''Does she or doesn't she?" is a question that was frequently raised, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, about Israel's presumed possession of nuclear weapons. In his latest work, Avner Cohen, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, identifies at least two factors that have perpetuated the mystery regarding Israel's ambiguous nuclear status. First, unlike the other seven members of the nuclear club (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan), Israel has never publicly acknowledged that it has developed, tested or deployed nuclear weapons. Second, and a related point, beginning with Levi Eshkol in the early l 960s, every Israeli prime minister has openly declared that Israel would not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, deliberately leaving the meaning of the verb "introduce" to a variety of interpretations.
In Israel and the Bomb, Cohen has intricately woven two separate yet interrelated stories. The first meticulously traces the evolution of Israel's nuclear arms and strategic doctrine between 1950 and l 970, beginning with secrecy and denial and ending with what the author dubs as "opacity" ("a situation in which a state's nuclear capability has not been acknowledged, but is recognized in a way that influences other nations' perceptions and actions"). The second and clearly more original account delineates the complex and symbiotic relationship that evolved between Israel's nuclear strategic doctrine and America's nonproliferation policy during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. In his well-documented treatment of topics that are necessarily shrouded in deep secrecy, Cohen relied on recently declassified archival materials in Israel, the United States and Norway, as well as on more than 150 interviews with Israeli, American and French officials and scientists. Thus, while at the outset covering ground already plowed by others (e.g., Shai Feldman in Israeli Nuclear Deterrence, Seymour Hersh in The Samson Option), Cohen eventually delves into new areas of inquiry heretofore neglected in the literature.
According to Cohen, Israel was secretly propelled into its nuclear project in the mid- 1950s by three key individuals: David Ben-Gurion, the country's first premier and defense minister, who regarded nuclear weapons both as a stick of last resort in a dire military confrontation with the surrounding Arab states and as a carrot that might induce the Arab states to make peace with the Jewish state; Dr. Ernst Bergmann, the founder and first head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, who shared Ben-Gurion's belief that nuclear weapons would help prevent recurrence of a Holocaust and ensure Israel's survival amidst a hostile regional environment; and Shimon Peres, who as director-general of the Ministry of Defense not only forged the close nuclear cooperation between Israel and France from 1955 to 1965 but also oversaw the clandestine construction and completion of Israel 's nuclear reprocessing plant in Dimona.
Israel launched its nuclear-energy project in July 1955, when it signed an agreement with the United States for the purchase of a small nuclear research reactor under Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. In March 1957, Israel signed a contract with the United States for the construction of a 1-megawatt pool-type research reactor at Nahal Soreq. Concurrently, and unbeknownst to American officials, France eventually agreed to sell to Israel a large nuclear reactor capable of producing 10-15 kilograms of plutonium per year. The secret Franco-Israeli deal, consummated in early October 1957, made no reference to the construction of a plutonium separation plant in Dimona, (not far from the city of Beer Sheba in the Negev desert) and merely obliged Israel to pledge that its objective was peaceful.
Cohen estimates that the massive excavation project at Dimona was initiated in late 1957 or early 1958. Two years after DeGaulle's ascent to power, the French government decided to terminate its formal involvement in Dimona. However, it did permit private French firms working under contract to complete work on the reactor, on the condition that Israel would publicly acknowledge the reactor's existence and announce its peaceful purposes. According to Cohen, Israel had a complete reactor and reprocessing plant by 1963 or 1964. The author speculates that by the outbreak of the June 1967 war, Israel possessed two deliverable nuclear explosive devices.
One of Cohen's major findings is that the American government was incredibly slow in detecting and correctly interpreting Israel's nuclear-weapons activities. Despite indications from U-2 reconnaissance flights in early 1958 that a large-scale excavation project was underway near Beer Sheba, it took U.S. intelligence agencies more than two years to identify Dimona as a nuclear-reactor site. According to Cohen, this critical delay was due to several factors. First, the American-supplied small research reactor at Nahal Soreq tended to shield the covert work on the much larger Dimona reactor. Second, beginning in April 1958, the Eisenhower administration simply accepted Israel's claims that its nuclear cooperation with France had not gone beyond the sharing of information on uranium chemistry and heavy water. Third, and most important, after discovering in April 1960 that an agreement signed a year earlier between Norway and Israel involved the sale of20 tons of heavy water from the former to the latter, the CIA simply failed to disseminate this information throughout the intelligence establishment. Thus, it was only in December 1960, after gaining first-hand information from an American scientist who had visited Israel, and after the disclosure of the Norwegian-Israeli deal by Great Britain, that the United States reinterpreted Israel's intentions as being aimed at acquiring a nuclear military capability.
According to Cohen, President Kennedy was not convinced by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s assurances in January 1961 that Israel had no intentions to amass weapons grade-plutonium, to construct additional reactors, or to manufacture any nuclear weapons. As a result of an agreement reached between Washington and Jerusalem shortly thereafter, eight small teams of two to three American scientists periodically visited the Dimona site between 1961 and 1970. Intended by Israel to mollify the United States and to serve as preferred substitutes for more intrusive forms of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), these visits were extremely problematic for a number of reasons. While the United States insisted on at least two visits annually, to be undertaken with sufficient time to inspect all areas of the Dimona site, Israel limited the escorted visits to one day per year, prohibited the scientists to use their own measuring instruments and to collect any samples for further analysis, and denied access to those areas that housed the reprocessing plant. In view of these severe limitations, it is not surprising that none of the eight visiting teams found any definitive evidence of nuclear weapons development or production at the Dimona site.
Cohen argues that Ben-Gurion deliberately deceived Kennedy because he was fully aware of Kennedy's opposition to nuclear proliferation and because he was determined to bring Israel's nuclear weapons project to speedy completion, particularly after the French government's unexpected disengagement from Dimona. Ben-Gurion 's preference for concealment was challenged by Foreign Minister Golda Meir, who believed that Israel could more easily obtain security guarantees from the United States if it revealed to Washington the true dimensions of the Dimona project. As it turned out, Prime Minister Eshkol continued to adhere to his predecessor's policy of deception, and Israel failed to extract formal security guarantees from the Kennedy administration.
According to Cohen, the ambiguity surrounding Israel's nuclear program eventually resulted in an understanding between Eshkol and Lyndon Johnson whereby Israel publicly agreed not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East in return for American willingness to supply Israel with conventional arms that would presumably reduce, if not eliminate, the attractiveness of the nuclear option. This approach produced a number of nuclear-related quid pro quos. For example, in return for Israel's commitment to negotiate a safeguards agreement with the IAEA for the Nahal Soreq reactor, the United States sold Israel some 200 M-48 tanks in June 1964. Likewise, in February 1966, the United States sold Israel 24 A-4 Skyhawk planes, with the option of 24 additional aircraft, in return for an Israeli pledge that these planes would not carry nuclear weapons and that the visits by American scientists to the Dimona site would be extended.
While it is inherently difficult to assess the political and military utility of nuclear weapons - let alone the utility of weapons whose actual existence, quality and quantity all remain in doubt- Cohen provides a fair, realistic and sober evaluation of Israel's "bomb-in the basement" strategy. On the one hand, opacity has allowed Israel to develop weapons of last resort without provoking open confrontations with the United States. It further provided various American administrations with incentives to supply Israel with conventional weapons. In addition, Israel's ambiguous nuclear posture may have limited the incentive of some Arab states to pursue their own nuclear weapons options, and it may even have hastened the conclusion of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the Oslo accords with the Palestinians in 1993, and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994.
On the other hand, the impressive evidence amassed by the author clearly shows that opacity compelled Israel to lie to various American administrations, contributed to the disappearance of the nuclear-arms issue from domestic public debate inside the Jewish state, and left Israel with a strategic doctrine that lacks conceptual clarity with respect to the political and military objectives of its nascent nuclear arsenal. In addition, Cohen argues that on at least one occasion, the mystery surrounding Israel's nuclear program may have actually deepened the crisis that culminated in the outbreak of the June 1967 war. As critical events evolved, two Egyptian MiG 21s undertook a brief reconnaissance flight over the Dimona nuclear site on May 17. The apparent misperception by the Israeli cabinet that this overflight signaled Nasser's intent to launch a preventive strike was reinforced on May 26, when two additional Egyptian MiG 2 Is again flew over Dimona. Cohen maintains that the second aerial incursion hastened the cabinet's June 2 decision to initiate a preemptive war.
Unfortunately, the overall exceptional quality of this thoughtful, provocative and well-documented work is marred by poor professional editing throughout. For example, the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, rather than one day later, as erroneously indicated on page 9. Likewise, the boast by Egypt in July 1962, that its newly displayed ballistic missiles could cover every point "south of Beirut," initially appearing on page 116, is transformed on page 144 into a claim that Egyptian rockets could reach any targets "south of Tel Aviv." In a similar vein, on page 150, the name Gilboa mysteriously appears out of nowhere as an apparent substitute for Israel GaliIi, the former chief of staff of the Haganah. Furthermore, the careful reader would be baffled by the author's contradictory statements about Ben-Gurion's presumed willingness to permit the United States to relay information about Dimona to Egyptian President Nasser (pp. 166, 198, 204).
Cohen's more controversial arguments appear in the brief Epilogue, which leaps quickly from 1970 to the present and the near future. While acknowledging Israel's right to keep its nuclear deterrent as a hedge against the resumption of Arab-Israeli hostilities, the author maintains that Israel's posture of opacity has lost much of its political utility because the Arab states have insisted that Israel does in fact possess nuclear weapons, and thus, its proclaimed commitment to a potential Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East lacks credibility. Cohen therefore favors replacing opacity with greater transparency. Aside from more open and public debate in Israel about "strategic-doctrinal concepts, accountability and oversight, and history," Cohen fails to make clear what greater transparency would concretely entail. Should Israel formally announce that it is testing nuclear devices? Should it publicly acknowledge ownership of nuclear weapons? Should it open its Dimona facility to international inspectors? And how would such greater transparency affect Israel's ability to deter potential aggression in the future from a renascent Iraq and a nuclear-armed Iran, two nemeses that never receive due consideration in this volume?
While one can empathize with Cohen's quest for less secrecy and greater public debate about nuclear issues in Israel, the fact remains that with the singular exception of the United States, questions related to the acquisition of nuclear weapons and development of strategic doctrines have not been subjects of meaningful public discussion with significant impact on policy in any of the other democratic states that have joined the nuclear club. Cohen also downplays the fact that the most fundamental decisions about Israel's nuclear-weapons project were made by elected officials, and he pays little heed to the finding. recently reported by Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg, that "[p ]ublic opinion polls consistently show that 90 percent of the Israeli public supports the policy of ambiguous deterrence" (see e-mail edition of the Jerusalem Post, June 25, 1999).
These shortcomings notwithstanding, Israel and the Bomb should be required reading for those interested in nuclear issues in general and in the complexities of the American-Israeli relationship in particular. Cohen's work highlights the inevitable tension between the requirements of national security and the quest for openness, candor and public accountability in democratic societies. For American decision makers, the book should serve as an invaluable case-study of how not to deal with future instances of nuclear proliferation.