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Bringing Israel's Bomb Out of the Basement
Has Nuclear Ambiguity Outlived Its Shelf Life?
AVNER COHEN is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain With the Bomb. MARVIN MILLER is a Research Associate in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a Senior Research Scientist in the MIT Nuclear Engineering Department and has served as a consultant to the U.S. State Department and the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.See more by Avner CohenSee more by Marvin Miller
In the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel made a determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons. However, just as fear of genocide is the key to understanding Israel's nuclear resolve, that fear has also encouraged nuclear restraint. After all, if Israel's enemies also acquired the bomb, the Jewish state might well face destruction, given its small size and high population density. Moreover, the specter of killing large numbers of innocent people, even to save their own, was morally unsettling for Israeli leaders.
This combination of resolve and restraint led to a code of nuclear conduct that is fundamentally different from that of all other nuclear weapons states. Israel neither affirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons; indeed, the government refuses to say anything factual about Israel's nuclear activities, and Israeli citizens are encouraged, both by law and by custom, to follow suit. And so they do, primarily through government censorship of and self-censorship by the media. This posture is known as nuclear opacity, or, in Hebrew, amimut.
The policy and practice of nuclear opacity was codified in 1969 in an extraordinary secret accord between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon. Although this agreement has never been openly acknowledged or documented, its existence was revealed in 1991 by the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, and more information came out in some recently declassified memos regarding Nixon's 1969 meeting with Meir written by Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. According to the Nixon-Meir pact, as long as Israel did not advertise its possession of nuclear weapons by publicly declaring or testing them, the United States would tolerate and shield Israel's nuclear program.
Ever since, all U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers have reaffirmed this policy -- most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama, in a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 6, during which Obama stated, "We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in . . . Israel has unique security requirements. It's got to be able to respond to threats. . . . And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine [its] security interests."