While Israel is widely regarded as the world’s sixth nuclear power, with scores or possibly hundreds of atomic bombs, it has never acknowledged possessing nuclear weapons. That ambiguity—Israel doesn’t deny reports about its arsenal either—has allowed the tiny country to project power and deter its enemies without the international scrutiny and pressure that come with a more transparent nuclear program. In a culture where the most sensitive issues are rigorously debated in the press and on the street, the nuclear program and the policy of opacity are perhaps the last remaining taboos. Israelis know almost nothing about how the program started, where the bombs are stored and whether their leaders ever considered using them—and they tend not to ask.
One exception is the philosopher Avner Cohen, who argues in an impressively researched new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, that it is time for Israel to come clean about its nukes. Cohen is no pacifist. He believes nuclear weapons have given Israel a much-needed insurance policy against the ultimate trauma of a second Holocaust. And he concedes that deception and ambiguity have benefited Israel immensely, chiefly by allowing the United States to quietly endorse the Israeli fait accompli without undermining its relations with the Arabs or its nonproliferation efforts elsewhere. But Cohen maintains Israel has paid a steep price for opacity in terms of its own democracy. The institutions that oversee the nukes are more secretive than even the Mossad and not governed by any law. Military censors squelch public discourse about almost every aspect of the nuclear program.
Cohen’s own book would likely have been suppressed by Israeli censors were it not for the fact that he lives and writes in the U.S. (his first book on the subject more than a decade ago led to his brief arrest). It includes many intriguing details Cohen gleaned from archival material and from interviews with key figures in the nuclear program whose names are mostly unfamiliar, even to Israelis. For example, Cohen says Israel had a contingency plan in the frightening run-up to the 1967 war for “demonstrating Israel’s nuclear capability” by detonating a device over some remote desert area as a show of strength to the Arab side. He also describes Washington’s determination in the late 60s to have Israel join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the reprieve granted by President Nixon. In a one-on-one meeting in 1969, Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir agreed on the terms of opacity: in exchange for America’s tacit endorsement, Israel would neither test its weapons nor disclose their existence.
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Now, more than 40 years later, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons poses the biggest challenge to the policy of opacity. Cohen believes the need to deter a nuclear Iran would require Israel not just to declare its own capability but also to talk openly about its red lines and its second-strike option—its ability to counterattack from submarines even if a nuclear attack ravages the Jewish state. Even without a nuclear Iran, he believes, Israel has earned the right to be recognized as a member of the nuclear club. Times have changed since Israel began building nuclear weapons in the 1960s, Cohen argues, and so its “bargain with the bomb” must also change.