Who blew up Jerusalem?
A nightmare from the 1970s persists
“US Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent” says a headline on a recent New York Times report, available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/world/middleeast/20policy.html . It seems that US intelligence is saying, “Relax, Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon for a year or more.”
For 30 years since the producer Peter Batty and I explored the possible triggers of nuclear war, in our TV blockbuster “Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”, a truly depressing number of people have continued to play with fire, in the proliferation of bomb-making technology. The accompanying book, Nuclear Nightmares, quoted an anonymous American strategist calling proliferation “the least unlikely route to nuclear war”. And because Israel was known (in 1979) to have already made nuclear weapons at a plant in the Negev Desert, we set our story in the Middle East.
Each scenario in the programme culminated with a fictional survivor trying to make sense of what happened. Here’s the relevant extract as broadcast.
PRESENTER (Peter Ustinov) on a vantage point above Jerusalem: The holy city of Christians, Jews and Moslems – the order is strictly alphabetical. It has been the focal point for conflict for thousands of years. Jerusalem is at this time in Israeli hands. But you can look North towards the Soviet Union with its Moslem minorities and affiliations. East towards a patchwork of Moslem states, patient yet unforgiving. South towards Mecca, the power of religion and of oil. And West toward America, Israel’s powerful friend.
It is hard to see how an eventual nuclear anarchy can be avoided in this area. Already, in very few years, several states could have bombs of their own, to say nothing of certain minority groups. Even with a bomb smaller than that of Hiroshima, maddened men could be responsible for hundreds and thousands of deaths – a tragedy which would be attributable to man’s folly, or here to the wrath of God.
SURVIVOR (also Peter Ustinov) in a fallout shelter, looking through newspaper clippings: I don’t suppose we’ll ever know who blew up Jerusalem. Well nowadays it seems as long ago as the fall of Babylon, doesn’t it? At the time it perplexed and alarmed the Israeli Prime Minister, and horrified him as it did everyone else. Oh, I wish people wouldn’t cut up newspapers. You know, they’re relics to students of history, even for amateurs like myself, who try to imagine how this war began. .
Oh, talking about amateurs, the Israeli secret service was very active at the time that the amateurs first got hold of the bomb. Just after those first two hideous explosions at Belfast and at Lisbon, the Israelis …. where is it? Oh yes, “An Israeli government spokesman said, ‘we warned the Portuguese and British authorities that nuclear weapons are now circulating among unofficial groups.’”
Well Israel’s own problems were about to start on that Sunday … no, it must have it must have been the Monday, when two El Al airliners were shot down by missiles and Ben Gurion airport was subsequently closed. The Secretary of State remonstrated: “The Soviets are supplying Middle Eastern countries with surface-to-air missiles of unnecessary sophistication.”
And the Israelis immediately plunged into the Lebanon for the umpteenth time – but now to report catastrophic losses to their Prime Minister, and the fact that they had lost control of the air. “There will be a time for mourning later,” said the Israeli Prime Minister to the Knesset. He didn’t know how much mourning.
On the Wednesday. a small nuclear device blew up the ancient walled city of Jerusalem with its predominantly Arabic population and all its holy places. While news of this act of folly was reverberating around the world, it could be supposed that the Israeli Prime Minister was saying. “How do we retaliate? Who do I hit?” But his advisers were as baffled as he.
Next day on television the Palestinian leader. in tears, said: “Why should we destroy our national home. the place that we have cherished and suffered for, for so long? We are not mad.” But of course there were those that did claim responsibility for this hideous act . Various groups: the Lisbon Red Heroes, Dark December, and others too numerous and psychotic to mention.
The American and Soviet fleets converged on the coast while their governments remained in contact attempting, as they said, to “defuse” the Middle East. The Israeli Prime Minister protested. “The superpowers are trying to take even our tragedies out of our hands. And what’s this you tell me about Saudi Arabian bombers on Amman airfield? I want an Entebbe-like raid, I want you to seize all the nuclear devices they have.” But the commandos were blown out of the air.
The Prime Minister saw the net closing in. “What? The Libyans have agreed to give nuclear bombs to the Lebanese? The Pakistanis have already done so to the Syrians?” Trembling for his cities, the Israeli Prime Minister authorised nuclear strikes. “Against Amman, Damascus, yes and Beirut,” he cried.
And so. on the eve of Sabbath, in that subcontinent of prophets, cataclysms began to rival the book of Revelation. And since the superpowers were unable to disentangle themselves, the madness eventually engulfed us all.
So where are we now?
In peripheral respects the situation is less dire than we visualized in 1979. If any terrorists have got their hands on nuclear weapons, they’ve not used them yet. US and Russian nuclear-armed fleets no longer inhabit the eastern Mediterranean.
But even if a regional nuclear war does not grow into a world war, because the big powers somehow contrive to keep out of it, the consequences could be globally dreadful. Breaking the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, in force since Nagasaki1945, could lead to the idea that nuclear war was a practicable way of settling international disputes. Then everyone might want the bomb and be ready to use it.
Meanwhile, the roll call of nuclear-armed states has grown more slowly than it might have done.
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South Africa was suspected of helping Israel to test a bomb, and had a few of its own in the 1980s, but then disassembled them.
But the “nuclear anarchy” we forecast for the Middle East remains the “least unlikely” of the scenarios. Pakistan has already come into the equation as the first Muslim country with the bomb. And although tough-minded Israel has in the past used sabotage and military action to check its neighbours’ nuclear ambitions there might soon come a point where such an intervention could trigger a nuclear response against Israel.
Let’s hope that those in Israel and the USA, who talk openly nowadays about strikes on Iran’s weapons plants, have weighed that possibility. Perhaps they’re just bluffing. That’s always been a ploy in nuclear confrontations. During the Cold War we used to worry that the Americans were playing poker while the Soviets played chess.
For an earlier posting of a scenario from “Nuclear Nightmares” about a superpower confrontation see http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/counterforce/
“Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”: a 90-minute TV documentary programme made by the BBC as a co-production with Palm Productions for transmission by WNET New York and Antenne 2 Paris. Produced and directed by Peter Batty, presented by Peter Ustinov and written by Nigel Calder, it was first broadcast in November 1979. Not to be confused with a 2006 BBC programme about reactor accidents, also called “Nuclear Nightmares”.
Nuclear Nightmares: an investigation into possible wars by Nigel Calder, BBC Publications, Viking, etc., 1979.