Avner Cohen on Israel's policy of nuclear opacity

The pioneering Israeli scholar, scientist, historical researcher, policy analyst and writer Avner Cohen, who has worked for decades inside and outside Israel (in the U.S.) to analyze Israel’s nuclear project [and is now senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies], has recently posted material here, which [CORRECTION] is his chapter in a fresh new book, Governing The Bomb: Civilian Control and Democratic Accountability, edited by Hans Born, Bates Gill and Heiner Hanggi and published jointly by Oxford University Press and SIPRI (2010). It is Chapter 7: Israel | GOVERNING THE BOMB: CIVILIAN CONTROL AND DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY.

Avner Cohen is also now publishing a his own new book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (Columbia University Press: New York, 2010). His first book, Israel and the Bomb, was published by Columbia University Press in 1998.

In Governing the Bomb, Cohen discusses Israel’s policy of “nuclear opacity”, and writes that: “Israel was the sixth state in the world and the first in the Middle East to develop and acquire nuclear weapons. It initiated its nuclear programme in earnest in the late 1950s when it constructed its primary nuclear facility, the Negev Nuclear Research Center—also known by KAMAG, its Hebrew acronym—outside the town of Dimona. Within a decade, Israel had completed the initial research and development stage of its nuclear weapon programme. By the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had secretly improvised the construction of two or three rudimentary, but operational, nuclear devices. By 1970 it was widely presumed that Israel had crossed the threshold of nuclear weapon capability. Since 1986—in the wake of the disclosures made by Mordechai Vanunu, Israel’s infamous nuclear whistle-blower—Israel has been believed to have a mature nuclear weapon programme and is viewed as an established nuclear weapon state, in both the quality and quantity of its arsenal. Estimates of the size of Israel’s nuclear arsenal vary significantly, ranging from less than 100 up to 300 warheads…

Cohen continues: “However, Israel’s nuclear ‘code of conduct’ is distinctly different from that of all other nuclear weapon states. Unlike the other seven established nuclear weapon states, Israel has never openly acknowledged its nuclear status. Israeli nuclear weapons are conspicuously absent from most of the official global nuclear dialogue. As a matter of long-held policy, the Israeli Government neither confirms nor denies possession of nuclear weapons. While Israel keeps the status of its nuclear capability deliberately veiled and unacknowledged, it does so in a manner that has shaped the strategic perceptions and actions of others—friends and foes alike. This nuclear code of conduct has become known as Israel’s policy of ‘nuclear opacity’ (some refer to it as ‘nuclear ambiguity’), or, in Hebrew, amimut”.

He describes an unspoken but widely-accepted social agreement in Israel supporting this policy [which Vanunu was persuaded to challenge, and violate]: ” by 2010 opacity as national policy and posture has become deeply embedded in Israel’s national security mindset. Nuclear opacity as a posture is rooted in a number of basic Israeli strategic convictions: (a) that it is vital for Israeli security to possess nuclear weapons for deterrence; (b) that Israel’s Arab neighbours should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, and thus Israel must do everything it can to maintain its nuclear monopoly; (c) that Israel cannot make a case for regional nuclear monopoly and thus must keep its own nuclear weapons unacknowledged; (d) that nuclear issues must be kept out of the public (and political) discourse; (e) that decisions over nuclear matters must be made quietly, primarily by anonymous professionals (approved by the political leadership), not through democratic debates; and (f) that the policy of opacity has served the nation well, and (as long as Israel maintains its monopoly) there is no real alternative. The depth of respect that the policy has received within Israel’s culture of national security as well as within the country’s body politic should not be underestimated … The ability to effectively practise the policy of nuclear opacity is predicated on the ability of the government to enforce secrecy. The Office of the Military Censor, which enforces the policy of nuclear opacity on the press, is nearly as old as the IDF itself: it was created in May 1948 soon after Israel declared its independence. Its initial purpose was ‘to prevent the publication of security-related information that could aid the enemy or harm the defence of the state’. Israel is the only liberal democracy that maintains a military censorship office with the sole task of reviewing, prior to publication, all items which may include information that, were they to be published, could harm national security. The legal scope of the censorship office is broad and covers any publication that originates in Israel (both print and electronic media, including, in principle, foreign media). The office is run as a military unit and is led by a senior military officer who is appointed by the minister of defence. In addition to the censor, MALMAB, as the security and intelligence arm of the nuclear project, is also involved in protecting and enforcing nuclear secrecy. MALMAB is the least subject to democratic oversight and accountability of all four Israeli intelligence service agencies, and yet it has extraordinary power and influence in controlling the nuclear programme, including on matters of policy”.

Cohen goes on to discuss Israeli journalism and censorship. In 1988 [two years after Vanunu was lured from London, where the Sunday Times was preparing to publish the photos he took when he worked as a technician in Dimona, to Italy — and then captured and brought clandestinely back to Israel for a secret trial], Israel’s Supreme Court made a unique and significant intervention in how censorship works in Israel, Cohen explains, when it ruled that the military censor should intervene only if the publication of material would “cause Israel’s national security ‘near certain’ tangible and irreparable damage”.

Since then — and despite Israel’s development of its own Freedom of Information Act — Cohen argues that “After decades of censorship and inhibition—of being accustomed to total nuclear secrecy as the norm—how would it be possible for the Israeli public to actively seek ‘democratic control’ over the issue of nuclear weapons? The public is too inhibited (and, as a result of the opacity policy, also not well enough informed) to express an opinion on a forbidden subject that is perceived as belonging solely to those within the nuclear establishment appointed to govern Israel’s nuclear weapons”…

Cohen notes that: “Whether for strategic or for psychological reasons—and perhaps for both—Israelis leave the handling of this issue vague, opaque and non-explicit. Ultimately, it is not that the public is deprived by their government of their democratic right to know, but rather, more accurately, that the citizenry willingly defers this right to the government’s own institutions of oversight and accountability. On the nuclear issue the citizenry prefers not to know and indeed suspends its democratic right to know”.

And, he concludes in this chapter: “A commitment to nuclear opacity has inescapable consequences for the question of democratic control. First and foremost, Israel’s nuclear opacity necessitates strict secrecy. As long as Israel maintains its commitment to the policy of opacity the way that it is practised today, the scope of democratic reform and democratic control remains limited. In practical terms, this means that democratic reforms and oversight can only be conducted through classified or other invisible bodies. The fundamental situation is that under the regime of nuclear opacity there is almost no space for open and public democratic control”…

Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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