Ha'aretz. 28 July 2000

Blast, from the past to the present

By Yirmiyahu Yovel

"Israel and the Bomb" by Avner Cohen, Columbia University Press, 470 pages. "Yisrael Vehaptzatza," translated into Hebrew by Emanuel Lottem, Schocken Publishing, 557 pages, NIS 88.

This is a pioneering and fascinating book, but also disappointing. Pioneering, because it is the first to delve in such detail into an issue where secrecy has always been traditional (excessively so, in our day); and fascinating because the story it tells, however fragmentary and incomplete, involves major diplomatic dramas that readers are eager to hear about, even if they know the end. The book is disappointing because that is all it is: a diplomatic and bureaucratic history of the first 15 years of the development of the Israeli atom bomb (up until 1970) and the efforts made to conceal its existence. There is a huge gap between the title of the book - sensational to some, promising to others - and what it delivers.It is certainly not a book about "Israel and the bomb." Such a book would explore all or some of these issues: How has nuclear capacity contributed (or endangered) Israel's national security? What economic, social, political and legal price has the country paid for having the bomb? How has this capacity affected civilian life? Who are the decision makers in an issue which may determine the fate of Israeli society, the Middle East and the whole of the Jewish people? How are such decisions made? Does Israel have a coherent plan regarding the use of nuclear weapons? Under what circumstances will Israel use the bomb, and whose finger will be on the trigger? What role did the bomb play in achieving peace with Egypt? What change, if any, is needed in view of the new peace agreements and the likelihood that Iran and Iraq will soon have nuclear capability? And perhaps most importantly, why is there no public debate on these questions and what would be said if there were?

Avner Cohen once fought to have Israeli nuclear policy opened up to the public. He was motivated by philosophy and a sense of civic duty. Even those who disagreed with him recognized the importance of his cause. A dozen years later, he has published a book that is devoted almost entirely to "behind the curtain secrets," following a distinctly commercial formula. Dispensing with most of the important questions, Cohen writes as if he were recounting a success story or a tale of Zionist heroism, assigning credit to this person or that - clearly a better recipe for selling copies than ideas.

The book does have a slim theoretical framework, revolving around the term "nuclear opacity." Cohen distinguishes between "nuclear ambiguity" and "nuclear opacity." "Ambiguity" (or whitewashing, if you like) means keeping others in the dark about whether the country has nuclear capability or not. "Opacity" means leading others, including the enemy, to believe that the country does indeed have this capability, although no confirmation is offered. Israel has gone from ambiguity in Ben-Gurion and Eshkol's day to opacity in our own day. These definitions definitely have value, but far too little space is devoted to them (less than one page of the introduction). They need to be developed and backed up with historical illustrations and examples.

Cohen concentrates on the story itself, almost for its own sake. Occasionally, at the end of an action-packed chapter, he will write something like "all of this led to a policy of ambiguity," offering a hastily drawn summation that feels external to the text, like a stick-on label.

Even less connected to the text is the author's "postscript" about Israeli policy. Suddenly, beneath the journalistic sensationalism, as the curtain is about to fall, the old Avner Cohen emerges, attacking the policy of ambiguity as "an abysmal political anachronism," and "anti-democracy that cries out." This is an outlook worthy of serious consideration, but it is not, in any way, an outgrowth of the text. After writing a success story brimming with enthusiasm, such a scathing attack seems incongruous and simply tacked on.

The story itself, as we have said, is quite fascinating. Cohen skillfully describes the battles over building the bomb, and especially keeping it a secret, drawing upon a wide variety of sources and 150 interviews. The bias is clearly in favor of oral testimony: The side of those who speak up is taken into account. The side of those who remain close-mouthed, like Ze'ev (Venia) Hadari, is almost non-existent. No less fascinating is looking back at all the unique circumstances that came together to make this "mission impossible" possible. Today, when one government after another struggles weakly to reach a decision on withdrawal from Hebron or Abu Dis, that period seems very far away.

At the time, Ben-Gurion was a semi-authoritarian leader who enjoyed tremendous respect among the people, but he was also full of fear (which fueled his vision). Memories of the Holocaust only strengthened his Zionist determination and promoted it to the next level: from "Masada shall not fall again" to "Let me die with the Philistines" (at an early stage, Israel's plan to build an atom bomb was code-named "Shimshon"). Ben-Gurion acted without a government, without a parliament, without his party (apart from those closest to him). The army was not involved either, on the grounds that this was a "civilian" project. His scientific advisor was the indefatigable Ernst David Bergmann, described by Cohen as a serious man of action but also a chatterbox. Overseeing the project was the young Shimon Peres, whose secret collaboration with Ben-Gurion not only proved his ability but shaped his public character in the years to come (perhaps it is no accident that Peres always excels after he has been appointed to a position of authority, but is not so successful in reaching that position himself).

Constantly engaged in bureaucratic battles - with competing or contentious scientists, with the government and its budgetary procedures, with Golda, Lavon, Eshkol and so on - Ben-Gurion, Bergmann and Peres were a kind of underground operating within the administration.

Even more thrilling is the story of the fight to win French aid and dupe the Americans. In those days, France was Israel's chief arms supplier, in the wake of the Algerian war and the dispute with Nasser, and the unstable Fourth Republic, its governments constantly changing, built up an infrastructure of nuclear weapons without waiting for official sanction. The French leadership allowed the bureaucrats to move forward while publicly denouncing their actions. Israel learned how to make a bomb from France - not only physically but politically. France taught Israel how to manipulate language and maneuver with aplomb between government bodies and the outside world.

Nuclear cooperation with Israel began under the socialist governments of Guy Mollet and Bourges-Maunory (who signed a vitally important contract just before his government fell), and continued into de Gaulle's time. These were critical days for the project. French companies built the bulk of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, and Israeli teams learned the ropes at nuclear laboratories in France. As involvement in the Algerian war lessened, however, the de Gaulle administration informed Israel (in May 1960) that assistance to Dimona would be halted. Financial compensation was offered instead.

Ben- Gurion felt a crisis brewing and flew to France in the hopes of changing de Gaulle's mind, but in vain. In the end, the bureaucrats saved the day. Negotiations over compensation dragged on for months, and French officials, who were used to saying one thing and doing another, never told the French company commissioned to build the reactor to stop work. In the meantime, Israel managed to purchase from it all the plans and equipment.

A lengthy discussion (perhaps too long) is devoted to Israel's diplomatic contest with the United States. All the American presidents were against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and upheld the international treaty in this regard, but each one responded differently to the news that Israel might be building a bomb. Eisenhauer more or less ignored the reports. Maybe he thought that Israel was a special case. Kennedy, on the other hand, was very concerned. He confronted Ben-Gurion on the subject and presented his successor, Levi Eshkol, with an ultimatum. Golda Meir considered telling the Americans the truth and "explaining why," but Eshkol, like Ben-Gurion, decided to continue with the half-truths to avoid a major showdown. Israel allowed U.S. inspectors to visit the Dimona reactor, but managed to fool them by building special underground chambers for separating the plutonium which fuels atom bombs (the book stops there, but if you asked Saddam Hussein, he would probably know all about it).

When Lyndon Johnson became president, the pressure on Israel eased up and supervision in Dimona took a turn for the better. Johnson went even further than that. In 1968, when the CIA finally discovered the truth about Israel's nuclear capabilities and reported it to the president, he did nothing. He did not even tell senior members of his cabinet. Johnson had his political reasons, no doubt, but he also seems to have had a soft spot when it came to Israel. What mattered most to him was that Israel not reveal this capability in public, so as not to undermine America's non-proliferation policy, throw the Arabs into a panic or invite pressure from the Russians.

This demand was passed down to subsequent administrations. Golda Meir found a sympathetic team in Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, enabling her to proceed with her policy of talking openly to the Americans. In 1970, secret verbal understandings were reached with the Nixon administration which remain intact until today (Jimmy Carter, who did not know about them, was briefed by Kissinger and agreed to carry on in the same vein). The United States stopped pressuring Israel to halt its nuclear weapon programs and sign a non-proliferation treaty, and Israel promised to keep mum on the existence of these weapons. Accepting a slight interpretive twist on its official stance - "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East" - Israel agreed that "to introduce" would mean not only manufacturing nuclear weapons but also testing them. Israel thus pledged not to engage in nuclear testing (some people say tests have been carried out in South Africa) and not to announce that it had the bomb, thereby restoring peace between Washington and Jerusalem.

The book terminates here, with a happy end, as befitting a success story. To preserve the quasi-academic framework, however, Avner Cohen declares that in undertaking such a commitment, Israel moved from an era of nuclear ambiguity to an era of nuclear opacity in its relations with the United States. This is a confusing statement. "Nuclear opacity" means letting enemies, and ultimately the whole world, know that Israel has the bomb, without actually saying so. But Israel promised to avoid such disclosures. Where is the shift?

Cohen senses the problem here. Thus he adds a two-page postscript extolling the importance of an article in The New York Times in July 1970, reporting on Israel's nuclear capabilities. This article, he says, heralded a "new era in the public history of the Israeli atom bomb." Aware of the exaggeration here, he hastens to qualify this statement. It took "another few years" for this fact to sink into public consciousness, writes Cohen. Only then "was the move from ambiguity to opacity complete."

Now it sounds better, but how did this change come about? What made the world recognize Israel's nuclear capacity when Israel continued to deny it or skirt the issue? That part of the story, so important in the wake of Cohen's theories, is never told. In contrast to its declared intentions, this book does not explore the development of "nuclear opacity." It ends before opacity was born.

It would have made more sense to end with the Yom Kippur War (1973), when opacity as defined above already existed. Through the prism of this war, it might have been possible to study the impact of Israel's atomic capabilities. Did this knowledge affect the strategic planning and objectives of the Egyptian army, for example? Did Israel have any operational guidelines on the use of nuclear weapons, and were they applied to this war? Theoretically, an atom bomb is a last resort. But how does one define and identify such a situation?

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was highly pessimistic on the third day of the war. It is no secret that Israel had several bombs ready and waiting, and there were several debates on whether or not to use them. On the other hand, we know today that Egypt had no plans or military capability for invading Israel (Israeli bombers and tanks would have attacked Egyptian troops as soon as they left the protection of missile sites along the Suez coast). The very idea of using the atom bomb under these circumstances sends shivers down the spine, as we look back today. How are such issues addressed in our day? Are the rules being rewritten as Israel's borders shrink?

During the Gulf War, by the way, there were some voices - Tzachi Hanegbi's may have been the loudest - calling upon Israel to drop an atom bomb on Iraq in response to the conventional missiles it was aiming at Tel Aviv. One could call such talk obscene demagoguery and be done with it, but the idea that someone could even raise such a proposition shows that there is a dangerous black hole in Israel's attitude toward nuclear warfare. A very different concept of what is meant by "last resort" must be firmly etched in the mind of Israel's political elite. We need a clear set of blueprints, and maybe even fundamental legislation on this subject.

Avner Cohen is right when he says that Israel will need the bomb for a long time to come. The way things stand in the Middle East, even peace agreements do not cancel out that need, as Egypt would have us believe. On the contrary, we will need the bomb even more, especially in view of the fact that Iraq and Iran are developing similar weapons - not necessarily to fight Israel, but because of the contest going on to gain control of the world's oil resources. But the Israeli public needs to know more about the different possibilities, about the economic and defense costs, about who decides, who supervises and who is accountable. Is the media being derelict in its duty by maintaining absolute silence?

Avner Cohen's book raises questions that go beyond the bomb. In the past, the political establishment, together with the media, have been closemouthed on critical issues: the warnings signs leading up to the Yom Kippur War, the manipulation of bank shares leading to financial mayhem in the 1980s, the progressive and anti-democratic monopolization of media power. The atom bomb may be a sensitive topic, but not nearly as much as it used to be. The Arabs relate to Israel's nuclear strength as a given, and so does the rest of the world. If Israel opens up the subject to public debate, Egypt will not start building a bomb of its own and Iraq will not stop building the one it is already working on. If, in the context of the peace agreements and talks with the United States, Israel were to confirm its nuclear capability - while committing itself to no nuclear testing and pledging to build its defense system on conventional weapons as in the past - maybe then it might achieve at least de facto recognition, if not international legitimacy, for its nuclear weaponry, to be used only as a "last resort" and a tool for safeguarding peace after Israel withdraws.

As difficult as the mental switch may be, the social and democratic benefits of going public need no proof. A healthy society must recognize the factors that affect its destiny and be prepared to look at them straight on. Thus Avner Cohen's remarks in the postscript, even if they are not an organic part of the book, are worthy of being heard. If they trigger an outcry that leads to a larger debate - the real one - over "Israel and the bomb," then this book will have social value that goes beyond anecdotes and fleeting sensationalism.

Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel, an Israel Prize laureate in philosophy, was a military correspondent during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars

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