Noam Sheizaf writes:
“Ambiguity,” the key word used in describing Israel’s relationship vis-a-vis nuclear weapons, existed from the start. “There was a secret even before there was anything to hide,” states Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born philosopher and historical researcher who is an expert in Israel’s nuclear policy, in his new book.
“During the early 1950s, and even before then, there were those in Israel who dreamed about a nuclear project, but in reality there was almost nothing,” explains Dr. Cohen in an interview with Haaretz, from his Washington, D.C. home. “Some students were sent overseas to study nuclear physics, and a group started to look for uranium in the Negev. There was none. Nonetheless, this small group, which merely had a vision, already maintained a cult of secrecy.
“In those years, there was not yet an international regime against nuclear proliferation – this was a decade before the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But even then, when theoretically anything was allowed, there was a sense of taboo. That the subject could not be discussed. [David] Ben-Gurion and [Shimon] Peres understood that in this sphere you don’t really want to state your objectives precisely. The sense was that designating goals would, in itself, stir an argument, and that it was better to avoid such debates, both internal and external. The idea was that it was crucial not to raise these questions.”
For Cohen, ambiguity in this realm is not merely a theoretical subject, it is the central issue which has fashioned his life. After an academic article he authored was disqualified by military censors in the 1990s, he left Israel. After publishing a book called “Israel and the Bomb” (Columbia University Press, 1999 ), an investigation was launched against him and he was barred from returning to Israel for several years. Cohen even played a certain role in the Yitzhak Yaakov affair – the case in which Yaakov, a retired IDF brigadier general, was indicted and detained for more than a year for harming national security by writing two books on Israel’s weapons development program.
Cohen’s newest work, “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb” (Columbia University Press, 2010 ), is dedicated to two figures who represent two different poles in Israel’s culture of nuclear secrecy: Yaakov, who tried to share “prohibited” memories with the world and paid for it with a long detention, and Shalheveth Freier, a top official in the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC ), and one of the people who created the secret with their own hands.
In his new book, Cohen calls on Israel and Israelis to discuss anew the policy of ambiguity and its implications. In his view, for the past several years, the costs of such a policy have outweighed its utility. He does not believe that Israel should disarm, but rather that it should, in clear, simple terms, acknowledge these weapons and talk about them. That is precisely what he is trying to do in his research, and in this present article. Cohen is currently conducting research in the U.S. (right now he is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies ); his book (unlike this article ) was not submitted to the Israeli censor.