Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity as an Illusion

Recently revealed documents from the U.S. archive could be the trigger for Israel to change its policy on official recognition of a nuclear program.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Israel’s nuclear capability is an eternal “festive mystery,” the late Foreign Minister Abba Eban once said. According to the famous formula, what hasn’t been tested and exposed does not exist. Suspicions, conjectures, inferences and circumstantial evidence are not enough. As long as things are not seen with the naked eye or under a microscope – and not officially declared – Israel has no nuclear weapons.

The Director of Security for the Defense Establishment (DSDE, but known by the Hebrew acronym malmab), operates under the authority of the prime minister and defense minister, and enforces the zealous standards of secrecy for Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The malmab’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, which swept up his superiors, the State Prosecutor’s Office and the courts, rules out the publication of anything in Israel that dares depart from the official line.

The concern is not necessarily about a leak, but a diplomatic avalanche. Publishing something would force the U.S. government to take a position on it, and there will also be those in Congress who would demand hostile legislation against Israel and an end to the mystery. To be convincing, the malmab and his associates covertly brandish classified materials.

However, the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State recently revealed just how flimsy this strictness is. The White House does not get flustered by articles in the Israeli press, because even reports of CIA intelligence evaluations fail to set off chain reactions.

The latest volume of declassified documents deals with Washington-Moscow relations during the Carter administration in the late 1970s. A war of espionage, subversion and propaganda existed between the two superpowers at the time, and they did not eschew technical means such as radiation and tunnel-digging. Sometimes, they did not even spare their agents – Malcolm Toon, the American ambassador who was transferred from Tel Aviv to Moscow in 1976, endorsed abandoning a U.S. spy who was caught and sentenced to death. Americans who volunteered to distribute books in Russia didn’t know the CIA paid for the printing.

The Soviets did not always lie: Some dissidents did have indirect ties with the CIA. There were agents who were rescued in spy exchanges, but the Israelis can learn from the records of talks at the highest level – Israel chose a louder alternative in its struggle to free the Jewish refuseniks from the Soviet Union. The more presidential attention garnered by a prisoner such as Andrei Sakharov or Anatoly Shcharansky (or by the Diaspora in general), the more the Soviets grew determined not to give up. Despite all the differences, the Americans were studious – just look at the Pollard affair.

But the most important fact casts a new light on the concept of nuclear ambiguity within Israeli discourse. Three straight times in a month and a half during the spring of 1978, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin put pressure on U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to officially respond to reports in American media that the CIA believed Israel had a nuclear weapon.

It’s not that the KGB needed friends in the CIA, or Vance’s courtesy. The KGB had sources, especially in South Africa, that kept tabs on the country’s nuclear program, and allowed for a peek at Israel as well. Dobrynin’s nagging – in reports in the foreign press on the new policy of then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, about how the supposed Israeli nuclear missiles could reach the southern part of the Soviet Union – was about politics, not intelligence. Dobrynin’s nagging was meant to drive the United States to tighten its supervision over Israel’s nuclear program.

Vance, the experienced jurist, evaded giving an unequivocal answer and said that in the American intelligence community, there was dispute on this question – whether Israel had a nuclear weapon, or only the capacity to create one. Dobrynin was almost offended for American intelligence analysts, but Vance insisted he could see a “shadow of a doubt.”

Nothing forces Israel to renounce ambiguity all together and display all the secrets at its Independence Day parade. But the American documents boost the case against the prevailing gag order on any local, unofficial report on the nuclear program. As long as it’s convenient, Washington can easily dismiss news reports and articles, but not formal declarations by prime ministers, and foreign and defense ministers.

Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter at the White House, 1980



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