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Avner Cohen’s last gasp?

Revelations of Israel's alleged past readiness to use nuclear weapons are both vexing and useful
This photo taken on September 8, 2002, shows a partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
This photo taken on September 8, 2002, shows a partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

The claim this month in The New York Times by the Israeli US-based researcher, Dr Avner Cohen, that the Israeli Army planned a nuclear test on the eve of the 1967 war fits a pattern which appears to corroborate its accuracy.

Drawing upon interviews that Avner Cohen conducted with Brigadier-General Yitzhak Yaacov, who headed the IDF’s research and development unit, Avner Cohen claims that the Israelis had a plan in the 1967 war to detonate an atomic device to deter Arab enemies.

The report itself generated less attention than Cohen may have hoped for — both inside Israel, where it was lost in the deluge of most celebratory media reportage on fifty years of the Six Day War, and among the foreign media which, with the exception of the original NYT report, ignored it.

Drawing upon published sources, there have been other cases where the Israeli nuclear capability had been exposed or hinted at in order to message her enemies about her defense capability.

On the 5th day of the 1973 October as Egyptian forces successfully crossed the Suez Canal and were making an advance towards Beersheva — or as Dayan told Mrs. Golda Meir, he feared the Third Jewish Temple was on the verge of destruction — Israelis exposed nuclear parts, according to a 1976 Time magazine report. The intelligence information was passed by the Soviets, according to the news magazine, to Cairo and this, Time claimed, resulted in Egyptian forces interrupting its military advance.

In the 1990 Gulf War, Israeli officials told journalists that Israel had a weapon ‘100 times bigger’ to respond to Saddam Hussein’s threats to incinerate half of Israel.

It certainly is conventional thinking that Israel will deploy its ‘weapon of last resort’ in the event that its air force would be destroyed and has no other form of conventional defense.

And yet Avner Cohen this week places certain doubts himself over the accuracy of his source, Brigadier General Ya’tza Yaacov. “Ya’atza and I…talked much about the fragility of human memory. It was clear that while some moments he recalled vividly, others he hardly remembered,” he wrote. Indeed, Avner felt a need to quote from a rare lecture by Zvi Zur, the former IDF Chief of Staff and aide to the defense minister in the 1967 war, in which on the first day of the 1967 war itself he set up a committee of two — the head of the Atomic Energy Authority and Yaacov — to examine the possibility of a nuclear test in the Sinai Desert. It gives credibility to Yaacov’s claims.

Nuclear testing is a double-edged “sword.” On the one hand, nuclear testing is a useful deterrent to be seen by the enemy. A nuclear deterrent so secret that the enemy does not suspect it, loses its deterrent capability. Moreover, until a weapon has been tested — non-conventional or conventional — it fails to be a deterrent.

On the other hand, for a country like Israel that follows a stance of non-confirmation on nuclear matters because under US law, foreign aid assistance is not given to any country with a nuclear program not under international supervision, nuclear testing in the open atmosphere is problematic — as a reported nuclear test by Israel and South Africa in 1979 showed — after which the Carter Administration opened an inquiry. All this has led some countries to carry out nuclear testing by computer.

The Israeli nuclear program is not new to The New York Times. In 1960 the newspaper brought to the world’s attention for the first time that an American U-2 plane had photographed the reactor in the process of construction. Up tll then, Israel had claimed the building was a textile plant. The newspaper’s disclosure led to a crisis in US-Israeli relations, and David Ben Gurion hurried to Washington to placate President Eisenhower, and claimed that the nuclear programmer was for peaceful purposes only.

This disclosure rang alarm bells in Arab capitals that Israel was following a nuclear program. It has been suggested that Nasser launched the 1967 war partly in an effort to forestall the nuclear program.

By training, Avner Cohen is a philosopher. Among the courses he taught was one concerning the philosophical dimensions of the morality of nuclear warfare. (Among his students in his course at Ben Gurion University was Mordechai Vanunu, who by night worked as a technician at Dimona, and by day was a philosophy student, who was naturally drawn to Cohen’s course. Vanunu later disclosed the country’s nuclear secrets to the London Sunday Times.)

Avner Cohen’s research — including his highly regarded tome Israel and the Bomb, which chronicles the first ten years of the building of the reactor — draws upon that author’s use of US official archives, such as on US-Israeli nuclear relations. In effect, foreign governmental archives have created a hole in the secrecy which Israeli defense officials have sought to construct around the nuclear theme. Israeli censorship law allows foreign sources to be quoted — since once something is published it can no longer be regarded as ‘secret’. Access to US records is guaranteed under the US Freedom of Information Act.

Under the unwritten Nixon-Golda Meir understanding of 1969, the Americans agreed to look the other way and ignore Israel’s nuclear program — given that the US sees the Israeli nuclear program as providing an ‘umbrella’ enabling the withdrawal from territory — as long as the Israelis did not carry out any public actions alluding to their program — including the nuclear testing. Yet the US authorities have ceded Israeli requests to close other avenues of nuclear-related information. Access for researchers like Avner Cohen to Israeli-US nuclear-related archives of the Johnson Administration archives has been limited. Another telling example was that in the days prior to the release from prison of Mordechai Vanunu — who sought to enter the US partly in order to appear before Congressional committees about his work at the reactor — US and Israeli authorities reportedly agreed that Vanunu would not be given a foreign passport to the US.

Avner Cohen’s important research concerns the Fifties and Sixties and the beginning years of the program, including the construction of the reactor. He has poured little or no light on the current state of the country’s nuclear program — even though his work is dedicated to the right of Israelis to know. Frankly, what happened fifty years ago is of little interest to Israel’s citizens, who have long suspected that the country is nuclear capable — and little more than a curio for historians.

Avner Cohen is a mere nuisance to the Israeli authorities in their determination to shore up the walls of nuclear secrecy. In another sense, Cohen serves Israeli interests because his work is a reminder of the country’s nuclear option — and he has therefore himself becomes part of Israel’s nuclear deterrent posture.

Yet the pressure in 2017 for up-to-date information and public accountability about the country’s nuclear program is even more pressing today than in the past. The reactor is one of the oldest in the world, raising genuine fears about its safety.

Yoel Cohen is a member of the faculty of the School of Communication, Ariel University. Among his publications are: The Whistleblower of Dimona: Israel, Vanunu,& the Bomb.

About the Author
Yoel Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Communication, Ariel University, Israel (School Chairman 2009-2011). His research interests include media and religion in Israel and Judaism; religion and news; foreign news reporting; defence and the media. He completed a doctorate in political sociology at City University London. His book publications include God, Jews & the Media: Religion & Israel’s Media (Routledge); Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy (Pluto) / The Whistleblower of Dimona: Vanunu, Israel & the Bomb, (Holmes & Meier); Media Diplomacy: the Foreign Office in the mass communications age (Frank Cass). His research has appeared in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics; Gazette; Journal of Media & Religion; Israel Affairs; Review of International Affairs; Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication & Media. He was departmental editor, Israel Media, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
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