7 August 2000

Necessary Ambiguity

In his review of Avner Cohen's book, "Israel and the Bomb" (Ha'aretz 26 July 2000), Yirmiyahu Yovel repeats the common mistake of reviewing the book that the author did not write. Cohen provided a history of the development of Israel's nuclear weapons policy from the 1950s until the early 1970s, but Yovel appears to be looking for a book on nuclear strategy. Questions such as "How are such decisions [regarding strategic issues] 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?" etc. are fascinating, but outside the boundaries of Cohen's knowledge. To his credit, and in contrast to many other authors who ventured into this topic, Cohen avoided unsubstantiated speculation on issues where there is no reliable information.

Furthermore, Cohen's historical (as distinct from hysterical) analysis is well-written and carefully documented, and constitutes an important contribution to understanding the logic behind Israel's policy of deterrence based on deliberate nuclear ambiguity. He began his research as a prominent critic of the Israeli policy, but in the course of this activity, Cohen was persuaded by the argument that, given Israel's unique security environment, this policy was the least undesirable option of the available options. In this regard, Yovel wrongly rebukes Cohen for writing "as if he were recounting a success story or a tale of Zionist heroism." Unlike a number of "new historians," Cohen allows reality to interfere with ideology, acknowledging that Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, and the other architects of Israel's security policy got this one right.

Most importantly, Cohen demonstrates the central strategic importance of maintaining the ambiguity (or opacity) of the nuclear deterrent capability. In the key chapters devoted to relations with the United States, and based largely on archival material and interviews, he details the pressures from successive American administrations that were designed to force Israel to abandon the "deterrent of last resort." Finally, in 1969, an agreement was struck that linked American acceptance of Israel's deterrent capability with the Israeli pledge to maintain ambiguity. Since then, as more and more countries have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (under American pressure), and Israel has become the odd-man out, the importance of this version of "don't ask, don't tell" has increased, as becomes clear from Cohen's book.

However, as this volume also demonstrates, ambiguity means no testing and no official declarations. This is the obvious answer to Yovel's question as to why there is no official discussion of the details of Israeli nuclear strategy and decision-making. As a result, the Israeli public is also kept in the dark, at least officially, (and in publishing this book, Cohen has embroiled himself in an ongoing and somewhat ludicrous battle with the officials responsible for keeping the secrets).

This situation creates a complex dilemma for democratic societies, including Israel, where public oversight and open debate take place in every other area. Citizens and their representatives must balance the public's right to know with the secrecy necessary to maintain the ambiguous deterrence policy. In the past, a relatively passive Israeli public was willing to leave such issues entirely in the hands of the security establishment, but this is no longer the case. To understand the logic of nuclear deterrent policy, as well as answering questions regarding the environmental impact of the nuclear program, the public needs to receive enough reliable information to make responsible and well-informed decisions. By providing a sound basis for an intelligent discussion, Cohen has made an important contribution.

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg

Bar-Ilan University