Nuclear bombs and the Israeli elephant


-The views expressed are the author’s own-

For the past four decades, there has been an elephant in the room whenever experts and government officials met to discuss nuclear weapons. The elephant is Israel’s sizeable nuclear arsenal, undeclared under a U.S.-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity.”

It means neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons. “Deterrence by uncertainty,” as Israeli President Shimon Peres has called it. The United States became a silent partner in Israeli opacity with a one-on-one meeting between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on Sept. 26, 1969.

That policy made strategic and political sense 40 years ago but it has outlived its usefulness, conflicts with Israel’s democratic values, is counter-productive and should be abandoned. So argues Avner Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel’s bomb, in a new book “The Worst-Kept Secret”, which delves deeply into the history and strategic and political implications of the policy.

The book’s publication coincided with a rising chorus of warnings by U.S. and Israeli hawks over the dire consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb, an aim Iran firmly denies. In several essays over the summer, American neo-conservatives pounded the drums of war against Iran. On a visit to the U.S. last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “credible threat of military action” from the West was necessary to stop Iran from making a nuclear bomb.

In his book, Cohen says it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of the current battle of wills between Iran and the West. But if Iran were willing to negotiate seriously, it might agree to substantial concessions only on a regional basis, as a step towards establishing a nuclear-free zone.
“In such a case, Israel could be pressed to make its own nuclear contribution, possibly even to shut down the Dimona reactor as part of the price for halting Iran’s (uranium) enrichment activities at Natanz.”

Such arguments are not publicly discussed in Israel, under its code of silence on the nuclear bomb. But Cohen can go where Israeli academics and journalists cannot because his book is published in the United States, where he is a non-proliferation scholar at the Monterey Institute for Internal Studies. In Israel, his book is unlikely to have survived the censor.

The Israeli nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev desert and the nuclear facility at Natanz in central Iran are rarely mentioned in the same breath but they have something in common. Both were secret until their existence was revealed against the will (and to the embarrassment) of the respective governments.


In 1986, Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu leaked photographs of nuclear weapons production at Dimona to the Sunday Times of London. His subsequent kidnapping in Italy, after being lured into a trap by a blonde Mossad agent, has become the stuff of books and documentaries. Back in Israel, he was convicted in a closed-door trial, spent 18 years in prison and was banned from leaving Israel after his release in 2004.

Iran’s secret facility at Natanz became public knowledge in 2002 after an Iranian dissident group disclosed details at a Washington press conference. Until then, the Iranians had pursued their program in a way reminiscent of Israel’s strategies in the 1960s — a blend of secrecy, ambiguity, double-talk and denial.

Why did Israel’s nuclear “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy continue even after the Dimona disclosure? Cohen says the revelations lacked the political force to affect the policy. “On the contrary, except for Norway, the international community apparently was not willing to translate Vanunu’s disclosure into the language of international relations.”

The policy survived, and so did Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It has left no doubt that it intends to maintain that monopoly — in 1981, U.S.-supplied Israeli F-16 fighter bombers knocked out Iraq’s Osirak reactor near Baghdad. The next perceived threat to the monopoly fell on Sept. 6, 2007, in a bombing raid on a Syrian site.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, in his memoir “Decision Points”, provides insight into the episode. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telephoned him, Bush says, to ask that the United States bomb a suspected nuclear weapons site in the eastern desert of Syria. After checking with the CIA, which had “low confidence of a Syrian weapons program,” Bush declined. The Israelis went ahead.

In contrast to most Israeli critics of the country’s nuclear program, Cohen thinks it has benefitted Israel, as has the policy of opacity. So why change it? Internally, because it is too secretive and lacks accountability. Who runs it? Who would pull the trigger? Externally, in part because President Barack Obama has made “a world without nuclear weapons” one of his chief aims.

This is a utopian vision and how seriously the Obama administration is taking it will become clear in 2012, at a conference to discuss a nuclear-free Middle East. The decision to hold this was taken in May at a United Nations meeting to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is held every five years. Obama welcomed the decision but said his administration would oppose any actions that jeopardized Israel’s national security.

If that stands for sticking to Israel’s nuclear opacity, what does “nuclear-free” mean? The elephant staying in the room?