© 2001 The Washington Post Company

A Challenge To Israel's Nuclear Blind Spot

By Jonathan Broder

Sunday, March 11, 2001; Page B02

Some years ago, I was riding on a bus in Jerusalem when a woman boarded and sat down, placing her dog on the seat beside her. As the bus filled up, a man asked the woman to hold the dog so he could sit down, too. "The dog has a ticket," the woman snapped, defiantly showing the stub. The man persisted. Before long, the other passengers had taken sides, shouting so loudly that the driver finally pulled over to settle the matter. With great solemnity, we took a vote. The dog won.

No matter the subject, Israelis love to debate. On any given day, you can hear a nation of self-styled pundits engaged in ferocious discussion, often at high volume. All topics, from the political to the personal, are fair game.

All except one: the nuclear weapons that Israel possesses but refuses to acknowledge.

A thick canopy of ambiguity shrouds Israel's nuclear program, held in place by legal restrictions that generally prohibit the disclosure of state secrets -- including public discussion of Israel's nuclear weapons. The only way journalists and academics have been able toaddress the issue is by attributing any facts to "foreign sources" -- a device that allows Israel to pretend it is keeping the world guessing about its nuclear capability. This deliberate policy of obfuscation is called "nuclear opacity."


This week that policy will be challenged -- not by some foreign enemy of Israel, but by one of its own. Avner Cohen is an Israeli scholar who has been living in the United States for three years because he fears arrest for publishing a political history of Israel's nuclear weapons program. Today, he plans to leave his home in Takoma Park and fly back to Tel Aviv, where he intends to confront the powerful defense establishment in the name of academic freedom.

There is a surreal aspect to this, because the broad facts of the matter are widely known. Israel constructed its first nuclear device on the eve of the 1967 Middle East War, and now, according to CIA estimates, has between 200 and 400 nuclear warheads. Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or any other accord that would require it to account for the nuclear material it produces at its Dimona reactor in the Negev Desert. And yet, publicly, Israel will only say that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

The origins of Israel's nuclear opacity policy go back to a White House meeting between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1969. Meir confirmed that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, saying they were needed as a hedge against another Holocaust. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger,recognized that the Israeli bomb was already a fait accompli. They also agreed that Israel was a responsible nuclear power, having possessed such devices before the 1967 conflict yet opting instead for a conventional war. And they were loath to antagonize America's vocal pro-Israel lobby.

Eventually, Washington and Jerusalem came up with a formula that would avoid a bruising political confrontation: Israel would neither test nor declare its nuclear weapons, and the United States would look the other way.

For Israel, this policy has provided the best of all possible worlds: It has enabled the country to keep its nuclear weapons, unhindered by U.S.-led non-proliferation efforts that have prevented the development of such weapons by other countries; and it has continued to receive American aid. For the United States, opacity has served as a lesser evil, helping to keep Israel's nuclear thumb out of Arab eyes and thus reduce the potential for regional war.

But now, much to Israel's discomfort, Avner Cohen wants to discuss that policy of opacity in public. Cohen hasn't been back to Israel since 1998, when his book about the political history of Israel's nuclear bomb program was published in the United States without the approval of the Israeli censor. The book, "Israel and the Bomb," includes no technical or operational details about Israel's nuclear arsenal, only a meticulously researched history of Israel's decision to go nuclear, based on declassified public documents and Cohen's interviews with key players in the effort. But the book doesn't attribute anything to "foreign sources," and angry Israeli defense officials have threatened in the press to prosecute Cohen if he ever returns home again.

Still that is precisely what the 49-year-old Cohen plans to do. Cohen has plans to deliver lectures this week on the question of scholarship and government secrecy to fellow academics at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute and later this month at Tel Aviv University, but his lawyers have warned him that he's likely to spend more time talking to police. Cohen could face arrest, trial and imprisonment on charges of criminally compromising Israel's nuclear secrets.

The Israeli security establishmentviews the return of Avner Cohen as an opportunity to remind other Israeli scholars that challenges to the country's most sacred policy taboo will not be tolerated. But it should instead be an opportunity to permit some public discourse on the issue, lifting security restrictions that can only corrode Israel's democracy.

Born in Tel Aviv, Avner Cohen grew up in the affluent suburb of Ramat Hasharon, where his classmates were the children of Israel's top military and political leaders. After earning his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1981, he returned to Israel to teach at Tel Aviv University, publishing scholarly articles on political theory, nuclear ethics and proliferation. In 1990, Cohen won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and went to MIT to research Israel's nuclear history.

With his frequent visits to Israel to conduct interviews and study declassified documents, it wasn't long before Cohen and his work came to the attention of Israeli authorities, who placed him under Mossad surveillance. At MIT, the office of a colleague where Cohen's research materials were stored was broken into. One day, Cohen found that the entire windshield of his car had been carefully removed and politely placed on the roof of the vehicle while the interior was apparently combed for documents.

Cohen tried to play by the rules: In 1994, he returned to Israel and dutifully submitted a draft of his book to the Israeli censor -- who banned it. Cohen appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but the court chose not to rule, instead urging the two sides to find a compromise. In the face of the censor's continued refusal to sign off on any part of the book,a dispirited Cohen returned to the United States, where he completed work on the manuscript as a fellow at Harvard and the United States Institute for Peace.The book was published by Columbia University Press.

Since the book's publication, Cohen, now a senior researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, has become a controversial figure in Israel. Defense officials regard him as a criminal who compromised the country's most closely held secrets. Academics, including some who have been deeply involved in Israel's nuclear effort, say there is nothing in Cohen's book that damages Israeli national security. Reuven Pedatzur, a writer on national security affairs for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, calls Cohen's story "a classic example of Israeli democracy's black hole: the area of national security where the usual laws of a democratic society do not apply."

The time has come for Israel to shine some badly needed light into that black hole. As an independent researcher, Cohen does not speak for the Israeli government, and therefore his book poses no real threat to its policy of opacity. And while no responsible person -- certainly not Cohen -- suggests that the government should go "transparent," which would upset a balance that has lasted well for more than 30 years, there are important ancillary issues that Israelis have a right to explore.

These include questions not only of policy but of environment, health and safety. Where is nuclear waste being stored? How safe is that storage? What effect is it having on the country's fragile water table? It took the end of the Cold War for the United States to begin addressing environmental disasters like the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state. In theirtiny, crowded country, Israelis don't have the luxury of waiting until peace permits such environmental issues to be discussed.

And then there is the right of Israelis to know who they are as a nation. As a piece of scholarship, Cohen's book joins the work of Israel's so-called "new historians," who have used recently declassified documents to reexamine national myths. Their work has provoked furious domestic debate on the degree of Israel's vulnerability in 1948 (and hence, the scope of its victory in the War of Independence), and whether the Palestinians were driven out of Israel or left voluntarily, as the official version claims. Preventing debate about Israel's nuclear history denies citizens an important chapter in the nation's narrative, one that is crucial for understanding what the country has become today.

The return of Avner Cohen is more than just a test of the limits of academic freedom. It is a test of the health of the country's democracy. A growing number of Israelis feel they have been denied the freedom to debate one of the government's most fateful decisions. Israeli authorities should accept that granting that freedom is another way to protect the nation's security.

Jonathan Broder is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company