Avner Cohen is a senior fellow of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is the author of “Israel and the Bomb” and the forthcoming “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.”
Avner Cohen, you claim that the time has come for Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Why now, and why would that be good for Israel?
“Nuclear ambiguity is a cornerstone of Israeli strategic thinking. It was born many years ago, and sealed as part of a comprehensive deal with the United States in 1969. It was appropriate at the time, but today, in my opinion, it is not just anachronistic, but foolish and anti-democratic. Even in realpolitik terms, it is an ‘own goal’ for Israel. In my view, it undermines genuine Israeli interests, including the need to gain recognition and legitimacy and to be counted among the responsible states in this strategic field.”
Are you sure the pressure on Israel is so severe? If Israel is criticized over its nuclear program, it’s usually marginal. The brunt of the criticism is over its treatment of the Palestinians.
“Israel received tacit consent for its nuclear program from the Western world because it appeared to be a small, just state surrounded by enemies, and the memory of the Holocaust was still fresh. Israel’s image was different then.
“In the long term, the more Israel appears to reject peace and to be the one that opposes a two-state solution, the more it will be perceived as a regional bully that possesses nuclear weapons. So the world will be a lot less forgiving on the nuclear issue. The situation of ambiguity, in which you don’t have real legitimacy, is not a good place to be.”
The United States has called on Israel to join the nonproliferation treaty, but during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said he recognizes the special nature of the threats Israel faces, and these threats warrant special security measures.
“The Americans want to appear just and fair because the issue is seen in Israel as completely sacred. They want to look as though they respect that. This agreement [with the U.S.] has been passed along from president to president, but I don’t believe this issue is as sacred to Americans as it is to Israelis.”
Do you give credence to the slippery slope theory, under which abandoning ambiguity would lead to demands that Israel disarm?
“Those are cliches used by the defense establishment. Nobody demands that Israel make such an announcement without first doing the preparatory work among its allies and the Arab states. This great fear of a slippery slope is ridiculous. Israel has its own interests; nobody can coerce it to do things.”
What about the claim that ambiguity is what keeps the Arab states from feeling a need to launch an arms race against Israel?
“I don’t dismiss that claim out of hand, and if, after study and thought, this fear turns out to be warranted, I would be prepared to wait. But in some ways, ambiguity is insulting to the Arabs. The claim you mention treats Arabs as though they were children: If they are told that Israel doesn’t admit to it, that frees them of the need to deal with the reality. I believe the Arab countries don’t want to play a game of make-believe, but rather want to discuss the topic directly and realistically.”
You say, basically, that Iran is imitating Israel’s nuclear behavior. That comparison would certainly rankle Israel supporters.
“But the way Iran has advanced toward nuclear capability is not via announcements and tests, but rather by rumors. It can even remain within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If that rankles anybody, let it rankle.
“If Iran is not attacked, it will want to achieve a status of ambiguity; I see this as nearly certain. The international community thus has another reason not to accept the idea of ambiguity as legitimate. The norm that a state with a nuclear weapon must say so clearly is part of the nonproliferation regime. The longer Iran continues down this path, the less patience the world will have for Israel.”
How do you envision the scenario of ‘coming out of the nuclear closet?’
“Censorship plays a very central role in the enforcement of nuclear ambiguity. So long as there is a [military] censor, it is very hard to alter ambiguity. If censorship didn’t exist, Israeli newspapers would be able to write about the subject more openly.
“Another issue is the need for a law that addresses the nuclear topic. There is a Shin Bet [security service] law, but there is no law for the Mossad and no law for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. This is a very problematic situation.
“On the international level, it’s a sensitive subject that demands preparatory work. Ultimately, I see a political statement by Israel’s government in which the prime minister would find the right way to put this subject on the table. He would talk about the historical background and the responsible way Israel has dealt with this topic. With a few rare exceptions, these weapons have no military use; Israel views them as a means of deterrence. I don’t think Israel would need to go into detail regarding how many [bombs] it has or exactly what it has.
“Israel has a right to the bomb no less than New Delhi, or even the United States. Ambiguity creates a sense that we are sinners, as though we had done something so terrible that we can’t tell the awful truth – and I don’t think it is so awful. This is a country that the world has viewed as a nuclear state for a long time, and the time has come for it to say something positive on this huge, complicated and awe-inspiring topic…
“All these states are ultimately committed under the treaty they signed to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. Whether that will happen in our lifetimes I can’t say.”
You say ambiguity undermines Israeli democracy and prevents debate on matters of life and death, such as the question of whose finger will be on the button. Do you think the Israeli public is ready for such a discussion?
“There has been very little creative thinking in this area, and ambiguity is one of the stifling factors that have produced an unacceptable, closed culture incapable of creative thinking. Ambiguity’s power derives from the fact that Israeli society accepts it, and it seems to the public that any attempt to deviate from it would cause serious damage to Israeli security.
“Ambiguity has created a public incapable of dealing with the topic, one that is afraid of it and prefers the issue to be handled by ‘trustworthy hands’ so that it does not have to take responsibility itself.
Ambiguity has created an ignorant, craven public which, in a certain sense, has betrayed its civic, democratic duties on this subject.”
What’s it like researching a topic nobody discusses?
“When I started studying this subject 25 years ago, I had the feeling I was entering a palace where nothing could be touched. It took me years to find the right way to handle the topic responsibly – from a researcher’s perspective, not from the standpoint of someone who is directly involved in the matter.
Today I think it is possible to initiate a meaningful dialogue about concrete, real issues.”