In his new book, “Israel and the Bomb,” writer, historian, and one of the world’s foremost voices on nuclear weapons and Israel, Dr. Avner Cohen, reveals the contents of newly declassified historical memoranda and transcripts from some of the highest-level conversations between world leaders and Israel during the creation and the escalation of Israel’s nuclear program, including correspondence between Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon, and between President John Kennedy and Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol.
Cohen, a senior fellow and professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies at Middlebury College in Monterey, Calif., spent eight years reading through decades worth of documents from many different sources for his book, including the David Ben-Gurion Center and the Weizmann Institute Archives in Israel and the U.S National Library and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Foundation in the U.S., as well as sources in Norway. Many of the documents in the Israel State Classifieds were declassified because, by law, they entered the public domain after 30 years.
Cohen spoke at Town Hall Seattle in late May against the backdrop of the NATO Chicago Summit that was underway which dealt, in part, with talks between the international community and Iran regarding the acceptable level of enrichment for its nuclear program.
Alumni and members of the Monterey Institute Board of Governors sponsored the Town Hall Seattle event, “Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret,” as well as a pre-event reception at the Sorrento Hotel, “The Nuclear Challenge of Iran: A Global Perspective,” that featured Cohen and Jon Wolfsthal, the deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and former special advisor for nuclear security to Vice President Joseph Biden.
Shedding light on the political and the psychological reasons that led to Israel’s current level of secrecy about its nuclear weapons program, Cohen advocates for the abandonment of Israel’s policy of censorship on the issue, which it strictly enforces to this day.
While most in the foreign press refer to the question of Israel possessing nuclear bombs with a wink and a nod, Cohen believes it’s time for Israel to depart from its “bargain” with the U.S., which, he writes, hinges on secrecy, opacity, and ambiguity.
“The issue for me is above all, domestic, moral, and democratic,” he told JTNews.
“Much of this book is an effort to interpret — to decode if you will — the fundamentals of the Israeli bargain with the bomb, from its early seeds to the time when it was codified as a secret policy,” Cohen said at the Town Hall event. “Over time, it has become rooted in deeper societal attitudes, something with psychological depth, following the political deal that was made between Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1969.”
Cohen pointed to the deal Meir struck with Nixon, which bartered tacit U.S. support for Israel’s budding nuclear program in exchange for the promise of keeping it below the political radar.
“The deal was made in a one-on-one conversation between Golda Meir and Nixon,” Cohen said, “where essentially she told him, apparently, that Israel has the bomb. He accepted it, was even sympathetic, and the issue was to keep it low profile. So, non-acknowledgement, invisibility, no tests, no declarations, and, of course, no use, not only no military use, but also no political use, in return for America’s private presidential sympathy, and also a public attitude of looking the other way.”
This arrangement suited Israel, said Cohen, who further explained that the way that a country manages its relationship with the bomb is sourced in the reasons it originally sought to have it. Israel’s, he noted, were and are deterrence.
“In many ways, the pursuit of the bomb was a translation into concrete terms of Israel’s fundamental vow of ‘never again,’” Cohen said. “Israel must make it clear that another Holocaust could not happen again in Israel. The bargain is as much about Israel’s national identity as it is about strategy. It’s about something which is more than just policy. It’s a holistic concept and it incorporates politics, both domestic and international law, society, culture, discourse, and national psychology.”
Complicating this all-encompassing relationship within Israel toward the bomb is its stance toward Iran and that nation’s nuclear ambitions.
Cohen believes Iran’s intentions are just as ambiguous and opaque as the Israeli nuclear strategy, but that Iran wants to enrich uranium to the maximum level to appear bomb-ready.
“If you look at Iran through an Israeli lens,” Cohen said, “you see another Israel. That is to say, you see a country that is determined to get the bomb, but it is not clear that Iran wants to build a nuclear arsenal. Iran wanted to promote its advanced status by having both sides of nuclear energy. They are trying to push as much as they can on the peaceful side but to the point, to be very clear, that they have very strong military options.”