Monday, May 14, 2018

The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb Paperback by Avner Cohen (Columbia University Press)

This book by Avner Cohen is as good an account of Israel's nuclear arsenal as is likely to be written for a good while, and is a must-read for anyone interested in Israel's development of nuclear weapons and in its official policy of "nuclear opacity" ("amimut" in Hebrew), by which Israel neither confirms nor denies that it possesses nuclear weapons. Cohen, who has researched Israeli nuclear issues for over 25 years, is probably more knowledgeable about this subject than any person outside the circle of state actors, scientists, and bureaucrats who have had firsthand roles in Israel's nuclear program from its inception under David Ben-Gurion to its contemporary stewards such as Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Cohen has interviewed many of the principal actors (several of whom have died in the meantime) over the years, as well as pursuing as much documentary evidence as is available from Israeli or foreign sources. The problem is that Israeli authorities have been remarkably effective over the last sixty years in keeping most aspects of their nuclear weapons program secret, so that Cohen has to couch his assertions of "facts" in language that makes clear he is often speculating, however highly informed these speculations may be. Nevertheless, Cohen is able to narrate the historical progression of Israel's nuclear program from Ben-Gurion's decision in the mid-1950s to develop an Israeli bomb and the vital French assistance in nuclear and ballistic missile technology in these early years, through Israel's assembly of a crude atomic device in 1966/67, Golda Meir's meeting with Richard Nixon in September of 1969 in which she (most likely) acknowledged the Israeli bomb and Nixon agreed to the mutual benefit to both nations of Israeli nuclear opacity, to today's reality of an Israel with 200-400 nuclear weapons, ICBMs with ranges up to 8,000 miles, and a fleet of four German-made submarines which theoretically provide Israel a "second-strike" capability in the event of a surprise nuclear attack upon the Jewish state.
However, Cohen's purpose in this book is not only to map the historical development of the Israeli bomb. He also contemplates the consequences for Israel's democratic society of a nuclear weapons program which is neither officially acknowledged nor denied; about which any factual published statements by Israeli citizens are forbidden on pain of imprisonment and actively censored; whose key official decisions are hidden; and whose political and military chain-of-command is nebulous at best. To me it was remarkable to read that in a democracy as vibrant as Israel's, its citizens do not have real freedom of speech regarding their nuclear weapons program, and that this prohibition is assiduously policed by three domestic intelligence/government agencies. In this regard Cohen makes clear that the majority of Israel's citizen's consider Ben-Gurion's decision to establish an Israeli nuclear weapons program the greatest achievement of this founding father of the Jewish state; that Israel's nuclear weapons are a vital insurance policy to a small nation that has been surrounded by ardent enemies since its inception; and that this continuing reality justifies an Israeli attitude of the "sanctity of security" ("kdushat habitachon" in Hebrew) that has served the Jewish state well since its founding. That the efforts of the Censora (Israel's government censorship agency) are increasingly vain in the era of the Internet is an irony not lost on Cohen. And while Cohen agrees with the necessity of Israel's nuclear deterrent, he suggests some scenarios in which Israel could lift its domestic nuclear censorship, and possibly even acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and become an official member of the international "nuclear club." To me, these sections on the social and democratic consequences of Israel's nuclear opacity and official censorship are less consistently interesting than the sections narrating the development of the Israeli bomb and could have been pared down.

David Ben-Gurion and his successors established Israel's nuclear weapons program under the guise of a nuclear energy research effort and actively and effectively duped U.S. inspections of the Dimona reactor in the Negev desert. Today Iran has taken a page from the Israeli playbook by asserting that its nuclear infrastructure is also solely for the development of a nuclear energy capacity; a right it is accorded as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Whether Iranian officials are being truthful is, at this point, impossible to be sure of, as their nuclear efforts are also shrouded in secrecy despite an extensive regime of international inspections.

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