Michael KreponAmimut

The Hebrew word for nuclear opacity or ambiguity is amimut, which Avner Cohen believes to be “Israel’s original contribution to the nuclear age.” Avner has written two books on Israel’s bomb. His latest, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (2010) acknowledges the prior utility of amimut, while highlighting its corrosive effects for “democratic values at home and with norms of transparency in the international arena.”

Avner argues that amimut provides a “helpful fiction that serves international security and stability” for Israel, the United States, the Middle East, and the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. But in the event of a “nuclear Iran” — which may well be in Tehran’s interest to define suggestively — Avner concludes that “Israel would have to declare its capability” in order to reinforce deterrence. Another strong reason for dispensing with ambiguity, in Avner’s view, is that, “By accepting amimut, Israelis have effectively deprived themselves of one of their most democratic rights.” There’s more: “The principal drawback of amimut… is that it leaves too much ambiguity as to who is in charge.” The bottom line: “Israel’s insistence on the exceptionalism of amimut is not only parochial and anachronistic; it is wrong for both Israel and the world.”

I liked Avner’s book in draft, and I like the final product even more. No one writes in greater detail or with more authority on Israel’s nuclear program than Avner Cohen. It seems to me, however, that there are serious weaknesses in his arguments.

There is, to begin with, little ambiguity left about Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Consequently, it is hard to argue that nuclear deterrence will be greatly reinforced by slips of the tongue, official declarations by Israeli Prime Ministers, or other means. By going public, Israeli authorities would instead make it even harder for others to leverage Iran and easier to isolate Israel, while adding fuel to the upcoming, combustible conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Following Avner’s advice would be likely, in my view, to weaken rather than strengthen Israeli nuclear deterrence and further unhinge regional stability, which is already reeling from popular revolts in the Arab world against rulers who have stayed in power for far too long. Israel’s nuclear deterrence without the usual public trappings is, indeed, exceptional. Iran may be following as far down this path as internal cost/benefit analyses suggest. It is doubtful, however, that greater clarity about Israel’s nuclear capabilities will affect Tehran’s choices. Instead, greater clarity about Israel’s nuclear capabilities is likely to increase Tehran’s freedom of maneuver. Avner makes a much stronger case arguing for normal democratic discourse about nuclear matters – but not strong enough, in my view, to override the weakness of his case for gradually dismantling amimut.

Comments

  1. Ben (History)

    I wouldn’t necessarily labour the point that Israel’s nuclear opacity is directed more outwardly, as oppose to inwardly. The fiction is almost certainly maintained for internal consumption, both within Israel and within the diaspora in order to project an image of Israel as cerebral and nonaggressive. After Vanunu, and perhaps even before, it no longer serves any other purpose. The impact on regional stability is close to zero.

    That Israel is a nuclear power isn’t something many ordinary Israeli’s would accept publically – call it disavowal or willful blindless, in that sense they mirror their government. We’ve seen it this week with Netanyahu’s characterisation of Israel as a peaceful nation ready to seek peace. You can see it the state’s strenuous insistence it posseses ‘the most moral army in the world’. Of course, you can believe this, but only if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and violate reality.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Ben, thanks for the insights. Your idea gives me something to think about with considering the issue. Don’t all societies suffer from this? Refuse to acknowledge the brutality that a nation must or chooses to descend into in order to further its interests?

    • Ben (History)

      Israel certainly isn’t the only nation to believe it’s inspired by God and it isn’t the only nation to suffer from the illusions of nationalism. What does become more difficult is when disaster isn’t merely anticipated, but is actively ushered in. The idea that the nation must perpetually live on a knife edge. Not acknowledging your strengths and being overly triumphalistic in victory, as is what happened post 1967, are two sides of the same coin.

      The best book that explores the ideas you raised more fully, in my opinion, is Jacqueline Rose’s 2005 book ‘The Question of Zion’.

      http://www.amazon.com/Question-Zion-Jacqueline-Rose/dp/0691117500

  2. Avner Cohen (History)

    I believe that the differences between Michael Krepon and myself over the issue of Israel’s opacity policy (amimut) are smaller than Michael states them here. Maybe I was not clear enough in my writing to make the point explicit. So I will try to correct it here.

    In general, I am fully aware–and therefore in agreement with Michael–that the Iranian situation creates a problem–indeed it undermines–my overall argument against amimut, i.e., that it is time for Israel to find a better way to live with its bomb. Specifically, I agree with Michael that the Iranian nuclear situation constitutes probably the strongest argument against my critique of amimut. It supports the case why Israel, FOR THE TIME BEING, should continue with amimut. My only caveat is the unlikely possibility when Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, that is, after Iran tests a nuclear devise. Only in such eventuality it would make sense for Israel to abandon its policy of opacity.

    Such an admission leaves much of my overall domestic-democratic critique of amimut a largely theoretical matter. In other words, while I still firmly believe that there are strong reasons to be critical about the practice and theory of amimut, indeed to demand from Israel a new and more transparent bargain with the bomb, those reasons are pending as long as the current Iranian nuclear impasse persists.

    I know that it is a little embarrassing for an author to admit that his critique is at the present political context largely academic, but unfortunately that’s how I view my critique of amimut.

  3. FSB (History)

    As our Director on National Intelligence has stated Iran does not have a current nuclear weapons program, “with high confidence”. I think if it were to break out of IAEA safeguards and weaponize all sorts of bells would go off. So there is no easy way for Iran to weaponize. For all the demonization and hysteria, the IAEA has always verified the accountancy of Iran’s nuclear materials. I doubt if Israel admitted having weapons that it would be a big deal — like you say, it is an open secret.

    • John Schilling (History)

      If Iran choses to produce nuclear weapons, it will almost certainly do so using material produced at a (hopefully hypothetical) secret enrichment facility, call it “Son of Qom” if you will. Such a facility, were it operational, would not be subject to IAEA safeguards and so no alarms would be raised out of Vienna.

      Warnings might well be raised by national intelligence services elsewhere, if they discovered such a facility, but it is unlikely that they would be believed except by people who already believe that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Warnings also might come via leaks from within the Iranian program – these would be substantially more credible, and quite plausible given the degree of political dissent in Iran.

  4. Philipp Bleek (History)

    If Israel goes public with its nuclear weapons, it gives Iran a little more rhetorical ammunition, but I’m not sure how much that matters–what does a little more rhetorical ammunition really buy Iran, i.e. what can or would it do then that it can’t do now?

    Relatedly, I don’t get why Israel going public meaningfully strengthens deterrence vis-a-vis Iran. I don’t think any key decision maker in Tehran is uncertain today about whether Israel in fact has robust nuclear capabilities.

    On the other hand, if Israel goes public with its nuclear weapons, it will complicate things for other regional states, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, that don’t necessarily want to pursue nuclear weapons at this time (yes, I think Saudi statements in that direction are more bluff than substance, and yes, I don’t think it’s a complete oxymoron to refer to Saudi domestic politics), but that have complicated domestic politics to manage.

    So I’m struck that my colleague Avner thinks the only good reason for continuing amimut is to deprive Iran of rhetorical ammunition. To my mind, that’s actually less important than the effects on other regional states. Finally, I should confess that I haven’t procured a copy of the book yet, so I may not being doing its nuances justice.

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