Not even Eric Ambler could have written a better script: A ship loaded with enough uranium to build 30 nuclear bombs disappears on the high seas, somehow allegedly spirited away to Israel by unknown agents.
Whether the story is true or not, it rings of elan and derring-do and brings back memories here of Entebbe and the French patrol boats smuggled out of Cherbourg on Christmas Eve nine years ago.
A more sober Israeli view is that the story, published in several American newspapers, is a reflection of the Carter administration's second thoughts about fulfilling President Nixon's June 1974 promise to give Israel and Egypt each a nuclear reactor. The deal is now under review by the Carter administration and, according to Israeli officials, a decision is expected next month.
The Americans would like the deal to include strict supervision of all of Israel's atomic-research facilities. The Israeli position is that anything the Americans provide would be under strict supervision, but that supervision cannot be extended to facilities Israel already has in operation.
Specifically, they are referring to the top-secret atomic-research center at Dimona, deep in the Negev desert, which Israel built with French help in the 1950s.
Foreign press reports have long speculated that the atomic reactor at Dimona has already developed a number of atomic bombs and that Israel has an untested nuclear capability.
In 1974 Israel's President Ephraim Katzir nearly let the cat out of the bag when he was asked about Israel's atomic capability by a group of visiting science writers.
"Why should it worry us" he said. "Let the world worry about it."
The world is indeed worrying about it, and Arab military leaders have had to assume that Israel already has atomic weapons.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan has openly advocated an atomic capability for Israel. In an interview earlier this month he explained his reasoning.
"I think we have reached the limit, more or less, of the military burden the country can carry," Dayan said. It is not possible for Israel, with its limited resources, to contemplate forever matching the Arab world, tank for tank and plane for plane.
Therefore, Dayan advocated a "two-layer" military capability. On one level there would be "conventional weapons of a limited number." The second layer would be the nuclear capability.
The last time Dimona became a bone of contention between Israel and the United States was in November, when visiting U.S. Senators John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) asked to visit the site and were refused permission. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), who led the senatorial delegation to Israel, said later that the refusal should not be a cause for refusing to give Israel atomic reactors.
Israelis are taking a pessimistic view. The newspaper Davar said today that, under guidelines President Carter had laid down for the transfer of plutonium to foreign countries, no plutonium will be supplied to countries without international supervision of atomic reactors.Since Israel has refused to open Dimona up to inspection, the deal will probably be canceled, Davar said.
Israel's atomic-research facilities first came into being with French help during the 1950s, when Israel and France were close allies.
When Gen. Charles De Gaulle came to power in Frances and relations cooled, Shimon Peres, now acting prime ministers, flew to France and rescued the atomic-research project.
The Americans found out about the project in 1960, and raised the issue in strong terms. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion allowed the Americans to inspect the facility, his biographer Michael BarZohar said. The Americans were apparently satisfied that the plant was for peaceful purposes.
Recently, however, the Israelis have refused to allow anyone to inspect the Dimona plant, thus causing speculation that Israel now has something to hide.
Whatever the truth of the matter, sources her speculate that if a ship loaded with uranium did disappear on the high seas, and if it was diverted to Israel, it was not done by a hijacking but rather through a carefully prearranged deal. A similar arrangement was made when the Israelis sailed out of Cherbourg with a flotilla or patrol boats after France had declared an embargo on arms to Israel.