Nuclear weapons are Israel's 'worst-kept secret,' says Israeli historian

Q&A: Prof. Avner Cohen tells Al Jazeera about the birth of Israel'€s program and how its policy of opacity looks at home

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured here at the U.N. last year warning about Iranian enrichment, has been a vocal critic of Iran and this week called its reformist president a "wolf in sheep's clothing".
Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images

Talks between six world powers and Iran conducted in Geneva this week reflect international concern about the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation in the volatile Middle East. Rarely discussed amid the concern over Iran's nuclear intentions is the unacknowledged but widely accepted reality that there has been a nuclear weapons state in the Middle East for decades.

Israel has long hewed to a policy of nuclear opacity — known as amimut in Hebrew — neither confirming nor denying the existence of a substantial nuclear arsenal. While the U.S. and its allies largely refrain from talking publicly about Israel’s program, Iran often cites it as an instance of what it decries as a Western double standard.

Israeli-American scholar Avner Cohen, currently at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, is one of the world’s leading experts on this secretive program and has done more than most to shed light on what may be — following the title of his most recent book — the "The Worst-Kept Secret."

He spoke with Al Jazeera earlier this week.


What was the motivation behind Israel’s strategic doctrine to develop nuclear weapons in the first place?

Honestly, I do not think there was any well-defined strategic doctrine at that point at all. I think the initial interest in the nuclear option in the 1950s was out of anxiety and fear. David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) thought that Israel should have other, nonconventional options to compensate (for) its lacking in manpower, geography and all those things, and he wanted to have some sort of existential deterrent in the form of either a high nuclear option or actual nuclear weapons. I don’t think he knew himself exactly how far he would be allowed to push the nuclear program. The deed preceded the thinking.

The project was launched with a great deal of uncertainty about many things in the future, including whether and how far Israel actually could do it (i.e., develop a nuclear weapons program), whether Israel could get the outside help to do it, how far Israel would like to go, what would be the opposition in the world and, of course, what would be the American response. So it was a tentative project that had a great deal of ambition, but a lot of uncertainty.

And I think that’s the way that the project should be portrayed, rather than that those people knew what they wanted, had well-defined final objectives and (knew) how to achieve them. All those things, at that time, were far from being clear, and on all sorts of levels.

Why has Israel adopted a policy of opacity, or amimut, on the question of its nuclear capability?

That too is a matter of improvisation and evolution. The initial idea was simple: to prepare a last-resort option. Some hoped to develop a system of open deterrence, others opposed, and the compromise that Prime Minister Ben-Gurion adopted led eventually to the policy of opacity. Opacity, and its domestic origins, is a compromise between two different strategic camps. The idea is essentially to create some sort of national insurance policy.

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You’ve talked about the beginning of Israel’s nuclear program as not being guided by any kind of strategic plan. Many decades later, with successive Israeli leaders having continued the policy of nuclear opacity, Israel remains part of a small minority of nations not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it is reluctant to discuss proliferation efforts or nuclear weapons — except largely with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. What is the thinking behind the nuclear doctrine in Israel's security establishment today?

This is my own interpretation of them, of course, as there is no real open discussion on this issue. But what I think is that there’s no true official nuclear use doctrine. I think the word "doctrine" may be too big, too formalistic.

There is infrastructure, there are facilities, there are assets, there are procedures, there is some sort of command-and-control system, there are some strategic principles. All these are elements of a broad national insurance policy, which ultimately is being left in the hands of the prime minister and executed by the nuclear agency under him. I think there is an inherent attitude of caution in all that, at least at the professional level — indeed, a great deal of caution: the notion that under virtually no conceivable circumstance can it ever be used. It’s primarily a certain taboo. It’s not something that the military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), thinks much about. I don’t believe the IDF is even allowed to think about nuclear weapons. There are a few very specific military units, presumably in the navy and the air force, and their job includes elements of that reality, and they have the practical knowledge how to activate, etc. I believe that they have some procedures, but to call it a doctrine would be giving it too much credit.

Only in the case of the most unlikely situation that Israel itself would be attacked by somebody with nuclear weapons could one see Israel respond in kind. Other than that, I think nuclear weapons are for a kind of existential deterrence, national insurance policy, and not any concrete weapon.

I think that sometimes, some Israelis enjoy the opacity or the ambiguity around the nuclear program, because they would like others to think all sorts of things. They’re not going to say it, but they wouldn’t mind if others would speculate all sorts of ideas, including that nuclear weapons are usable. In my opinion I cannot see virtually any possibility that it could be used, including with regard to Iran.

Do you foresee any situation where Israeli policy could eventually embrace some kind of international nonproliferation agreement or regional nuclear-free option?

To be blunt, there is little true interest in Israel’s strategic community either in the NPT — and the NPT is not an option for Israel — or even in the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. Also, no one in a position of power in Israel is seriously interested in removing or even modifying the policy of opacity. Opacity is a good excuse not to go into any kind of serious nuclear discussion. Israelis would like to keep that excuse.

So, to be frank and to be open, I don’t think there is among Israeli policymakers, among the security establishment in Israel — whether they know much about the nuclear issue or not — anyone who is really interested in change. And, by the way, most members of the Israeli security establishment know very little about this subject. But it’s a general attitude not to change anything; there’s no interest to give up anything, and there’s no faith in the desirability or in the feasibility of a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Of course, that can be put in nicer diplomatic language (by Israeli diplomatic officials). But in the frank language, forget about it. That’s the attitude.

There seems to be little or no transparency within Israel on the question of nuclear weapons. What kind of censorship or gag rule exists toward reporting about the existence of the program? Is there any kind of access or otherwise public discussion nowadays about nuclear weapons?

This issue is the creme de la creme of national security, and one cannot expect whatsoever to get any data. At the same time, the discourse in Israel in the last few years has somewhat changed, in the sense that people say somewhat more openly that Israel has nuclear weapons as a factual, nonproblematic statement. There is no more any effort to stop that kind of conversation, because it’s kind of anachronistic. Any effort to stop that would be totally ridiculous.

The point is that in terms of substance, the old policy remains unchanged. It is fair, though, to say that the general taboo and discourse has slightly become more amenable, more flexible, because otherwise it would look so idiotic.

Yes, slightly. But, for example, there was still a big fight over my Sini interview, that testimony that I just released. Had it not been released first by the Woodrow Wilson Center and then jointly with the The New York Times, it could never have been published in Israel in any way — only when it was released outside.

To the question of "has something changed": Well, in some technical sense almost nothing has changed; in some broad, loose sense the discussion, the general societal discussion, the unspecific discussion (within official circles or the journalistic community) is much more open.

You’ve talked about Israel’s decision to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, arguing that contrary to the common narrative, rather than preventing or demolishing Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, it actually accelerated it.

Yes, that’s my view. And I am not alone on this. In retrospect, I think in some respects that Israel’s decision to bomb the Osirak reactor accelerated and solidified Saddam Hussein in the '80s in his desire and determination to reach toward a military capability of nuclear weapons. 

Is there a parallel between how you see the Osirak episode and the policy that Israel, and to a lesser extent the U.S., pursues on Iran today with regard to its nuclear program?

It’s both more complex and more subtle than you seem to suggest. With Iraq —the world essentially did not know what Iraq was doing during much of the '80s. With Iran it’s a very different story. I think that in some respects, when Israel takes certain kinds of covert actions it only gives the Iranians motivations to protect the program and solidify their determination, not to stop but to be more determined.

For example, I don’t believe that killing Iranian scientists — while it may create an initial scare — ultimately gives the Iranians much besides strength and determination, rather than creating fear and defection. It’s not clear to me that it’s a helpful tactic to stop or even postpone the program. In the case of Iran, I think that Iran is playing a very sophisticated game.

My own view is that I don’t think that Iran today is after actual nuclear weapons. I think they would like to be considered a strong threshold state. I think that Iran realized some time ago that for them to be a full nuclear weapons state does not really serve their purpose.

And whether you believe their fatwa (the religious edict delivered against nuclear weapons by Iran’s Supreme Leader in the past on several occasions, and recently reiterated by its president) or don't, that’s not the issue. But I think, politically, they realized that it doesn’t serve their purpose to be a nuclear weapons state. They are not ready to pay the price for that. But they are determined, as a matter of prestige, as a matter of all sorts of national images and symbolisms, to be very close, to be known as being very, very close to the bomb.

I think they would like to let the world guess how close they are to having a nuclear weapon. I think they want to exploit the central weakness of the NPT, which is its unwillingness to define how far a country can go in pursuing a so-called peaceful interest in nuclear energy.

And Iran has been playing on this inherent ambiguity all along, and I think they would like to be more or less like Japan, which has a very sophisticated nuclear program, and everybody will know that they are relatively close to the bomb and to be treated in that way.

I think that the Israeli paranoia does not help them, because in some respects it’s giving more prominence and significance to what the Iranians do. In my view, the Israeli obsession with Iran and the very public way that it has manifested itself is not a smart and a wise way to respond. It is a way to deflect from Israel's real problems, i.e., the need to reach a working compromise with the Palestinians. I think it reflects poorly on the Israeli government; it reflects the fear of losing its nuclear monopoly in the region at some point in the future. And also it reflects a great deal of mirror imaging — that is to say that the Israelis look at the Iranians as if the Iranians were the Israelis themselves, who are determined to have the bomb.

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