UK sought to keep criticism of Israel secret: paper

February 22, 2008

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LONDON, Feb 21: A secret document revealed by the Guardian on Thursday shows how the Foreign Office successfully fought to keep secret a remark that Israel has flouted the UN authority in a manner similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussain contained on the first draft of the controversial, now discredited Iraq weapons dossier.

At the heart of it was nervousness at the top of government about any mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in an official paper accusing Iraq of flouting the UN’s authority on weapons of mass destruction.

The dossier was made public this week, but the Foreign Office succeeded before a tribunal in having the handwritten mention of Israel kept secret.

The Guardian said it has seen the full text and a witness statement from a senior Foreign Office official, who argued behind closed doors that any public mention of the candid reference would seriously damage UK-Israeli relations.

The Information Tribunal, which adjudicates on disputes involving the Freedom of Information Act, agreed to remove the single reference to Israel when it ordered the release of the draft of the Iraqi weapons dossier written by John Williams, the FCO’s chief information officer at the time.

Along with unfavourable references to the US and Japan, the reference to Israel was written in the margin by someone commenting on the opening paragraph of the Williams draft. It was written against the claim that “no other country (apart from Iraq) has flouted the United Nations’ authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction”.

In statement to the tribunal, Neil Wigan, head of the FCO’s Arab, Israel and North Africa Group, said: “I interpret this note to indicate that the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted the United Nations’ authority in a manner similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.”

Its disclosure would seriously damage the UK’s relations with Israel, Wigan said. The comparison with Saddam and the “implied accusation of a breach of the UN’s authority by Israel are potentially very serious”. It was “inevitable” that relations between the UK and Israel would suffer if the marginal note were allowed to enter the public domain, he added.

In the same newspaper on the same day in another article ( Israel’s weapons a diplomatic no-go-area) it is mentioned that nuclear weapons are seen as the last resort of Israel’s security, the so-called “Samson option” to be used in desperation like the biblical character who died with his enemies when he brought down the temple on the heads of the Philistines.

Developed secretly from 1956 after France built a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert, the weapons were seen by Israel’s first generation of leaders as designed to prevent a second Holocaust an argument that was translated into a formidable arsenal outside any international controls. Seymour Hersh, the American writer, has reported that the words “Never Again” were welded, in English and Hebrew, on to the first Israeli nuclear warhead. Apocryphal or not, the story hints at the thinking behind the programme.

Israel, unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the 1970 agreement which allows countries to develop civilian nuclear power in exchange for forgoing weapons. These are supposed to be the preserve of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. In recent years India, Pakistan and North Korea have swelled the ranks of the weapons states, but unlike them Israel has never come out of the nuclear closet, preferring a policy of so-called nuclear ambiguity keeping its enemies guessing.

By the mid-1980s when whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the Dimona reactor, gave his sensational inside story to the Sunday Times, the expert assessment was that Israel had up to 200 nuclear warheads and the ability to “deliver” them by plane, missile and submarine. If true, that makes a country of 7 million people the world’s fifth or sixth ranking nuclear power.