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by Avner Cohen via Mark Katz
Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003 at 7:28 AM
This neither-confirm-nor-deny posture has evolved since the late 1960s, primarily as an Israeli hedge against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
And then there was one
by Avner CohenIsrael was the sixth nation in the world and the first in the Middle East to develop and acquire nuclear weapons. It initiated its nuclear program in earnest about four decades ago, when it constructed its nuclear infrastructure at Dimona. In 1966, it completed the development stage of its first nuclear explosive device and on the eve of the Six-Day War in June 1967, it had a rudimentary, but operational, nuclear-weapons capability on alert.
Since 1970 Israel's status as a nuclear weapon state has been an accepted convention in international relations. Yet Israel's nuclear behavior has been distinct from that of the first five nuclear weapon states. To this day, Israel has not acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons.
Its nuclear developments notwithstanding, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol pledged more than three decades ago that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. All six Israeli prime ministers who followed have adhered religiously to that declared policy. Notably, however, Eshkol was also the first (and only) Israeli leader to publicly acknowledge that Israel had all the required know-how to produce nuclear weapons.
Israel has kept its nuclear weapons capability veiled, yet it is well recognized by others, friends and foes alike, in a manner that has shaped strategic perceptions and actions.
This neither-confirm-nor-deny posture has evolved since the late 1960s, primarily as an Israeli hedge against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Israel, surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, did not want to give up its nuclear option. But it did not want to acknowledge its program, either, for fear of pushing Arab leaders too far and igniting a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Israel resisted pressure by the Johnson administration to sign the NPT in 1968, and in 1970 it obtained from the Nixon administration a set of "don't ask, don't tell" understandings.
Those understandings persist today. The United States no longer presses Israel to sign the NPT. In return, Israel is committed to maintaining a low-profile nuclear posture--no testing,
no declaration, no acknowledgment. Nuclear "opacity" was born.
Over the years, opacity has been Israel's most distinct contribution to the nuclear age. Its application, however, went beyond the Israeli case. With variations, it became the fundamental modus operandi of all second-generation nuclear proliferators.
In 1974 India crossed the nuclear threshold by conducting a "peaceful nuclear explosion" without calling itself a nuclear weapon state. Less than a decade later, two other states--Pakistan and South Africa--followed the Israeli model, initiating clandestine programs and building weapons, apparently without testing.
While apartheid-ruled South Africa eventually rolled back its program in anticipation of the coming of an ANC-led government, Israel, India, and Pakistan remained "threshold" states in arms control vernacular, nations that kept their bombs undeclared and invisible.
The non-testing norm, as well as much of the regime of nuclear opacity, was shattered in May by India and Pakistan. Israel--which is widely believed to have a weapons program significantly more sizable and advanced then either India or Pakistan--has remained, at least for now, the sole practitioner of nuclear opacity.
A vision realized
Israel's nuclear project had been a product of the Zionist phase in Israel's history. That phase was the age of the grand Zionist nation-building projects: mass immigration, land settlement, and aqueducts--projects that were initiated in Israel's first decade. The nuclear program was probably the most complicated project Israel has ever undertaken--the most sensitive politically, the costliest, the most challenging technologically, and the most secretive.
In a sense, the nuclear program was the ultimate Zionist project. It was designed to insure the physical existence of the state of Israel, itself the most prominent and encompassing product of the Zionist revolution. At the beginning there were fears, vision, and audacity. The nuclear program's managers relied on intuition and opportunities. Action was first, planning came later. With more knowledge and forethought, and a more orderly decision-making process, the project might never have taken off.
What has been the impact of the nuclear project on Israel--on science and technology, national security, relations with the Arabs, and the Israeli self-image? Would Israel without nuclear weapons be the Israel we know today?
These questions cannot be answered with precision. There are no data on the effects of nuclear and related programs on the development of Israeli science, technology, and industry. Part of the difficulty in answering is methodological, having to do with the problem of defining the boundaries of the nuclear project and then measuring spillover into other areas.
Israel's nuclear opacity also makes it difficult to answer the less quantifiable aspects of the puzzle. Because Israel does not acknowledge the existence of its nuclear weapons, it is difficult to discern their effects on foreign and defense relations.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, there is little doubt that the nuclear project has had profound consequences, greatly contributing to the rapid development of Israeli science and technology. Virtually all Israeli institutions of higher learning benefited from the fruits of the project in one way or another. Related research and development activities also contributed to the advent in the 1960s and 1970s of high-tech industries--particularly computers, aeronautics, and telecommunications.
Even more intriguing are the effects of the bomb on national security, Arab-Israeli relations, and peace. The fact is that Israel has nuclear weapons and the Arabs do not. The 1967 war left the Arabs--specifically Egypt, Jordan, and Syria--defeated and humiliated. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser, who had hoped to eventually lead the Arab world to victory over Israel, could not respond to Israel's nuclear challenge. That allowed Israel to travel safely through the risky transition to a nuclear weapon state.
The 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of nuclear opacity. While the Arabs were not deterred from waging war in 1973 (although Israel's nuclear weapons may have induced them to limit their aims), the war established that Israel was a prudent nuclear weapon state that would not pull the nuclear trigger without the nation's physical integrity being in peril.
The robustness of opacity was demonstrated at other times as well. During the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1978–79, Egypt, under U.S. pressure, ignored the nuclear issue; it understood that emphasizing it would be counterproductive.
Iraq threatened to shatter opacity when it started its nuclear weapons program, but Israel responded in 1981 by destroying the Iraqi reactor, demonstrating its determination to deny nuclear weapons to Arab states. The Arab reaction was milder than had been anticipated, indicating that most Arabs recognized that as long as Israel kept its nuclear profile opaque, it was not in their interest to challenge Israel's nuclear monopoly.
Revelations by Mordechai Vanunu, a Dimona technician who publicly revealed secrets of Israel's programs in 1986, accentuated Israel's nuclear image in the Arab world, but they were insufficient to undermine opacity.
In the Israeli view, opacity has been a successful policy, suitable to the unique needs and requirements of Israel. Opacity has allowed Israel to enjoy a regional nuclear monopoly without incurring the political cost of possessing nuclear weapons.
In turn, this brought many Arabs to the realization that the Arab-Israeli conflict could not be settled by military means, only through negotiation. The peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians in 1993, and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 were negotiated in the shadow of nuclear opacity.
Without David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, at the helm, the nuclear project as we know it would not have been launched. No other Israeli leader at the time had the vision, courage, and authority to make the decisions he made. In 1956–58, when the important decisions that led to Dimona were made, the idea of an Israeli nuclear project was beyond the ken of even the most activist and security-minded Israeli leaders. Most members of Israel's small scientific community questioned the viability of the project. But Ben Gurion persisted.
By now Ben Gurion's vision of an Israel secured against existential threats has been realized. It is plain that Israel's nuclear status has contributed greatly to its image as the strongest nation in the Middle East. Ben Gurion's obsessions about the survival of tiny Israel in a hostile Arab world are no longer relevant. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who became the chief architect of the nuclear project, made that point in July, in Amman, Jordan, noting that "Israel had built a nuclear option not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo."
However, new and troubling questions about the nuclear project have replaced the old Ben Gurionite fears and aspirations. Has Israel gone too far? Has Israel's nuclear might led its current leaders to believe that nothing matters but raw power, that peace can be dictated rather than negotiated?
Israel's nuclear opacity is more than a phenomenon of international politics or strategy--it is a cultural and normative phenomenon as well. Events may have led Israel to stumble into the policy in the 1950s and 1960s, but since then opacity has been embedded in Israel's national security culture--in the values, attitudes, and norms passed on to those who have been initiated into the culture.
That culture is rooted in several convictions--that it is vital to Israel's security to possess nuclear weapons; that the Arabs should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons; that Israel cannot make an open case for nuclear weapons; that the nuclear issue must be kept out of public discourse; that the issue should be dealt with exclusively on the most classified level and administered by anonymous professionals; and that opacity has served Israel well and there has been no alternative.
Even in today's Israel, when all other security-related organizations and issues--including the Mossad and the General Security Services (Israel's equivalent of the FBI)--have become a matter of public debate and criticism, the nuclear complex is still not on the public agenda.
As a result, all of Israel's democratic institutions--the Knesset, the political parties, the press, academia--have looked the other way when it comes to nuclear weapons. They have abdicated their democratic duties--checking, debating, informing, overseeing, and critiquing--in the face of the nuclear issue.
This code of silence is an anomaly in a political culture characterized by lively, open debate on virtually every public issue, including other sensitive defense matters. Such a debate is at the heart of Israeli democracy. The culture of opacity thus marks a striking failure of democracy.
A case in point: Israel is the only Western democracy with a military censor who oversees every publication dealing with security issues. In recent years, censorship has been diminishing--but not on the nuclear issue.
The censor reinforces Israel's policy of opacity in two ways. First, it reinforces the code of silence by disallowing serious discussion of nuclear policies. Second, the office's existence means that any material that is published appears to carry a government message. If an Israeli writer were to start referring to Israel's "nuclear bombs" rather than its "nuclear option," it would be considered a new governmental policy.
The culture of opacity is also consistent with a deep-rooted Israeli tendency to hold off making decisions concerning the country's identity. The nuclear issue is only one in a list of fundamental issues on which Israel conducts itself like an ostrich, avoiding making clear-cut, public decisions. (Other issues include state-v.-religion, the Jewish character of Israel, relations with the domestic Arab population, relations with the Palestinians, and the future of the occupied territories.)
Nuclear opacity has allowed Israel to make practical decisions without addressing fundamental, long-term issues.
Can opacity last? Should it last? For how long? If not, what should Israel's future nuclear posture be? Israeli leaders assume that the continuation of opacity is essential to Israel's security, because only under opacity would Israel be able to keep its nuclear program intact and unchecked. This is an unhealthy anachronism. The time may have come for Israel to find ways to move beyond opacity.
In the past, Israel's policy of opacity relied on a significant element of technological and operational uncertainty, which has now diminished. In addition to Vanunu's revelations, satellite photos have exposed other aspects of Israel's nuclear infrastructure. While many details are still unknown, the big picture is clear, and opacity is increasingly anachronistic.
If opacity survived Vanunu's revelations, it was because Arab governments were still acquiescing to the idea. But since the Gulf War, the Arabs, especially Egypt, have insisted that Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal, whether Israel confirms it or not. Egypt publicly considers Israel a nuclear weapon state, and it says that the nuclear issue should be addressed through multilateral bodies such as the Arms Control and Regional Security working group.
Egypt has demanded that the working group initiate discussions on the establishment of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and it has insisted that tangible progress in the nuclear discussions be achieved in parallel with progress in the peace negotiations.
But the nuclear impasse has put the process in deep freeze. Substantial progress on the arms control front may not be possible unless Israel allows some discussion of the nuclear issue. Further, many observers suggest that progress on regional arms control will be essential to keep international pressure on both Iraq and Iran regarding weapons of mass destruction.
Another consideration is the impact of opacity on Israel's own long-term nuclear policy and the need to reformulate its national security doctrine. By its nature, opacity blurred the line between Israel's commitment to acquire nuclear weapons capability and its commitment not to nuclearize the Middle East.
But the peace process has made apparent the intrinsic tension in the Israeli position. Israel projects two contradictory messages. On the one hand, its traditional position on the matter of a nuclear-weapons-free zone appears to agree in principle with the Arab position that once the Middle East is peaceful, no party should have a right to maintain nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Israeli leaders have made it clear they have no intention of giving up their nation's ultimate deterrent, even after signing comprehensive peace agreements.
In recent months, Israel's defense establishment initiated a comprehensive review of Israel's national security doctrine. Given the development of new threats of weapons of mass destruction "across the horizon," it has been widely recognized that Israel ought to rewrite its doctrine.
Some retired generals have publicly advocated the establishment of a strategic command that would integrate all aspects of strategic deterrence and planning (for example, intelligence and command and control) into one inter-service body. The nuclear issue is surely essential to such discussions, but under opacity it cannot be looked at in a thorough way, even in classified forums.
Yet, Israel must be clear about its long-term nuclear policy, and it is certain that discussions cannot be separated from political questions about Israel's peace strategy. Opacity about long-term objectives made sense during times of conflict. But the end of conflict, if it comes, will force Israel to confront its nuclear dilemma, and it will have to face the moment of truth about its nuclear program.
Two kinds of criticism--procedural and substantial--may be raised against these observations about opacity. First, one could argue that the complaints are uninformed and overstated, and that in reality--despite the unavoidable secrecy--decision-making has been rational and has conformed to prudent procedures. One can also point to the Knesset subcommittee that is briefed from time to time on the nation's nuclear activities.
Second and more important, many argue that there is no alternative policy--that any effort to deal more openly with the nuclear issue will create more havoc than benefit. For the sake of strategic stability, nuclear nonproliferation, and Israel's relationship with the United States, Israel cannot and should not change its policy.
As to the first argument, it is true that Israel's system of decision-making on nuclear issues allows for some outside review and oversight. But those discussions tend to be bureaucratic-- about procedures, budgets, and tactics, not about long-term policies and strategies.
The most powerful illustration of this came to light last February and March, in the context of the crisis between the United States and Iraq. During and after that crisis, some credible Israeli commentators hinted that Prime Minister Netanyahu had developed a more willing-to-use-them attitude toward Israel's "doomsday weapons." Concerns were raised that Netanyahu had changed Israel's nuclear doctrine; that he might use Israel's doomsday weapons in situations of less than real existential threat to Israel. Some analysts even raised the idea that Israel may need a special law that would impose checks and balances on doomsday weapons.
As to the question of parliamentary control, the Knesset subcommittee has no independent tools or personnel to evaluate what it is being told, making its oversight little more than a ritual. No other issue of comparable consequence to Israel's future has had so meager a system of oversight.
The second and more substantial argument is more difficult to reckon with. I agree that Israel could not change its policy, particularly its declaratory posture, without adequate preparation, consultations, and assurances, at home and abroad. And I agree that any hasty effort to go beyond opacity could be dangerous, even counterproductive, to national security, regional stability, global nonproliferation, and U.S.-Israeli relations.
A change of policy without adequate preparations, in particular without close consultations with the United States, would surely bring havoc rather than benefit. For these reasons I do not advocate a unilateral change of policy.
But to say one must handle the issue with utmost care is different from saying there is no alternative. A post-opacity posture ought not to be confused with complete transparency. No nuclear weapon state is completely transparent about its nuclear weapons posture, and details about stockpiles, command and control, and security issues are not discussed in public. What should be discussed are issues relating to strategic doctrinal concepts, accountability and oversight, and history.
To move beyond opacity, Israel would have to be synchronized with a number of political developments or conditions. Among those are an appropriate regional context (perhaps a critical breakthrough in the peace process), careful preparation and coordination with the United States, and/or some kind of change in the global arms control agenda.
The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan changed the international climate. They removed the veil of opacity that surrounded their weapons programs. Nevertheless, they created no incentive for Israel to change its nuclear policy. On the contrary, upgrading the Israeli posture now would only guarantee new and serious tensions in the Middle East, and it would undermine the international effort to prevent Iraq and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Still, the international community must find new and creative ways to cope with the end of opacity. The three "threshold states" should be integrated into the non-proliferation regime while being allowed to maintain their special nuclear status.
One possibility for moving to a post-opacity era would be in the context of the proposed fissile material cutoff treaty. The idea of a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for weapons has been discussed for years, including the last session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
But the attempt to draft a treaty has stalled. Such a treaty, however, could be a mechanism for incorporating the de facto states--Israel, India, and Pakistan--into the nonproliferation regime, as a special class. From a practical standpoint, a cutoff treaty would place, for the first time, limits on the arsenals of the three states. This could eventually lead to talks among all eight nuclear states designed to reduce the size of all arsenals.
The cutoff treaty could also help loosen up Israeli opacity. It is inconceivable that an Israeli discussion of a fissile material cutoff could be kept to closed forums. What is at stake is too important to be left to a handful of ministers and anonymous bureaucrats. Discussion of a cutoff would inevitably force Israel to move beyond opacity. It would make Israel's nuclear program more transparent.
In the end, however, a formal peace will not alter the fundamentals of Israel's geopolitical situation. It is not only the lessons of the past but also the trends of the future that give Israel the right to preserve its nuclear deterrent, in some form--perhaps as virtual weapons rather than as actual weapons--as a hedge against the resumption of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel should be in a position to say that, and to discuss more openly what such a hedge should look like.
Democratizing the bomb
How Israel should move beyond opacity is a complex and sensitive issue, but the real resistance to change does not lie in this or that specific consideration. Opposition arises from the nature of opacity itself. It is comfortable for those in charge of Israel's nuclear infrastructure to work anonymously, immune from outside criticism. But just as other nuclear weapon democracies have had to find compromises to ease the tension between nuclear weapons and democratic principles, so too can Israel.
The United States has learned this lesson. Nuclear weapons were not used during the four decades of the Cold War, but American citizens were casualties of the secret activities of the nuclear weapons complex. President Bill Clinton recently apologized for these mistakes, but the full scope of human and environmental damage caused by secret nuclear activities will probably never be known.
Similarly, after more than 30 years, Israel needs to find better ways to deal with the reality of possessing nuclear weapons. Just as the end of the Cold War allowed the United States to impose greater democratic control over its nuclear weapons complex, the peace process in the Middle East may allow Israel to place its nuclear complex under more democratic rule. The causes of both peace and Israeli democracy require it.
Avner Cohen is a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Portions of this article were based on his book, Israel and the Bomb, published in September.
Copyright © 1998 Columbia University Press.
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