Joshua PollackIsrael: Between Dimona and Democracy

The Columbia University Press website has announced the forthcoming release of a new book by Avner Cohen, best known as the author of Israel and the Bomb (1998). His new work is titled, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.

The publisher’s text:

The bomb is Israel’s collective ineffable—the nation’s last taboo. This bargain has a name: in Hebrew, it is called amimut, or opacity. By adhering to the bargain, which was born in a secret deal between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir, Israel creates a code of nuclear conduct that encompasses both governmental policy and societal behavior. The bargain lowers the salience of Israel’s nuclear weapons, yet it also remains incompatible with the norms and values of liberal democracy. It relies on secrecy and opacity. It infringes on the public right to know and negates the notion of public accountability and oversight, among other offenses.

Heavy stuff, but seriously, whoever came up with “collective ineffable” deserves some kind of prize.

This book notice came to mind today after the appearance of an essay by Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz, whose prose has some ineffable qualities of its own. Even if it achieves nothing else, the 2010 NPT RevCon has already sparked some of the more interesting discussions on regional nuclear-free or WMD-free zones in some time, which is perhaps not saying a great deal, but still counts. It’s also brought the subject of opacity back for another round of circumlocutions.

Shavit manages the trick of arguing — before a global audience, no less — that the hush surrounding “Dimona” (a polite code word for the Israeli nuclear arsenal) must be maintained precisely because Dimona is necessary and justified. Dimona protects Israel, he asserts, and the “umbrella of opacity” protects Dimona from a fashionable but empty moralism.

Asked what he thought of all this, Avner Cohen responded:

Nobody can take from Ari Shavit his great rhetorical/writing skills. And perhaps nobody can take from him the crown of being Dimona’s popular defender. I told him that personally not long ago.

I agree with most of this op-ed. And yet, in the end, Ari errs and is mistaken: Defending Dimona is not necessarily the same as defending the anachronistic policy of opacity. The two are not synonymous. Ari confused the two.

And surely Cohen is right that the two issues are distinct. Wherever you come out on the matter, whether opacity is still worth the candle is not the same question as the circumstances under which Israel might close the Dimona complex, or give up “Dimona.”

For Israeli views on disarmament, see Ariel Levite’s recent article in the Washington Quarterly, or the second half of this paper by Shlomo Brom at the Stimson website. Still can’t get enough about nuclear opacity? Here’s some of what’s been at ACW lately on NATO, Japan, and Israel. Richard Nixon sure kept busy with nuclear secrecy in 1969…


  1. FSB

    Look forward to the book.

    I found the Foreign Policy piece regarding Israel’s one-sided view of things interesting.

    The big worry in Israel?

    “….if Iran were to have nuclear weapons Israel would lose its role as the regional superpower.”

    Re. secrecy, a colleague sent this around earlier today — there is plenty from the US side: the FBI and CIA have not cooperated in the 1965 NUMEC affair — from S. Aftergood:

    In 1965, over 200 pounds of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium went missing from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania. Circumstantial evidence and popular lore suggested that the material had been clandestinely diverted to Israel for use in its nuclear weapons program, either with or without the acquiescence of the U.S. Government.

    A secret 1978 review of the episode that was performed for Congress by the General Accounting Office (as it was then known) has recently been declassified and released. But instead of resolving the mystery of the missing uranium, it only highlights it.

    The Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cooperated fully with the GAO, but the CIA and the FBI did not. “GAO was continually denied necessary reports and documentation on the alleged incident by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation…. The lack of access to CIA and FBI documents made it impossible for GAO to corroborate or check all information it obtained,” the GAO report said.

    “Based on its review of available documents held by DOE and discussions with those involved in and knowledgeable about the NUMEC incident, GAO cannot say whether or not there was a diversion of material from the NUMEC facility…. Agents from the FBI involved in the current investigation told GAO that while there exists circumstantial information which could lead an individual to conclude that a diversion occurred, there is no substantive proof of a diversion.”

    “All investigations of the alleged incident ended with no definitive answer and GAO found no evidence that the 200 pounds of nuclear material has been located,” the GAO said.”

    When will the CIA and FBI tell the American public what happened? Why are they hiding this from us?

  2. PC (History)

    Looking forward to the book as well, which also comes at a time when the most well known violator of this “collective ineffable” heads back to prison for violating parole.

    Vanunu headed back to prison

  3. Beta
  4. Josh (History)

    Those interested in the murky NUMEC matter should also consult the recent article by Gilinsky and Mattson.

  5. FSB

    thanks — I had not seen that. Powerful stuff:

    “when the known facts are put together, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Israel probably did steal highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the United States.”

  6. Oliver

    Is there a way to get those Bulletin articles w/o payment, for us poor guys in europe?

  7. Josh (History)

    Alas, I cannot re-post premium Bulletin articles. They should be available through libraries with subscriptions.

    It’s a gripping read, and plausible, yet the story does not go beyond the circumstantial. Certain aspects of the narrative are quite mysterious, too. Most obviously, why would the Israelis have wanted HEU so badly? Their weapons are plutonium-based, and the Dimona reactor presumably takes NU fuel. This is a point that Gilinsky and Mattson touch on only briefly and speculatively; there’s just not much information to go on.

    At any rate, this is too important a contribution to the story to ignore.

  8. Rwendland (History)

    Josh, sadly I do not have easy access to the Gilinsky and Mattson article so cannot see if Gilinsky’s recollection has changed, but in 2004 he wrote that CIA Deputy Director Carl Duckett had briefed him (as a NRC commissioner):

    “the CIA believed that the nuclear explosives in Israel’s first several bombs, about one hundred kilograms of bomb-grade uranium in all, came from material that was missing at a US naval nuclear fuel plant operated by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC)”

    So if Gilinsky’s memory was right, the CIA in 1976 believed Israel’s first few bombs were HEU.

  9. Josh (History)

    Yes, the 1976 episode is described in the recent article as well.

    I don’t recall whether it’s explicitly stated in Israel and the Bomb that the first two improvised devices of May 1967 were Pu-based, but that’s what I’m led to believe. If I can find a specific reference in the literature, I’ll let you know.

  10. FSB

    Josh, Do we know Israel’s bombs are Pu-based?

  11. Josh (History)

    The fact of the Dimona reactor, the Vanunu revelations, and pretty much all research published since then would suggest as much, the CIA’s views in 1976 notwithstanding.

    On the other hand, Vanunu had some awareness of enrichment work happening elsewhere in the complex. But — as described here — this work seems to be a later development. Its scale is unclear and its purposes are a good question: for HEU-based pits? For secondaries? For anticipated future needs, military or civil? For sheer R&D, without a solid business case?

  12. Beta

    Most obviously, why would the Israelis have wanted HEU so badly? Their weapons are plutonium-based, and the Dimona reactor presumably takes NU fuel.

    Knowing a little about Israeli ways of thinking the leadership probably didn’t trust the Pu based bombs will work as advertised in an emergency and wanted a few uranium gun devices as backup. Remember that US scientists thought that uranium gun bombs don’t require testing.

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