Avner Cohen on Israel's policy of nuclear opacity – Part 2

“Israel initiated its nuclear weapon programme in the same period that the Manhattan Project came into being [i.e., even before statehood? At least, from the very proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948], in an era when nuclear secrecy was the norm. Israel started its nuclear pursuit in a world that preceded the NPT—a world without clear international norms on nuclear proliferation—virtually in parallel to the nuclear pursuits of China and France. While China and France conducted nuclear tests to signal their crossing of the nuclear threshold—moving from the phase of near-total secrecy to functional secrecy—Israel took a different path. Why was this the case?

“Israel had a population of less than two million people when it initiated its nuclear programme and it lacked the status and political influence of China and France. Technically, Israel could have tested its first nuclear device sometime in late 1966, when it completed the research and development phase of its programme, but it chose not to for political reasons. Instead, Israel chose to cloak its nuclear weapon in secrecy and enforce a policy of nuclear opacity.

[Avner Cohen note: Technologically, Israel could have conducted a nuclear test that would have qualified it as an NPT nuclear weapon state … See also Rabinowitz, O., ‘The path to legitimate bomb’, Ha’aretz, 30 May 2010, here.]

{n.b. – The Non-Proliferation Treaty defines, in Article IX, nuclear-weapons states as those who “manufactured and exploded an nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967“. Only five states did so, and — according to a consensus among them now — only these five can ever be recognized as “nuclear weapons states”, and they just happen to be the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. The text of the treaty can be consulted here, or here. When India tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998 — followed in short order by Pakistan — India asserted that it, too, had become a nuclear weapons state, but that claim was publicly dismissed by the UK, with no contradiction from anyone, in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Pakistan openly conducted its nuclear tests, in a tit-for-tat move, to maintain parity with its neighbor and enemy but, after the treatment given to India’s claim, Pakistan never openly declared it was a nuclear weapons state. Neither India nor Pakistan ever joined the NPT because of what they believe is a discriminatory regime between “nuclear haves” and “nuclear have-nots”. Pakistan is, however, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, and has said that all its nuclear facilities are under IAEA safeguards — and it is currently chairing the IAEA Board of Governors. North Korea, which was a nuclear weapons-state, announced and carried out a withdrawal from the treaty in 2003. In 2006, North Korea announced it has tested nuclear weapons, but has not declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Israel has never declared any nuclear-weapons testing.}

“Israeli leaders believed then, as they still do, that Israel’s national security requires a nuclear posture of opacity, not transparency. By 1969 the USA agreed that opacity was the only way under which Israel could keep its nuclear capabilities. By the 1970s, Israeli policymakers recognized that opacity would mean a long-term commitment to total nuclear secrecy at the expense of transparency. A great deal of attention was paid to designing a reliable command and control system, a system that would subject Israel’s nuclear assets to the tightest means of civilian–executive control without compromising the security requirements of nuclear opacity. The focus was on expediency and prudence. Very little attention and care, if any, was given to the nondemocratic nature of the commitment to nuclear opacity. Nobody pressed such questions; the public endorsed opacity without asking too many questions.

“The difficulty of assessing Israel’s nuclear situation through the lens of democratic control is twofold: conceptual and factual. On the conceptual side, there is the difficulty of defining what constitutes proper democratic control. If the question of democratic control is defined broadly in terms of open procedures, norms and measures of transparency, and by the level of the involvement of a democratic citizenry, there is no doubt that Israel’s conduct of opacity is at odds with democratic control. Defined in those terms, the commitment to opacity places the Israeli nuclear case at the non-democratic end of the comparative spectrum. However, if democratic control is conceptualized as something defined and measured by the existence of a plurality of institutions and procedures—some more visible and public than others—then the Israeli case is more complex and subtle. If this is the case, then opacity can still be consistent, at least in principle, with the legal requirements of due process. However, even within the well-defined parameters of opacity, there is still room for the introduction of reforms in the areas of democratic oversight and accountability.

“On the factual side, there is the difficulty in obtaining public information about the Israeli nuclear situation. Ultimately, it is this factual void, and not the conceptual difficulty, that creates suspicion. The real issue is not the intentions of the IAEC [Israel Atomic Energy Commission?] leadership or the commitment of the Knesset and the State Comptroller’s Office to the norms of oversight and accountability, but rather the fundamental policy of opacity with which they must comply. A commitment to nuclear opacity has inescapable consequences for the question of democratic control … 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, and this is an excerpt of his chapter, Chapter 7, in the 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). Our earlier post on this chapter was posted yesterday here.

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…

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