It’s a policy that has been around for so long that most Israelis and Americans cannot imagine a world without it.
For the past four decades, Israel has adhered, almost religiously, to the idea of nuclear ambiguity, or opacity. It has refused to either confirm or deny it has the bomb, and it has repeated the same vague mantra that “Israel will not be the first country to use nuclear weapons” in the Middle East.
But now, a leading researcher is airing another possibility, one that is hardly heard in the Israeli-American atomic discourse: Why not start talking openly about Israel’s nuclear ability? Why not lift — gradually and cautiously — the ban on uttering the A word?
The call, articulated so far only in an academic manner in a new book by American-based Israeli scholar Avner Cohen, comes at a time when there is a president in the White House whose declared goal is to reach a world free of any nuclear weapons and when Arab countries, led by Egypt, are increasing their pressure on Israel to come clean about its nuclear capabilities.
The U.S. has given no indication Israel could be asked to change its stance on nuclear issues. But Israelis have been increasingly nervous over the possibility that they might have to shed light on their nuclear program.
“If there is one issue for Israel in which the emotional side influences practical decisions, it is the nuclear issue,” said Cohen, whose new book, “The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb,” suggests relaxing the ambiguity policy.
For decades, Cohen, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, has been documenting Israel’s complex relationship with the bomb, a difficult task given Israel’s strict censorship rules regarding any disclosure about the country’s nuclear activity. After writing his first book, which detailed Israel’s efforts to achieve nuclear capability, Cohen, an Israeli native based in the Washington area, was threatened with arrest by the Israeli authorities for allegedly publishing secret material.
He has since resolved all outstanding issues with the Israeli security establishment, but still feels that the idea he is floating, of gradually opening a discussion about Israel and the bomb, is far from being accepted by the Israeli public. “The Israeli public does not feel that there is any problem and prefers not to think about it, not even to be bothered by it,” he said.
In his book, Cohen argues that maintaining ambiguity is anachronistic and entails dangers to the health and strength of the Israeli society.
According to Cohen, the current Israeli policy infringes on Israel’s democracy and deprives its citizens of their right to government transparency and of their ability to influence policy. He also believes that if continued, the nuclear ambiguity could harm Israel’s governance, since it places the responsibility for the country’s nuclear program outside the normal branches of government.
Therefore, in the long run, he suggests, Israel should begin thinking of relaxing its taboo on discussing the bomb. As a first step, he proposes easing censorship rules regarding press reports on the issue (currently, Israeli media is allowed to report on the country’s nuclear capability only when quoting foreign sources), while keeping the ban on official acknowledgement. “It’s not a binary change,” he said, “it is movement on spectrum.” At the far end of the spectrum stands a full, official Israeli acknowledgement of its nuclear capacity.
But on the international level, Cohen argues that any decision on ending the ambiguity should be reached in consultation with the United States, Israel’s partner in the deal of ambiguity. This agreement was reached between Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1969. The idea of refraining from openly affirming the existence of an Israeli bomb, Cohen states in his book, came from the American side.
The agreement has been reaffirmed by every American president, including Obama, and according to Cohen, America is not seeking to change the status quo on this issue.
Still, Obama’s public focus on nonproliferation, and several symbolic actions taken by his administration, has raised concerns among Israelis.
First to set off alarm bells in Jerusalem was an offhand remark made by a senior Obama administration official in May 2009. Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state in charge of arms control, said during a nonproliferation conference that “universal adherence to the NPT itself — including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea — also remains a fundamental objective of the United States.” Mentioning Israel by name in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was previously seen as a diplomatic faux pas.
Adding to that was a resolution, adopted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference this past May, that included language calling for convening a Middle East conference that would discuss Israel and Iran’s nuclear programs. The resolution was supported by the United States and drew sharp criticism from the Israeli prime minister’s office, which issued a statement calling the decision “deeply flawed and hypocritical.”
The Obama administration went to great lengths to assuage Israeli concerns. Top administration officials, including the president, made clear publicly and privately that they did not support singling out Israel, and explained that adopting the language was the only way to ensure that the conference ended with a joint resolution.
For Israelis, however, this explanation was of little help. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly raised the issue in talks they held in Washington, and they each received assurances that America’s policy had not changed. Still, a senior Israeli official told the Forward last summer that the American vote in favor of the resolution was “a troubling deviation” from previous policy.
Samuel Lewis, a former American ambassador to Israel, explained that Israel’s concerns over its nuclear understanding with the United States peak whenever an administration changes in Washington. “Israelis always have this slight skepticism whether they can count on promises of U.S. presidents, especially when presidents change,” Lewis said during an October 7 discussion on Cohen’s book, hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
In response to the concern on the Israeli side, Obama made a public statement after his July 6 meeting with Netanyahu, stating that “there is no change in U.S. policy” regarding Israel’s nonproliferation issues. “The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests,” Obama added.
Later, in a September meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, American diplomats defeated a resolution, offered by Egypt, to compel Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
But while the administration has made clear that it is not pushing to end Israeli nuclear ambiguity, Cohen and other experts warn that the international community could grow impatient if it feels that Israel is not cooperative on other fronts. At the Woodrow Wilson Center discussion, Morton Halperin, a former National Security Council official, said that acceptance of nuclear opacity could become more difficult if Israel is viewed as unwilling to be forthcoming on the peace process.
Cohen agreed. “If Israel is perceived as a pariah state,” he said, “the world will not be as forthcoming regarding its nuclear policy.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.