Clear and present danger
In his new book, Dr. Avner Cohen, an expert on Israel's nuclear policy, sheds more light on the vaguest project in the country's history.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Ambiguity," the key word used in describing Israel's relationship vis-a-vis nuclear weapons, existed from the start. "There was a secret even before there was anything to hide," states Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born philosopher and historical researcher who is an expert in Israel's nuclear policy, in his new book.
"During the early 1950s, and even before then, there were those in Israel who dreamed about a nuclear project, but in reality there was almost nothing," explains Dr. Cohen in an interview with Haaretz, from his Washington, D.C. home. "Some students were sent overseas to study nuclear physics, and a group started to look for uranium in the Negev. There was none. Nonetheless, this small group, which merely had a vision, already maintained a cult of secrecy.
"In those years, there was not yet an international regime against nuclear proliferation - this was a decade before the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But even then, when theoretically anything was allowed, there was a sense of taboo. That the subject could not be discussed. [David] Ben-Gurion and [Shimon] Peres understood that in this sphere you don't really want to state your objectives precisely. The sense was that designating goals would, in itself, stir an argument, and that it was better to avoid such debates, both internal and external. The idea was that it was crucial not to raise these questions."
For Cohen, ambiguity in this realm is not merely a theoretical subject, it is the central issue which has fashioned his life. After an academic article he authored was disqualified by military censors in the 1990s, he left Israel. After publishing a book called "Israel and the Bomb" (Columbia University Press, 1999 ), an investigation was launched against him and he was barred from returning to Israel for several years. Cohen even played a certain role in the Yitzhak Yaakov affair - the case in which Yaakov, a retired IDF brigadier general, was indicted and detained for more than a year for harming national security by writing two books on Israel's weapons development program.
Cohen's newest work, "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb" (Columbia University Press, 2010 ), is dedicated to two figures who represent two different poles in Israel's culture of nuclear secrecy: Yaakov, who tried to share "prohibited" memories with the world and paid for it with a long detention, and Shalheveth Freier, a top official in the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC ), and one of the people who created the secret with their own hands.
In his new book, Cohen calls on Israel and Israelis to discuss anew the policy of ambiguity and its implications. In his view, for the past several years, the costs of such a policy have outweighed its utility. He does not believe that Israel should disarm, but rather that it should, in clear, simple terms, acknowledge these weapons and talk about them. That is precisely what he is trying to do in his research, and in this present article. Cohen is currently conducting research in the U.S. (right now he is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies ); his book (unlike this article ) was not submitted to the Israeli censor.
"I have never tried to reach classified documents by twisted means," he says, conscious of accusations leveled against him. "I read materials that are kept in archives around the world or are in memoirs. In particular, I carried out a large number of interviews and conversations with people. In my opinion, I have not written anything that harms the State of Israel; perhaps some things will help it. Nonetheless, I found myself, at least for a certain period of my life, kept away from my country, ostracized and even threatened. The whole world already knows what needs to be known. The whole world relates to these things as fact. And yet here we are, conducting this discussion outside of Israel."
Who gave the order?
Since the culture of secrecy enveloped the nuclear project from day one, even senior politicians and professionals who dealt with it did not always have a clear picture of its purposes. Cohen mentions that throughout the 1960s, Israel's security establishment was divided about the project's future. One camp wanted to turn Israel into a nuclear state. On the other hand, some ministers wanted Israel to have "threshold" capacity - to be a state with the capability to assemble a nuclear bomb, but that would not conduct tests or officially possess a nuclear weapon per se.
During this critical phase, Levi Eshkol was prime minister and, as was his wont, he equivocated. To a large extent, Cohen claims, the project moved ahead thanks to its own inertia. Even then, discussion of the subject was conducted in code words, half-sentences and hints.
"At all government and semi-governmental forums, ministers from the Achdut Ha'avoda party, Yigal Allon and Israel Galili, argued that Israel should maintain its 'technological edge' in the nuclear sphere, but that we should be careful not to be the ones responsible for bringing nuclear arms to the region," Cohen explains. "They had the concern that if we were to turn into a nuclear state, as Peres and then, later on, [Moshe] Dayan wanted, the Middle East would inevitably go nuclear. Should Israel gain nuclear capability, then it would be impossible to stop the other side from attaining its own nuclear weapon, sooner or later; that would create an arms race. And that was their nightmare."
Cohen continues: "It's interesting to look at how far-ranging this thinking was, because it has remained our nightmare to the present day. Were we to believe in mutual nuclear deterrence, we would be able to see that a nuclear Iran is something that can be lived with. But we are aware of an asymmetry, whose gist is: We are a smaller and more vulnerable country, and so even if everyone understands that we are the most advanced and strongest nuclear state [in the region] - a nuclearized Middle East is not in our interest."
From 1963 onward, Ben-Gurion and Peres directed the project under a thick cloud of secrecy, Cohen says. Even senior figures involved in it did not know whether Israel was in fact determined to attain nuclear weapons, or whether it wanted to simply move closer to that watershed. Cohen's book includes a historic anecdote that shows how even at crucial phases in the project's development, Israel's decision-makers refrained from specifying, even in their own internal discussions, its genuine objectives.
At one point in 1964-1965, the project director at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Prof. Avraham Hermoni, became so troubled about the lack of directives that he decided, in Cohen's words, "to force clarity upon his political bosses in Tel Aviv."
"Hermoni," Cohen writes, "wrote a memo to Peres [then deputy defense minister and the project's director], in which he detailed three technological options, each of them describing a a particular technical product that the project could work toward. Even though he refused, in my interviews with him, to be too specific as to what these options were, he left me with the understanding that they ranged from a crude nuclear explosive device to a fully deliverable weapons system (a bomb ). His question to Peres was how far should Israel go with its nuclear option? What should the developers ultimately aim for? The memorandum stated that in the absence of explicit guidance, Rafael would follow a specific course of action."
Cohen continues: "Hermoni anticipated that he might not receive a formal written reply from Peres, so one purpose of the memo was to put in writing Rafael's position (i.e., his position) on the matter. Yet he did not anticipate a specific request to regard the memo as if it had never been written. Not only did Peres himself ignore the request for guidance, but the memo also was returned to Hermoni unsigned, via Hermoni's boss, Rafael director, Munya Mardor, with an oral demand to treat the memo as if it had never been sent."
In the days of high anxiety prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, researchers around the world have claimed that Israel passed the nuclear threshold.
"At a time when Israel was preparing temporary burial sites for thousands of soldiers, it was unthinkable that the leaders of the nuclear project would sit idle," writes Cohen in his book.
"Prime Minister Eshkol was not in a position to stop them, and he must have authorized special emergency activity. In the few days before the war, Israel did something it had never done before. In an intensive crash effort, Israeli teams improvised the assembly of the nation's first nuclear explosive devices. As Israeli scientists and technicians were 'tickling the dragon's tail,' meaning assembling the first nuclear cores for those devices, only a few of them were even aware that there was a military contingency plan in the works. As Israeli leaders contemplated the worst scenarios - in particular, the failure of the Israeli air force to destroy the Arab air forces, and/or the extensive use by Egypt of chemical weapons against Israeli cities - authority was given for preliminary contingency planning for 'demonstrating' Israel's nuclear capability.
"The idea was to create the technical possibility of demonstrating Israel's nuclear capability over some remote desert area as a political signal, not to actually use the devices militarily. Israel wanted to be in a position to send a signal to Egypt and to the superpowers that if all else failed and Israel's existence was in peril, Israel would have a doomsday capability to inflict great harm on Egypt. The final step in the assembly process, arming the devices, was never taken ... These were the most dramatic moments for those involved, especially the project's leaders. It was seen as the moment when Israel actually became a nuclear power. From their perspective, it was also an irreversible moment."
Israel's speedy victory in the war of 1967 canceled out any need to demonstrate its capabilities, and the proposal of one of the persons involved in the project (and who personally told Cohen about it ) - in favor of taking advantage of the moment and conducting a nuclear test, by which Israel would gain official entry to the nuclear "club" - did not win serious consideration.
"That was a total taboo to them, as far as they [the authorities] were concerned," Cohen cites the involved source as saying.
On the political level, ambiguity is a policy by which the State of Israel does not say anything about its nuclear status, apart from the statement that "it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East." The key word here is "introduce" - and Israel and the United States became involved in a political confrontation over this term toward the end of the 1960s. Like John Kennedy's government before it, the Johnson administration believed that it would be a mistake to allow Israel to develop nuclear weapons, and thus tried to keep Israel at the 'threshold' status."
For its part, Israel did not reveal what had happened on the eve of the Six-Day War, and its leadership pondered whether the threat posed by that war was a one-time episode. Eshkol, Cohen is convinced, passed away without reaching a decision as to whether Israel should become party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in accord with the Johnson administration's consistent demand.
The picture changed after Richard Nixon's election in 1968. In his study, Cohen quotes documents that were declassified in recent years, which indicate that the American bureaucracy and heads of the country's security forces continued to believe that Israel should be pressured not to assemble nuclear bombs; they even favored linking the Phantom jets deal, which was put together in this period, to Israel's assurances on this issue. However, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and Nixon himself, saw things differently. One of these American documents has Kissinger wondering whether it would be at all possible to pressure Israel not to deploy Jericho missiles that it was developing; elsewhere, he recommends to the president that "for our own internal purpose, we would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device."
The story ended this way: In a late-1969 meeting between Golda Meir and Nixon, details of which were initially revealed by Aluf Benn in Haaretz, the Americans assented to Israel's interpretation of the word "introduce," according to which Israel would neither conduct nuclear tests, nor declare that it possesses such a weapon, and would generally keep a low profile on nuclear matters. At that meeting, Cohen posits in his book, Meir acknowledged Israel's nuclear status to Nixon.
That is how nuclear ambiguity was officially born - and how its footprints started to be rubbed out. As far as is known, minutes of the Nixon-Meir meeting are not to be found in archives in the two countries; even the file that deals with the Nixon administration's bureaucratic process leading to the meeting remains classified; and it is the only document of its sort from that period whose very title remains unknown to the public.
"In exchange for the low profile Israel promised during that meeting," Cohen explains, "the United States and most of the Western world agreed to accept Israel's special nuclear status. In other words, Israel did not join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it received special status, and pressure was not exerted on it with regard to this topic. Ambiguity is the Israeli-American policy. Without the West's agreement, there would be no ambiguity."
If, as you write in your book, Israel indeed developed the bomb before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty materialized, why did it do so secretly?
Cohen: "Part of the uniqueness of the Israeli project is that it was driven by two opposing forces, which almost balance one another: determination and caution. It is very important to keep in mind when these things emerged - a short time after World War II. Fresh historical memories, and the path running between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, were entrenched deeply in Israel's dilemma. On the one hand, the bomb's purpose was clear: Ben-Gurion, who remained so helpless throughout the Holocaust period, wanted an 'insurance policy' to protect against a recurrence of such a tragedy. If you have the capability of threatening Hiroshima, you stave off Auschwitz. On the other hand, the other side could try to attain the same status. And if it were to succeed, then, suddenly, all of the calculations would be altered, moving from one extreme to the other. This was not like the Americans and the Russians, who found themselves more or less in a situation of parity. When both sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute have the bomb, Israel is trapped in an awful situation, worse than at the starting point. Thus, Israel's real interest is for nobody to have the bomb.
"That is the reason why when Israel did anything in the nuclear sphere, it wanted to reduce as much as possible the other side's incentive to attain this capability. That explains the need to minimize the value of our acts, to conceal them or to reduce whatever was seen of them, as much as possible. This tension, between the determination to obtain an insurance policy, and the threat that this determination created, produced the unique policy of ambiguity."
In other words, even you admit that ambiguity has considerable logic.
"Ambiguity contains a very deep dimension of caution and self-restraint which I definitely respect. It's possible to claim that it played an important role in mitigating the Arab incentive to join a nuclear arms race. However, it has something very anachronistic, undemocratic and ill-suited to Israel's interest today, 40 years after the world became convinced that Israel attained these capabilities. The world, or at least most of it, is reconciled to Israel's status as a nuclear state, and even understands the special circumstances that led to this status, so long as Israel conducts reasonable and responsible policy. Such a policy includes norms of political responsibility, and also public acknowledgment of its status. Responsibility enjoins a measure of transparency, and ambiguity does not suit this burden of responsibility. You cannot attain recognition if you are playing games. That's evasion of responsibility."
The majority of Israel's leaders and public believe that ambiguity protects the bomb, and the bomb protects Israel - and also that if you relinquish ambiguity, you'll lose the bomb.
"Total nonsense. You are talking about a state that has had these capabilities for two generations, capabilities which are supported by political understandings that were ratified during generations of contacts between U.S. presidents and the Israeli government, and that are basically accepted by all Western states, and nobody is going to wrest these capabilities from its hands. How exactly would they be taken away? That's not practical or realistic; it's a fantasy. Should Israel provide some sort of signal that it is prepared to think anew about this topic, there's no doubt that the world, particularly the United States, will be willing to sit down and see how the right conditions can be created.
"The bitter irony is that right now, ambiguity serves the interests of Israel's rival in the Middle East. Iran is creating its own version of ambiguity: not the concealment of its project, but rather ambiguity with regard to the distinction separating possession and non-possession of nuclear weapons. It reiterates that it has no intention of building a bomb, but that it has the right to enrich uranium, and even come close to developing [nuclear] weapons - while still remaining true to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is straddling the line, and in my opinion, Iran wants to, and can, remain for some time with the status of a state that might or might not have the bomb. Iran is a state of ambiguity."
In contrast to most researchers, who examine policy of nuclear ambiguity largely in the context of international relations, of war and peace, Cohen deals extensively in this book and his other work with the internal political and legal problems that ambiguity causes - such as the issue of how it squares with democracy, of how it has come to pass that the Knesset and the government remain out of the picture with respect to such a central, existential issue.
Cohen notes that in the mid-1970s, a dispute between Defense Minister Shimon Peres and the director general of the IAEC, Shalheveth Freier, led to the latter's dismissal. However, the circumstances of this dispute were not even disclosed to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which follows Defense Ministry activity. Who then, one asks, monitors the IAEC? Is there an external body that reviews environmental risks (like where does waste get buried; what will happen in the event of an earthquake )? Last but not least, who in Israel has authority to push the "red button"? According to Cohen, such issues have shadowed the project from its inception, but they almost never found public expression.
When the IAEC was established, Ben-Gurion did not attempt to clarify whether it was subordinate to the Defense Ministry, or the Prime Minister's Office. He avoided making such a determination because he headed both. When Moshe Sharett, Israel's second prime minister, tried to clarify this issue, Ben-Gurion wrote that he had never really dealt with the question, but it seemed more logical that the IAEC would operate under the auspices of the PMO (and this, in fact, became the authority in question ).
In 1966, a secret document signed by Prime Minister Eshkol reorganized the nuclear project, and spelled out spheres of responsibility undertaken by the PMO and the Defense Ministry. Before the Six-Day War, when Dayan joined the government, another document was formulated - apparently to ban the new defense minister from ordering on his own initiative the use of nonconventional weapons.
The toughest test of the policy of nuclear ambiguity occurred in 1973, just four years after its principles were agreed upon by Meir and Nixon. According to Cohen, Defense Minister Dayan apparently requested during the first days of the Yom Kippur War to carry out a "nuclear demonstration," and he summoned IAEC director general Freier to a meeting of the war cabinet.
"Dayan feared that Israel was approaching a point of no return, and he evidently wanted the United States to take notice that Israel had reached that point," Cohen writes in his book. "According to one person's testimony [Arnon 'Sini' Azaryahu, a confidante of Israel Galili, who waited for Galili outside the conference room, and heard the report of events immediately after the meeting ended], at the end of the war cabinet meeting in the late morning of October 9, a day after the IDF had failed miserably in its first counterattack in the Egyptian frontier, Dayan suggested discussing some options involving a nuclear demonstration. On hand was Shalheveth Freier, the IAEC's director general, who was waiting to provide a briefing. As soon as Dayan made his suggestion, Ministers Allon and Galili told the prime minister that such discussion was premature and uncalled for. The prime minister agreed with them, and Freier did not address the forum."
In the book's section on the Yom Kippur War, Cohen relies on the testimony of Prof. Yuval Ne'eman, an adviser to the defense minister in this period and a veteran researcher of the nuclear project, and confirms estimates published in foreign sources that during the 1973 war, Israel took steps whose implication was that its level of nuclear preparedness was upgraded.
"It also appeared that on two or three occasions during the war," writes Cohen, "a 'strategic alert' (a euphemism for nuclear alert ) was declared, twice in the first week of the war and the third time on October 17 or 18, in response to a state of alert of Soviet SCUD missiles in Egypt. It is believed that those states of alert involved certain readiness 'dispositions' such as mobilizing the Jericho missiles from their shelters, fueling them, and other related activities."
The Yom Kippur War is not the only instance in which Dayan is thought to have had "nuclear enthusiasm."
Cohen relies on a description provided by historian Tom Segev, indicating that the year before Eshkol's death, Dayan appeared to be promoting certain developments, in the nuclear sphere and other contexts, in defiance of the prime minister's wishes. As a result, when Golda Meir became prime minister, another document was formulated to clarify the division of responsibility between the PMO and the Defense Ministry; the document included a section relating to nuclear matters.
During the latter half of the 1970s, when he did not serve in the government, Dayan presented to various circles the idea of open nuclear deterrence; this displeased Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a proponent of ambiguity.
No talking allowed
What would be the decision-making sequence, and monitoring framework, for a situation in which the defense minister or prime minister asks again to promote the "doomsday option"? Neither the public, nor most of its representatives, have any clue as to the nuclear chain of command. In his book, Cohen speculates that Israel's monitoring system includes a series of nuclear alert situations, akin to those present in the United States during the Cold War. He asserts that senior Israeli ministers in the past assured foreign officials that Israel's nuclear program includes safeguards to protect against mistaken or unauthorized use of the weapons. In his view, the main authority rests with the prime minister, but certain aspects of this authority are controlled by the defense minister; furthermore, actual use requires, at a minimum, the consent of both the prime minister and the defense minister. He believes that the division of power has been revamped during the past decades - assuming that, Israel is, in fact, dealing with the establishment of a second strike force, based on a naval nuclear capacity.
"On a practical level," Cohen explains, "I am inclined to think that the persons in charge of the reactor and everything connected to its supervision and control are responsible. I think they established for themselves self-monitoring mechanisms which are unseen by the public. But this is the crux of the matter. In my opinion, responsibility cannot be assumed without taking the public dimension into account: It's impossible to conduct healthy decision-making processes in a democracy, or to avoid the failures of collective thinking, while remaining committed to ambiguity."
In his book, Cohen emphasizes possible implications of ambiguity on routine and also crisis management-related decision-making processes. Unlike nuclear democracies such as Britain or the United States, Israel does not, and cannot, have experts who are not engaged in the nuclear project itself; Israel lacks well-informed persons who are on the outside and can challenge the professional bureaucracy. The prime minister appoints the director general of the IAEC, but then becomes almost entirely dependent on this official when he requires information about nuclear matters. The probability that the prime minister will regularly accept recommendations forwarded by the professionals in this sphere is extremely high, Cohen asserts; the premier's ability to implement policy changes, that are opposed by the bureaucracy, is tightly circumscribed.
"Sticking with this special, pure status, by which there is never any public discussion on the topic, is very convenient," Cohen reflects, "but it's also crippling and encourages ignorance in that neither the public, nor senior officials, even think about starting a discussion.
"Israelis are banned from talking about Israel's nuclear weapons as a fact; instead the topic can be discussed only as imagery, as speculation, an estimate, a quote, as something attributed to a foreign source. There are no facts, not even those known to everyone; there are only estimates and images. This is absurd: Relating to Israel's bomb is prohibited, while, on the other hand, the entire world knows about it as a fact. Because if the weapon were really a secret, it would have no deterrent value."
Cohen's new book was launched earlier this month at a building named for Woodrow Wilson, two blocks from the White House. The room filled up quickly; some guests were referred to a hall on the second floor, were there was a video broadcast of the proceedings. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who drafted for President Obama a survey of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the book serves as a good platform for starting a discussion about a change in Israeli-American policy on nuclear matters; Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wondered whether Israeli society is ready for such a change. All of the speakers related to Israel's possession of nuclear weapons, and even to its ostensible second strike capability, as a matter of course, as though speaking about something that was self-evident. Most of the attention was directed toward the subject of Iran.
Of course, a discussion about ambiguity such as this event in Washington could not be conducted in Israel, owing to the policy of ambiguity. In order to be a researcher of the country's nuclear project, Cohen became an American. After he completed his first article, a 1993 study about the history of the Dimona project, he tried to wrest approval from the censor, but failed; Cohen hired attorney Gilad Sher and petitioned the High Court of Justice. When the sides failed to reach an agreement, Cohen withdrew the petition. "There are countries which would make such a person disappear," commented a security source in a report by journalist Emmanuel Rosen on this affair.
After he left for the United States, Cohen was warned by an Israeli police representative in the Washington embassy that should "Israel and the Bomb" be published, "measures would be taken against him." When the book was printed in 1999, Cohen was informed that he would be arrested should he enter Israel.
After a few years of negotiation between his attorneys and state prosecutors, Cohen managed to persuade authorities that he had not dealt with classified documents. He was allowed to return to the country; he was questioned, and subsequently the accusations against him were dropped. Denunciations of him, attributed to "security elements," remain with him to this day, however. Cohen believes that they originated with Yechiel Horev, formerly the official responsible for security in the Defense Ministry; Horev, Cohen claims, "personally" hounded him in the early 2000s, and would have "been happy to see me put on trial."
Horev has retired, and Cohen is able to visit his mother in Israel as he wishes. Yet in my meetings with him, I got the impression that the years in which he was banned from returning to Israel - along with the security establishment's campaign against him - wounded him deeply. It appears that he continues to be perplexed by the twists of fate that turned him into an enemy of the establishment, even an exile. Between the lines in his book there is a sense of admiration for the pioneers in Israel's nuclear project. He even maintained a friendship with two of the legendary figures from the early days of the IAEC: Freier and Israel Dostrovsky (who passed away last month ).
"I don't see myself as an outsider, or as an enemy of the establishment," he declares. "Up to the point where the struggle became a full frontal collision with Yechiel Horev, I thought of myself as someone who was doing everything to return to Israel. My effort, the negotiations we conducted with stubborn persistence so that I could return, were done so that I could maintain my connection to Israel."
There's no possibility that you exaggerate about Horev, or the danger of ambiguity, as a result of your experiences?
"There is such a possibility. I think I am aware of that, and so it is important that the topic be discussed in an organized way. My analysis is open to discussion. I do not see the picture perfectly. My knowledge is limited, sometimes even speculative. But it seems to me that given the total lack of efforts to criticize or discuss this subject, at least one person ought to become perhaps a little obsessive about it - can't he provide some balance? Doesn't he bring a little balance to this black hole?"
Cohen concludes: "I'm often asked why I don't drop this topic of ambiguity. I refer to historic and geopolitical circumstances, but I mainly believe that on the most basic and deepest level, ambiguity is simply not enlightened behavior, not in terms of the state's citizens, and not in foreign relations. When dealing with subjects that are so central and crucial, it's wrong to speak in such an evasive manner, one that neither acknowledges nor denies; that says one thing at one moment and then another thing at another moment. If, as a result of historical circumstances the State of Israel found itself required to produce this terrible weapon, under our circumstances today, we can look at ourselves and the world and say, 'Right. We did this. But we are very responsible; we've proven that in the past, and for as long as this weapon exists in the world, and so long as the dispute continues and our existence is not guaranteed - we will continue to possess it." W