Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity Reconsidered

10.25.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Israeli policy of “nuclear opacity” — by which that country’s presumptive nuclear weapons program is not formally acknowledged — is examined in the new book “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb” by Avner Cohen (Columbia University Press, October 2010).

For a variety of reasons, the author concludes that Israel’s “nuclear opacity” is obsolete and will have to be replaced, sooner or later, with a forthright acknowledgment of what everyone already believes to be the case anyway.

Cohen, an Israeli scholar who was trained as a philosopher, provides a lucid account of how nuclear opacity has “worked,” i.e. served Israeli interests, by providing the benefits of deterrence without the negative political and strategic consequences that could ensue from overt disclosure.  But its time has passed, he says.

“I argue that the old Israeli bargain with the bomb has outlived its usefulness, that it has become increasingly incompatible with contemporary democratic values at home and with the growth of international norms of transparency, and that it is time for Israel and others to consider a new bargain.”  Among other things, he says, the continuing development of nuclear weapons-related technology in Iran is likely the force the issue to a new degree of clarity.

For the time being, however, there is no sign of any change in Israel’s position on the matter.  “Israel has a clear and responsible nuclear policy, and it has frequently reiterated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” David Danieli of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission told Haaretz last month.  “Israel neither adds to nor subtracts from this statement.”

Avner Cohen’s “The Worst-Kept Secret” was reviewed recently in the New York Times and the Forward.