Ha'aretz. Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Obsessive secrecy undermines democracy

By Reuven Pedatzur

The story of an Israeli citizen by the name of Dr. Avner Cohen is a classic example of Israeli democracy's "black hole": the area of national security, to which the usual laws of a democratic society do not apply.Cohen's tale illustrates yet again that, whenever the subject is national security, any citizen forced to confront the establishment is totally helpless and can rely on almost no support - legal, social or institutional. The moment Cohen was "marked" by the defense establishment in Israel - on the basis of rumor and hearsay - as a criminal who had undermined Israeli national security, he became a pariah.

His colleagues in the academic world shun him, members of Knesset familiar with the details of the story are not prepared to intervene on his behalf, the criminal justice system works hand in glove with his persecutors, and his fate remains completely in the hands of the defense establishment, primarily, in the hands of a rather shadowy agency whose Hebrew acronym is MLMB and which is in charge of internal security within the defense establishment itself. It is only recently that the public has even learned of the existence of this agency.

Cohen published "Israel and the Bomb" in the United States, and a Hebrew translation of the book has appeared here. In the eyes of the defense establishment, Cohen has committed a double sin. The more severe of the two is that he dared to investigate Israel's nuclear policy and to thereby violate this extremely sensitive taboo in the area of national security. His second sin was his refusal to accept the ruling of the office of the military censor, which turned down the English version of the text; however, despite the censor's decision, Cohen went ahead and published the book in America.

Cohen is very nervous about setting foot in Israel, because he is afraid that the authorities will arrest him the moment he lands and put him on trial. Interestingly enough, he has so far received no formal notification regarding his status vis-a-vis Israel's criminal justice system. The only information he has been able to get his hands on has come from the rumor mill or through reports in the Israeli press. For example, one item appearing in the Israeli media notes that the head of the MLMB, Yehiel Horev, has asked the state prosecution to study the possibility of Cohen's indictment "on a charge of espionage or on some other serious breach of national security."

Ever since he began his research on the book some ten years ago, Cohen has been under surveillance by the defense establishment, which was very unhappy about the activities of this research scholar who, from his place of residence in America, was delving into the history of Israel's nuclear program. Undoubtedly, the affair's very beginnings can be traced to the fears - understandable, even justifiable - of senior officials in the defense establishment over the danger of any exposure of secrets in the nuclear field.

However, after it became clear that Cohen's study would do no harm to Israeli national security, the pursuit of this researcher became a vendetta against an Israeli citizen who had dared to violate the game rules and who had ignored the directives of the defense establishment. Israel's defense establishment was determined to punish Cohen at any cost, in part to make an example of him and to deter others from emulating him.

Once the book was published - and, even before its appearance, when it was submitted to the office of the military censor - it was obvious that the study was based only on "open" (that is, not clandestine) sources and on a series of interviews with senior officials of Israel's nuclear program and with politicians who had privileged access to top-secret information and documents. Both the officials and the politicians knew that their statements would be included in Cohen's book.

The list of personalities interviewed by Cohen includes such distinguished individuals as former prime minister and former defense ministry director-general Shimon Peres (who was responsible for the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona); a former deputy defense minister, Zvi Dinstein; Major-General (reserves) Avraham Tamir; Maj.-Gen. (res.) and former head of military intelligence in the Israel Defense Force Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi; a former president of the State of Israel and a former cabinet minister, Yitzhak Navon; and the director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), Shalhevet Freier.

Furthermore, the period covered by the book ends with 1970 and the study thus contains no new developments that have taken place in the nuclear field in Israel over the past three decades.

However, all these factors failed to dissuade the critics. Nor was Cohen able to utilize the fact that he had been explicitly told by the following experts that his book contained nothing that could harm Israeli national security: Yuval Ne'eman, a former director-general of the IAEC; Prof. Avraham Hermoni, a senior official with RAFAEL - Israel's armament development authority - and someone who had been closely involved with Israel's nuclear program; and Prof. Israel Dostrovsky, a former IAEC director-general and the president of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

The campaign against Cohen has been spearheaded by the MLMB. It seems very strange that an agency in charge of preventing information leaks from within the defense establishment has suddenly been assigned the task of dealing with a citizen who is not and has never been an employee of that establishment. Such a job surely falls under the jurisdiction of the Shin Bet internal security services.

It would appear that, as Horev sees things, he is also responsible for preventing any public debate of matters that, in his opinion, should not be discussed. Thus, for example, in applying to the district court with regard to the publication of the minutes of the Mordechai Vanunu trial, the MLMB argued: "The inclusion of the nuclear issue on the public agenda is liable to serve the interests of those who want to undermine Israel's national security policy." In line with this approach, any public debate of the nuclear issue constitutes, ipso facto, an undermining of national security. This is, of course, an anachronistic attitude, which even the office of the military censor considers out of place in the present era.

Paradoxically, the defense establishment's war against Cohen has given his book the legitimization that this establishment is so bent on denying. After all, if so much effort is invested in trying to punish him, it follows that everything he has written in that book is true, otherwise why would the defense establishment go to all the trouble of hunting him down? Horev has imbued "Israel and the Bomb" with credibility, which is precisely what the chief of the MLMB has wanted to avoid doing at all costs.

On November 28, 1999, the Israel Police stopped investigating Cohen and closed its file on him, informing the researcher that the "circumstances of the case do not warrant any continuation of the investigation that has been carried out against you and do not warrant any indictment against you." Instead of utilizing the fact that the police file had been closed and putting an end to this affair, the defense establishment immediately lodged an appeal with the state prosecution, alleging that the police had erred in closing the file. As a result, the file was reopened.

Cohen is no Vanunu. He is not a spy, but is rather a researcher whose study, conducted in accordance with academic procedure, deals with a highly sensitive security subject as far as Israel is concerned. The determined battle that the defense establishment is waging against Cohen only hurts Israel's interests and undermines its image as a democratic country.

copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved