stated: "We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force. Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: ‘Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.’...We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under."[27] In 2002 the Los Angeles Times, published an opinion piece by Louisiana State University professor David Perlmutter in which he wrote: "What would serve the Jew-hating world better in repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a Nuclear Winter. Or invite all those tut-tutting European statesmen and peace activists to join us in the ovens? For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away--unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans--have the power to destroy the world. The ultimate justice?"[28]

During the build up to the United States 2003 invasion of Iraq, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stated: "If our citizens are attacked seriously - by a weapon of mass destruction, chemical, biological or by some mega-terror attack act - and suffer casualties, then Israel will respond." Israeli military commentator Zeev Schiff explained: “Israel could respond with a nuclear retaliation that would eradicate Iraq as a country.” It is believed President Bush gave Sharon the green-light to attack Baghdad in retaliation, including with nuclear weapons, but only if attacks came before the American military invasion.[29]

Louis René Beres, a professor of Political Science at Purdue University, chaired Project Daniel, a group advising Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and issued a year 2004 final report. Beres’ 2004 article Israel and Samson. Biblical Insights on Israeli Strategy in the Nuclear Age recommends Israel use the Samson Option threat to “support conventional preemptions” against enemy nuclear and non-nuclear assets because “without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely upon nonnuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive strike.”

Current Concerns

Currently, the United States fears Israel will attack Iran pre-emptively because Iran’s nuclear power program could be used eventually to produce nuclear weapons.[30] Iranian threats to retaliate against Israel with 600 missiles if either Iran or Syria are attacked[31] raise concerns about Samson Option retaliation. Dr. Jerome Corsi, author of “Atomic Iran,” states that “Israel's Samson Option” could be “a preemptive strike against Iran, even if the international military and diplomatic reprisals that follow might bring disastrous consequences upon Israel itself.”[32]

Russia is still considered an Israeli target.[33] Russia provides technical assistance to, and diplomatic support for, Iran’s nuclear program.[34] It also has sold advanced missiles to Syria.[35] In January 2007 Israeli officials voiced "extreme concern" over Russia's sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. They warned: "We hope they understand that this is a threat that could come back to them as well."[36] On November 8, 2007 President George Bush said: "If you want to see World War Three, you know, a way to do that is to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon."[37]

  1. ^ Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, Random House, 1991, 42, 136-137, 288-289; Israel’s Strategic Doctrine.
  2. ^ Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, Columbia University Press, 1998, 2, 7, 341; Avner Cohen, Israel's Nuclear Opacity: a Political Genealogy, published in “The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation,” Chapter 9, 187-212, edited by Steven L. Spiegel, Jennifer D. Kibbe and Elizabeth G. Matthews Symposium Series, Volume 66, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
  3. ^ U.S. Air Force: Israel has 400 nukes, building naval force
  4. ^ Douglas Frantz, Israel Adds Fuel to Nuclear Dispute, Officials confirm that the nation can now launch atomic weapons from land, sea and air, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 12, 2003.
  5. ^ David Eberhart, Samson Option: Israel's Plan to Prevent Mass Destruction Attacks, NewsMax.Com, October 16, 2001.
  6. ^ Examples include: Chris Hedges Bush’s Nuclear Apocalypse, Monday, October 9, 2006; George Perkovich, “The Samson Option: The story behind one of the world's worst-kept secrets: the Jewish state's atomic arsenal”, a review of Michael Karpin’s book “The Bomb in the Basement” in the Washington Post, February 19, 2006, BW03; Press Release: Syndicated Radio Talk Show Host Paul McGuire Has Called President Bush To More Actively Support The Nation Of Israel, And Work For Peace In The Middle East, July 2, 2006.
  7. ^ Tom Holsinger, Staying Alive - Saddam's Samson Option, June 20, 2002.
  8. ^ Herb Keinon, Selling the 'Samson option'.
  9. ^ Michael Young, The Samson Option, Is Hezbollah on the verge of destroying Lebanon? Slate Magazine, Monday, August 7, 2006.
  10. ^ Stephen Lendman, George Bush's Samson Option, March 12, 2007.
  11. ^ Seymour Hersh,129, 136-137; Avner Cohen, 236.
  12. ^ Israel’s Strategic Doctrine, Global Security.Org.
  13. ^ Seymour Hersh, 225-227; Avner Cohen, 236.
  14. ^ Seymour Hersh, 17, 40, 66, 174-75, 177, 216, 220, 223-231.
  15. ^ Recognizing Changes in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
  16. ^ Seymour Hersh, 259-261.
  17. ^ Israel Shahak, ‘’Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies,’‘ London, Pluto Press, 1997, 2.
  18. ^ Encyclopedia of Orient on Likud; Likud Party Manifesto.
  19. ^ Seymour Hersh, 288-289.
  20. ^ Seymour Hersh, 260.
  21. ^ Seymour Hersh, 286, 291-296
  22. ^ United States Information Agency’s Foreign Media Reaction Report, Middle East section, February 4, 1998.
  23. ^ David Hirst, The War Game, a controversial view of the current crisis in the Middle East, The Observer Guardian, September 21, 2003.
  24. ^ Seymour Hersh, 288-289.
  25. ^ Hal Lindsey, The Samson Option, StandingWithIsrael.Org, July 14, 2007; personal account of conversation with Sharon outside Israel’s Knesset.
  26. ^ Seymour Hersh, 42.
  27. ^ David Hirst, September 21, 2003.
  28. ^ David Perlmutter Opinion Page piece “Israel: Dark Thoughts and Quiet Desperation,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2002.
  29. ^ Ross Dunn, Sharon eyes 'Samson option' against Iraq, November 3, 2002.
  30. ^ Israel denies planning Iran nuclear attack, U.K. newspaper reports Israel intends to strike up to three targets in Iran, The Associated Press, January 7, 2007; Israel Takes Issue With Iran Weapons, The Associated press, September 29, 2004; Tom Baldwin, James Hider, Francis Elliott, US fears Israeli strike against Iran over latest nuclear claim, The Times Online, November 8, 2007.
  31. ^ Julie Stahl, Iran Threatens Missile Strike on Israel, US Targets if Syria Attacked,, September 17, 2007.
  32. ^ Atomic Iran excerpt: The Samson Option, Israel's Preemptive Strike], by Dr. Jerome Corsi, originally at now defunct IranFreedomFoundation.Org, March 21, 2005; reprinted at FreeRepublic.Com web site.
  33. ^ H. Brown column item on “Samson Option”, San Francisco Call, May 3, 2002.
  34. ^ Michael Jasinski, Russia's Nuclear and Missile Technology Assistance to Iran; Nasser Karimi, Russian Fuel Ready for Iran, Associated Press, September 16, 2007; Putin warns against any attack on Iran from Caspian Sea, Associated Press, October 16, 2007.
  35. ^ Herb Keinon, "Jerusalem sees Russian interests behind arms sales to Damascus, The Jerusalem Post, August 20, 2007
  36. ^ Yaakov Katz and Herb Keinon, Israel warns Russia on Iran arms sale, Jerusalem Post, January 16, 2007
  37. ^ Bush defends World War Three comments on Iran, Reuters, November 7, 2007.

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