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Israel: Nuclear Weapons

The Bomb that Never is

Avner Cohen

Israel crossed the nuclear-weapons threshold more than three decades ago, but the Israeli parliament--the Knesset--has never discussed the substance of nuclear policy in an open session; it treats the subject as if it did not exist. On the few occasions in the distant past when some left-wing member--usually an Arab--tried to place the issue on the agenda, the leadership blocked open debate, ensuring that the motion would die in oblivion in a closed-door session of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee. The motions became meaningless and, for a long time, were no longer made.

Earlier this year, however, Knesset member Issam Mahoul--a member of the predominantly Arab communist party Hadash--filed a motion to debate the nuclear issue. (His motion was triggered by the first-ever publication, in Yediot Ahronot, of selected portions of the transcript of the trial of Mordechai Vanunu, imprisoned since 1986 for revealing the existence of Israel's bomb program.)

Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg was about to handle the request in the usual manner, but Mahoul threatened to battle the procedure in the Israeli High Court of Justice. To avoid that embarrassment--and after considerable consultation-- Burg decided to allow Mahoul to present his motion in open session. Burg's decision was described by the media as "historic"--permitting the first "open" debate of the nuclear issue in the Knesset.

In reality, however, the 52-minute "debate" that occurred on February 2 was an insult to the subject matter. It was a shouting match between Mahoul and his critics about the legitimacy of the debate itself, marked by a barrage of verbal attacks on Mahoul, the removal of four other Arab members who had interrupted a response by government minister Haim Ramon, and a protest walkout by right-wing members.

A vote the following week on whether to hold a wider debate was defeated 61 to 16. The "historic" debate was over.

No major party with influence in the mainstream Jewish and Zionist public had the courage to raise this important topic, so it was left exclusively to Hadash, an Arab anti-Zionist party, and was therefore perceived as antipatriotic. In the end, the majority refused to look straight at this large and deep "black hole" in Israeli democracy.

The government's response, as expressed by Minister Ramon, was also hollow. Ramon made a series of banal assertions about the security of the state and the value of patriotism and secrecy, with no serious explanation of why in the year 2000 Israel has the same ostrich-like policy it had in the 1960s and 1970s.

On February 4 an Ha'aretz's editorial criticized the parliamentary spectacle and called for opening the nuclear issue to a real public debate: "Israeli society is mature enough to open its nuclear 'black box' with all due caution and look inside."

Even Ha'aretz, however, fell back on Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, distinguishing on the one hand between "opacity" as a national strategy, which should be supported and preserved for strategic reasons, and its translation into a code of discourse and a system of censorship, which should be modified, on the other.

But that separation is both wrong and misleading. It is wrong not to recognize opacity as both undemocratic and a political anachronism. It is misleading because it assumes that under the conditions prevailing in Israel--the only democracy that has a military censor--it is conceptually and practically possible to distinguish between opacity as a strategy and opacity as a code of internal discourse. The problem is not the censor or internal security. The problem is the policy of nuclear opacity itself.

Opacity served Israel well in the past, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. Originally, it was a tactic that enabled Israel to continue its nuclear development while minimizing international frictions, especially with the United States. By the 1970s it had become a strategic foundation of Israel's national security policy.

In those years nobody expected the semantic gymnastics of David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, and, later, of Levy Eshkol and Yitzhak Rabin (in his capacity as ambassador to the United States) to last so long.

As early as the early 1960s, Golda Meir as foreign minister criticized this policy of deception; in internal deliberations she called for "telling the truth [to the Americans] and explaining why."

A few years later Meir as prime minister told the truth to U.S. President Richard Nixon. She explained why a policy of opacity, with the Americans looking the other way, served the best interests of both countries. Her statement became the basis for understandings between the two countries.

Thirty years have passed since then, but almost nothing has changed in the practice of these understandings or the manner in which they have been translated in Israel into an internal code of discourse.

What has changed, beyond recognition, during these years is the state of Israel itself, its domestic culture, and the region in which it resides. Israel today is the strongest and most dominant country in the region and the Soviet threat no longer exists, but when it comes to the nuclear issue, it still acts as if it is afraid of its own shadow, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge anything about what has made it a first-rate regional power. In the last decade the nuclear issue has emerged as the source of grave tensions between Egypt and Israel.

Those who believe that opacity has no substitute--and almost the entire Israeli defense establishment adheres to that position--rely on two major arguments. The first is based on the notion that any deviation from the policy will be costly--causing damage to U.S.-Israeli relations, possibly even resulting in sanctions. And it could, they add, undermine U.S. nonproliferation policy itself. Therefore, opacity is described as indispensable for both American and Israeli vital interests.

This argument is anachronistic and overstated. A growing number of people within the American nonproliferation community realize that the old American-Israeli nuclear understandings have become a burden for both countries and that there is a need to find new and creative ways to put the issue on the table, to legitimize it and integrate it into the peace process. The time is ripe to replace the old understandings with something more suitable to the needs of the present, regionally and globally. The time has come for an honest American-Israeli dialogue on the nuclear issue. Israel should receive legitimacy for its nuclear status, and in return it should be held accountable.

Such sentiments are being quietly but increasingly voiced within the U.S. administration and without. It is true that the Americans do not want to push Israel on the nuclear issue because they recognize the depth of the Israeli taboo, and also because there are more pressing political issues on the agenda--the delicate peace negotiations between Israel and both the Palestinians and the Syrians.

But American compliance with Israel's nuclear opacity should not be read as an American demand that it not be modified, as Israeli strategists seem to think.

The last line of defence of Israeli supporters of opacity is the "slippery slope" argument--the fear that if the subject is discussed, there will be never-ending demands for more and more transparency.

This was a reasonable concern at one time, but it has grown until it now assumes irrational proportions. A strong country like Israel, confident in its own power, is capable of drawing for itself the line beyond which it will not go. And it is possible to determine this ahead of time, in coordination with the United States, as part of a post-opacity policy.

The defenders of the "slippery slope" argument often argue that opacity is also the best way to deal with Egypt's opposition to Israel's nuclear status. Openly discussing the nuclear issue, they argue, would cause much worse damage to Israeli-Egyptian relations.

But one could argue to the contrary--that Israel's refusal to engage the Egyptians on the nuclear issue, under the banner of opacity, has done more harm than good. The fact is that after the Gulf War the Egyptians are no longer willing to close their eyes to Israel's nuclear status. They insist on discussing it.

Israel's refusal to discuss the subject enrages the Egyptians. One could argue that Golda's view--that "we must tell them the truth and explain why"--would also be good for Israeli-Egyptian relations. In any case, without a quiet and direct dialogue with the Egyptians over the nuclear issue, there will be no progress on arms control issues.

Perhaps hidden behind the Israelis' "slippery slope" argument is nothing more than a preference for the sweet comfort of a culture of secrecy and a primordial fear of coming out of the closet. But just as the declared nuclear countries meticulously keep their nuclear secrets, so also will Israel in a post-opacity era.

Ultimately, the central reason for liberating this topic is not external, but internal. Israel can no longer accept the principle that there is one subject, central and fateful like no other, that is unacknowledged and untouchable. In the Israel of this time there should be no room for the culture of secrecy.

Avner Cohen: Israeli and a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb (1998), a Hebrew version of which will be published later this year.

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