Nuclear bombs and the Israeli elephant

By Bernd Debusmann
November 15, 2010

-The views expressed are the author’s own-

For the past four decades, there has been an elephant in the room whenever experts and government officials met to discuss nuclear weapons. The elephant is Israel’s sizeable nuclear arsenal, undeclared under a U.S.-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity.”

It means neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons. “Deterrence by uncertainty,” as Israeli President Shimon Peres has called it. The United States became a silent partner in Israeli opacity with a one-on-one meeting between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on Sept. 26, 1969.

That policy made strategic and political sense 40 years ago but it has outlived its usefulness, conflicts with Israel’s democratic values, is counter-productive and should be abandoned. So argues Avner Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel’s bomb, in a new book “The Worst-Kept Secret”, which delves deeply into the history and strategic and political implications of the policy.

The book’s publication coincided with a rising chorus of warnings by U.S. and Israeli hawks over the dire consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb, an aim Iran firmly denies. In several essays over the summer, American neo-conservatives pounded the drums of war against Iran. On a visit to the U.S. last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “credible threat of military action” from the West was necessary to stop Iran from making a nuclear bomb.

In his book, Cohen says it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of the current battle of wills between Iran and the West. But if Iran were willing to negotiate seriously, it might agree to substantial concessions only on a regional basis, as a step towards establishing a nuclear-free zone.

“In such a case, Israel could be pressed to make its own nuclear contribution, possibly even to shut down the Dimona reactor as part of the price for halting Iran’s (uranium) enrichment activities at Natanz.”

Such arguments are not publicly discussed in Israel, under its code of silence on the nuclear bomb. But Cohen can go where Israeli academics and journalists cannot because his book is published in the United States, where he is a non-proliferation scholar at the Monterey Institute for Internal Studies. In Israel, his book is unlikely to have survived the censor.

The Israeli nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev desert and the nuclear facility at Natanz in central Iran are rarely mentioned in the same breath but they have something in common. Both were secret until their existence was revealed against the will (and to the embarrassment) of the respective governments.

ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR MONOPOLY SURVIVES
In 1986, Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu leaked photographs of nuclear weapons production at Dimona to the Sunday Times of London. His subsequent kidnapping in Italy, after being lured into a trap by a blonde Mossad agent, has become the stuff of books and documentaries. Back in Israel, he was convicted in a closed-door trial, spent 18 years in prison and was banned from leaving Israel after his release in 2004.

Iran’s secret facility at Natanz became public knowledge in 2002 after an Iranian dissident group disclosed details at a Washington press conference. Until then, the Iranians had pursued their program in a way reminiscent of Israel’s strategies in the 1960s — a blend of secrecy, ambiguity, double-talk and denial.

Why did Israel’s nuclear “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy continue even after the Dimona disclosure? Cohen says the revelations lacked the political force to affect the policy. “On the contrary, except for Norway, the international community apparently was not willing to translate Vanunu’s disclosure into the language of international relations.”

The policy survived, and so did Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It has left no doubt that it intends to maintain that monopoly — in 1981, U.S.-supplied Israeli F-16 fighter bombers knocked out Iraq’s Osirak reactor near Baghdad. The next perceived threat to the monopoly fell on Sept. 6, 2007, in a bombing raid on a Syrian site.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, in his memoir “Decision Points”, provides insight into the episode. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telephoned him, Bush says, to ask that the United States bomb a suspected nuclear weapons site in the eastern desert of Syria. After checking with the CIA, which had “low confidence of a Syrian weapons program,” Bush declined. The Israelis went ahead.

In contrast to most Israeli critics of the country’s nuclear program, Cohen thinks it has benefitted Israel, as has the policy of opacity. So why change it? Internally, because it is too secretive and lacks accountability. Who runs it? Who would pull the trigger? Externally, in part because President Barack Obama has made “a world without nuclear weapons” one of his chief aims.

This is a utopian vision and how seriously the Obama administration is taking it will become clear in 2012, at a conference to discuss a nuclear-free Middle East. The decision to hold this was taken in May at a United Nations meeting to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is held every five years. Obama welcomed the decision but said his administration would oppose any actions that jeopardized Israel’s national security.

If that stands for sticking to Israel’s nuclear opacity, what does “nuclear-free” mean? The elephant staying in the room?

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

25 comments

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The longer Israel denies Vanunu the right to leave the state the greater his legend will grow.

On 18 June 2010, Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East Programme announced:

“Mordechai Vanunu should not be in prison at all, let alone be held in solitary confinement in a unit intended for violent criminals. He suffered immensely when he was held in solitary confinement for 11 years after his imprisonment in 1986 and to return him to such conditions now is nothing less than cruel, inhuman or degrading. Mordechai Vanunu is a prisoner of conscience. The prison authorities might claim that he has been put in isolation to protect him from the risk of attack by other inmates, but if the Israeli government is really concerned for his safety it should release him without delay. His re-imprisonment is both harsh and unjustified. The restrictions on Mordechai Vanunu arbitrarily limit his rights to freedom of movement, expression and association and are therefore in breach of international law. They should be lifted and he should be allowed to start his life again as a free man.”

But instead, Vanunu endured another 78 more days in solitary in 2010, his punishment for speaking with foreign media in 2004- who have all been MIA ever since.

On 2 October 2010, the International League for Human Rights announced that Vanunu will be awarded the Carl-von-O­ssietzky-M­edal in Berlin on 12.12.10. The International League for Human Rights also wanted “to draw international attention to the fact that [Vanunu] is still being held prisoner in Israel, deprived of elementary civil and human rights, although he has already served his prison sentence in full, and regardless of the fact that his information is now a quarter of a century old.”

On 11 Oct. 2010, Israel denied Vanunu’s appeal to leave the state.

Eileen Fleming, Author of BEYOND NUCLEAR: Mordechai Vanunu’s FREEDOM of SPEECH Trial and My Life as a Muckraker: 2005-2010
Producer “30 Minutes with Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”
Founder of WeAreWideAwake.org
Staff Member of Salem-news.com
A Feature Correspondent for Arabisto.com

Posted by eileenfleming | Report as abusive

Israel’s conventional army is already stronger than the rest of the region combined; that they have nuclear arms is completely unwarranted. I also want to say that the argument of trading of their nukes to deal with Iran’s program is unrealistic and completely unfair to the world at large. How is it reasonable that trading an illegal stash of nukes for stopping a legal nuclear reactor is fair? This is part and parcel of why the muslims of this reason hate the West – the continuing double standard. No country should have nuclear weapons, least of all America or Israel (or Russia… how anyone can trust Putin is beyond me.)

Posted by CDN_finance | Report as abusive

CDN_finance:

firstly, this claim “Israel’s conventional army is already stronger than the rest of the region combined” is a lie. Both Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Iran have far larger armies than Israel. The last time Israel fought against just two armies it struggled and that was 40 years ago.

Secondly, Israel “illegal” stash is not illegal. Unlike, say Libya or North Korea or Iraq, Israel didn’t have the cynicism to sign up to the NPT and then flout it, which claiming that it’s reactors were “peaceful” and “legal”. Israel never signed the NPT, those other nations did. Note like Iran they also claimed it was 100% peaceful. Syria went one further and claimed their reactor was an art school or agricultural centre. Weird that Iran’s totally peaceful reactor is the type that makes weapons grade plutonium as a byproduct and they refused over and over to make ones of the type that don’t.

Finally, where did you get the impression “muslims hate the West”? A tiny fraction do but they would hate it anyway.

I always what it is about Israel that people feel it is so blameless that they need to out and out lie to make their case.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Our Middle East enemies constantly use excuses to undermine our power. The excuse that we are puppets or control Israel either way is getting tiresome. The west and specifically the US should be credited with not annihilating it’s self-professed enemies. I’m not a history major, but when was the last time any nation had the overwhelming power to silence opposition -yet didn’t?

Israel has been surrounded since it’s conception. Numerous extremists have sworn to obliterate it. Iran may be months or even weeks away from putting their pieces together. It’s time to stop negotiating with the insane. The moderate (Arab/Persian) should grow a set and restrain his brother. Until then, don’t expect us to walk naked. I hear Karzai wants us to play nice with the Taliban too. Someone should probably give Panama back to Norriega. And let Kim have all of Korea. Don’t forget to tell Taiwan to get in line. Sinn Fein is running for office so there is hope for those who accept peace.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

If Obama has made “a world without nuclear weapons” a chief aim then why has he not put serious pressure to bring AQ Khan to justice – a man responsible for at least 4 clandestine nuclear weapons programmes, two of them successful. Why has is he not all over North Korea? Why focus on Israel, which has not even tested a nuclear weapon?

Apparently these questions are too deep for Reuters reporters. They should stick to what they are good at which is apparently photoshop and deliberately mistranslating quotes.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

@pHenry. The notion that Iran is run by an insane regime, people who are impervious to region, appears to have been discarded even by the most hawkish neocons in the U.S. and Israel. Radical, extremist and unpleasant, yes. But the notion of the Mad Mullahs, suicidal maniacs who would welcome to be blown up in a second strike, if Iran ever had the bomb and used it, is no longer in the discourse. Netanyahu didn’t mention it during his recent visit and a number of “let’s go attack Iran” essays since the summer made no mention of that either. Judging by their actions (rather than Ahmedinejad’s deranged rhetoric), the Iranians have behaved very rationally in their neighbourhood. They increased their influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria thanks to America having removed their big strategic rival, Iraq. Nothing insane about that.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

That should have been “impervious to reason”

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

The real elephant in the room is the fact that Iran is theocracy that has ruled against the wishes of its people for decades. The “leadership” of Iran are religious radicals with the stated aim of destroying Israel. There can be no negotiated settlement with these people. We can go through the motions and pretend that we believe some sort of “grand bargain” is possible, but in the end, nothing will really change until the regime is booted out. There is no way Israel and the US are going to trust the current government of Iran.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

@Komment: So you characterize the mullahs of Iran as “radical”, “extreme”. A-jad is “deranged”. Yet they are also “not insane” and “rational”. What kind of gymnastics are needed to reconcile those descriptions? Obviously you dont’ trust the Iranian regime anymore than the rest of us, but for some reason you refuse to call a spade a spade. I could make amateurish attempts to explain why, but you’d undoubtedly reply with a highly intellectual explanation for your seemingly schizophrenic views.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

You can have utterly bonkers ideas and still be rational. The Iranians have had the measure of the international community for a while now, just like the North Koreans did until the South koreans elected a government whose instincts were not to bend over.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

eileenfleming, of course had Vannu been in the US he would have been executed like the atomic spies were in the 50s and then all of Israel’s issues with him would have been over.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Ah! at last the world has woken up and wants to take the stock of illegal nuclear armaments. It is still encouraging to observe Human Right’s tortoise speed activities out of fear of the might lone super power gradually diminishing with the time to a third grade country. this because of the undeniable fact of just rearing the elephant with food, grants in billion tax free $, diplomatic shelter, US’s Political submission, humiliation, and Americans lives all at the cost of the US’s sovereignty.

Some of my commenter friends I find are allergic to open logical argument against the white Elephants possession of nuclear and linked up issues. May be because of the fact that they are those in the world who get free of cost food, grants in billion tax free $, diplomatic shelter, US’s Political submission, humiliation, and Americans lives all at the cost of the US’s sovereignty. If it was not for the mentioned their rational thinking of the commenter would not support the irrationalities of Israel against the majority of the world community in matters of Israel’s Nuclear armaments and establishments.

I suppose US wake up, close the door on this huge animal, kick it out to the Jungle where it came from, and save the world before it destroy not only US but also the world with its nasty, filthy suggestion to wage war to destroy the world. This now elephant will soon become a human reared Frankenstein.

Posted by KINGFISHER | Report as abusive

Ah! at last the world has woken up and wants to take the stock of illegal nuclear armaments. It is still encouraging to observe Human Right’s tortoise speed activities out of fear of the might lone super power gradually diminishing with the time to a third grade country. this because of the undeniable fact of just rearing the elephant with food, grants in billion tax free $, diplomatic shelter, US’s Political submission, humiliation, and Americans lives all at the cost of the US’s sovereignty.

Some of my commenter friends I find are allergic to open logical argument against the white Elephants possession of nuclear and linked up issues. May be because of the fact that they are those in the world who get free of cost food, grants in billion tax free $, diplomatic shelter, US’s Political submission, humiliation, and Americans lives all at the cost of the US’s sovereignty. If it was not for the mentioned their rational thinking of the commenter would not support the irrationalities of Israel against the majority of the world community in matters of Israel’s Nuclear armaments and establishments.

I suppose US wake up, close the door on this huge animal, kick it out to the Jungle where it came from, and save the world before it destroy not only US but also the world with its nasty, filthy suggestion to wage war to destroy the world. This now elephant will soon become a human reared Frankenstein.

Posted by KINGFISHER | Report as abusive

Cohen also told Haaretz, that in a late-1969 meeting between Golda Meir and Nixon, “the United States and most of the Western world agreed to accept Israel’s special nuclear status. In other words, Israel did not join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it received special status, and pressure was not exerted on it with regard to this topic. Ambiguity is the Israeli-American policy. Without the West’s agreement, there would be no ambiguity.”

In 2005, Vanunu told me:

“President Kennedy tried to stop Israel from building atomic weapons. Kennedy insisted on an open internal inspection.

“When Johnson became president, he made an agreement with Israel that two senators would come every year to inspect. Before the senators would visit, the Israelis would build a wall to block the underground elevators and stairways. From 1963 to ’69, the senators came, but they never knew about the wall that hid the rest of the Dimona from them.

“Nixon stopped the inspections and agreed to ignore the situation. As a result, Israel increased production. In 1986, there were over two hundred bombs. Today, they may have enough plutonium for ten bombs a year.”-”BEYOND NUCLEAR: Mordechai Vanunu’s FREEDOM of SPEECH Trial and My Life as a Muckraker” by eileen fleming

Posted by eileenfleming | Report as abusive

Many reputed experts opined the JFK’s death was because of objection of the Israeli’s proposal of nuclear. and it was orchestrated by MOSSAD duly approved by the then Israel’s PM.

It not alarming to note why US administration and all western countries are afraid of telling anything boldly to Israel is because of being assassinated by the brute Israel terrorist government.. That is why today it is rightly named “ELEPHANT” is because it is a symbol of power and a killer. It is time to chain this Frankenstein or the world will have no time to repent. Israel is imbued with both intelligence and brutal destructive ego worse than any ferocious animal on earth.

It is an unreliable country and too with Nuclear Bombs. The world is very much unsafe from all respect. Therefore all super power must get together to chain it up and disarm there is no other alternate to this.

Posted by KINGFISHER | Report as abusive

A UN resolution is not enough to establish illegality; nations have and always have had the right to defend themselves, and, unless they agree to limitations, to arm themselves as they see fit. This places us in an uncomfortable position with regard to unstable regimes such as North Korea, which constantly trumpets its willingness, indeed, a positive lust, to use nuclear weapons they’ve shown themselves at least able to produce, and boasted they possess, at the smallest slight or pressure. It would take occupation and inspection to root them out. War, in other words, where one could confidently expect the North’s stockpile to be used on those very parties seeking to eliminate it. I suppose that would work; they can only be used once, after all. But for states who neither admit, boast or threaten, we have no grounds for such an approach, only anxiety and suspicion. And for Nuclear states already massively armed, who stand alert and ready to use them, of course, we have no ability.

And there’s this: If just a million or three people in a state scraping by, at war with neighbors many times their number, could pose a threat to the whole world, imagine what forty or a hundred million people in nations floating on oil money, what those tens of millions, already having screamed their intent to drive the Zionists into the sea, and whose most outspoken now threaten Jews everywhere, and even the friends of Jews, imagine what THEY could do. And probably are.

Posted by RET_SFC | Report as abusive

It’s double standards like this that cause the USA to lose face in the international world. Only American’s can come up with this ‘our allies can have them but no one else’ policy and expect everyone in the world to agree.

Some day in the future the US will be fighting many of these nations, and some will be nuclear armed.

Posted by Kevin5069 | Report as abusive

One huge difference between the nuclear weapons in Israel and those that may be developed elsewhere in the middle east is that the Israeli ones will only ever be used in self defence, whilst those of neighbouring countries may be used as a first strike against Israel. If other middle eastern countries lay down their arms, peace will come to the middle east. If Israel lays down it’s arms it will cease to exist.

Posted by paulos | Report as abusive

Iran is not a democratic country. It tortures and imprisons its citizens for questioning the elections. It also stones women to death for adultery. No barbaric country like this should ever own nukes.

Posted by USAalltheway | Report as abusive

Nuclear weapons prevented the cold war from turning into an all out hot war and they may do the same for the Middle East once Israel loses its monopoly. Even the most fanatic leaders are never suicidal. Their lives and their power are too important to them. You will notice that the US has not invaded Pakistan even though we are at war with the Taliban which was created by and is still supported by the Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Nukes make a great defense: they scare everyone by promising certain death to the leadership of an aggressor.

Posted by MassResident | Report as abusive

The only aggression I’ve seen from Israel is better described as retaliation or preemptive. Each nation reserves the right of defense. MassResident,we haven’t “invaded” Pakistan yet. Or maybe we have, just by air or convenience to them. Tribal areas shouldn’t be drawn on a map in the first place. The Kurdish tribe split up didn’t help either by the way. And still I don’t see anyone offering to redraw a map nor giving them nukes for defense.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

First of all the expression Cohen was quoting referred to a gorilla. The only reason this has any relevance is because it establishes the value of the rest of the article.

If there exists the nuclear weaponry spoken of, then I guess they are secure in secure hands, and serve their purpose as shown by history. Can you imagine if any of it was in Iraqi or Iranian possession?

As for Vanunu, had he committed the same act of treason in any of the neighboring countries he would have been dead as he deserves. In this case the Israelis have been weak and stupid.

Mr. Cohen [?] I feel pity for your grand parents and shame for your parents.

Posted by izzyis1 | Report as abusive

Factoid 1 Israel is a stated creted by war and populated intially by survivors of the holocaust
Factoid 2 Israel is despised for this victory for the same reason Mexicians dislike “Yankee imperialism”-we won the war
Factoid 3 Would any nation in the world disarm their nuclear weapons to societies that tolerate suicides bomber and treat women as”untermench”
The US and Israel are by no means perfect democracies but as Churchill stated “whats better”

Posted by ngc121629 | Report as abusive

Israel’s interest is purely self defense, unlike the muslims surrounding them and in Iran, who have a vision of imposing Islam on the world through jihad.

Posted by DanDetroit | Report as abusive

If there is one nation that is entitled to have nuclear weapons-it’s Israel. Tiny territory, surrounded on all sides
by hostile populations, with genocidal intentions;
It would be shear insanity for Israel to even consider
giving up nuclear weapons.

Posted by litvac150 | Report as abusive