Israel's Nuclear Opacity: a Political Genealogy by Avner Cohen

Israel's Nuclear Opacity:
a Political Genealogy

written by

Avner Cohen


The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation

Chapter 9
pages 187-212
edited by
Steven L. Spiegel, Jennifer D. Kibbe and Elizabeth G. Matthews
Symposium Series, Volume 66
The Edwin Mellen Press
ISBN 0-7734-7959-7

Published as part of the BCIR Book Series, "Studies in International Relations" of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

Table of Contents and Paragraph Index

Author's Note

This paper was written originally in the summer of 1995 and subsequently it became the basis for the introductory chapter in my book, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). Certain updating and adjustments were made in April 2000 to fit it to this volume.



The Israeli bomb has been referred as both "the world's worst-kept-secret" and "the bomb-that-never-is." These two phrases together capture the sense of political and epistemological oddity associated with this issue: its presence lies in its absence, its familiarity resides in its unacknowledged status. The Israeli bomb is invisible but known, absent but ever-present.1


Israel was the sixth nation in the world, and the first one in the Middle East, to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Its nuclear program started in earnest about four decades ago when it built its main infrastructure in Dimona. Around 1966-67 Israel passed the significant nuclear threshold and on the eve of the Six-Day War it already had rudimentary nuclear capability.2 By 1970, Israel's nuclear status became presumed worldwide.3


Yet Israel's nuclear behavior has been distinctly different from that of the first five members of the nuclear club. To this day, Israel has not declared itself a member of the nuclear club. Three decades have passed since Prime Minister Levi Eshkol pledged that Israel would not be the first nation in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons and none of the subsequent seven Israeli prime ministers--Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak--have changed an iota in this formula. To this day, the Israeli bomb has reniained invisible, veiled and unacknowledged. While Israel's nuclear status has since the early 1970s no longer been ambiguous, its posture and policy have remained fundamentally opaque.


Nuclear opacity is a distinct Israeli contribution to the nuclear age. It is Israel's way of "being nuclear." By "nuclear opacity" I refer to a situation where a state's nuclear capability has not been acknowledged but it is firmly recognized in a way that makes a difference in other nation's perceptions, strategies, and actions.4 Around 1970 Israel had moved into this category.


Since then, opacity became Israel's mode to navigate its way through the maze of paradoxes and dilemmas associated with the advent of nuclear weapons. During the 1970s and 1980s "nuclear opacity" became the fundamental modus operandi of all second-generation nuclear proliferators. In 1974 India crossed the nuclear threshold by conducting a "peaceful nuclear explosion" without calling itself a nuclear weapon state. Less than a decade later, two other states--Pakistan and South Africa--followed the Israeli model, initiating clandestine programs and building weapons, apparently without testing. While apartheid-ruled South Africa eventually rolled back its program in anticipation of the coming of an African National Congress (ANC) led government, Israel, India, and Pakistan became know as the "threshold" states in arms control vernacular, nations that kept their bombs undeclared and invisible. India and Pakistan shattered the non-testing norm in May 1998. Israel has remained, at least for now, the sole practitioner of nuclear opacity.


Over the last three decades, Israel's posture of nuclear opacity has become a sturdy element of its national security strategy. Since the 1970s opacity (in Hebrew, amimut) became canonized and formalized as Israel's official nuclear doctrine. It is considered by Israelis now as one of their nation's most successful policies, a national strategy that fits perfectly the unique complexity and particularities of Israel's security predicament. Israeli policy-makers--past and present, left and right alike--have learned to view it as both politically indispensable and strategically natural.


While it is true that nuclear opacity looks now to Israelis natural even indispensable, it was not the product of well-thought strategy. The doctrine was formulated to rationalize an existing reality. Opacity grew piecemeal, progressed through distinct stages, and in response to contingent particular political needs. Although the Israeli declaratory posture gives the impression of continuity and uniformity, the particular contours of the Israeli policy were shaped as a result of dynamic and dialectical interactions and unforeseen among many players on different levels.


Like much else in the history of Zionism, opacity is a product of a series of improvisations. It evolved and matured in historical stages that followed one another. Historically, I discern four such stages from the late 1950s until 1970: secrecy, denial, ambiguity and finally, opacity. The sources of opacity are multiple. Generically, I distinguish among four types of sources: domestic, international (first France and later, most importantly, the United States), regional and conceptual-technical.


This paper is an effort to outline briefly the genealogy of Israel's policy of nuclear opacity. It focuses primarily on the period from the mid and late 1950s until around 1970, during which the Israeli nuclear program became a full technological, strategic and political reality.

1. The Domestic Sources


The domestic sources of opacity involve attitudes of individuals, deliberations and debates among elite groups inside and outside the government, and broader societal-cultural attitudes regarding nuclear weapons. Prior to the disclosure of the Dimona reactor in December 1960, during the phase of complete secrecy, the attitudes of David Ben-Gurion--Israel's first prime minister and the father founder of the nuclear project--played a crucial role in shaping the contours of Israel's nuclear policy. Though Ben-Gurion had no sense of the idea of nuclear opacity, let alone the terminology, his instinctive attitudes on this matter proved fateful for opacity. His dual role as minister of defense and prime minister allowed him to make all the big decisions on his own. Until the deal with France was finalized in late 1957 there were hardly any political-domestic consultations. When the big decisions concerning Dimona and related issues were made in 1957-58 Ben-Gurion shared with his senior colleagues only the minimum necessary; it was only discussed on a "need to know" basis.


Secrecy, concealment and vagueness were Ben-Gurion's traits in dealing with this subject, at home and abroad, for the entire period that he was Israel's prime minister. Michael Bar Zohar, one of Ben-Gurion's biographers, elaborated on his tendency to avoid discussing long-term policy objectives, unless it was absolutely necessary and unavoidable.5 Shimon Peres focused on this general point with regard to the nuclear issue when he commented on Ben-Gurion's reluctance to "nail down" Dimona's long-term objectives.6 In another occasion Peres recalled that in the days of the project "we never talked about nuclear weapons, not even in internal discussions, we always talked about an 'option.'" Even with his close political colleagues who knew something about the project, Ben-Gurion was vague about the security motivation of the Dimona project, making ambiguous references to the need to develop a national nuclear energy infrastructure in a manner that would create a "nuclear option" for both civilian and military applications available for future decision-makers.


Apparently, Ben-Gurion himself was not clear in his own mind in those days how far Israel should go with its nuclear pursuits, and what posture he should pursue. So he improvised one step at a time. To discuss long-term goals prematurely could compromise the security of the entire young project, at home and abroad. This reluctance at the very highest level to "nail down" long-term objectives was among the early tenets of opacity. To this day, this taboo has persisted.


Another important tenet of opacity involves the strategy Ben-Gurion chose to present the project to the United States in December 1960. Ben-Gurion chose the path of denial: he denied that Dimona was about security; he presented Dimona as exclusively civilian-peaceful infrastructure. Why did Ben-Gurion choose to be less-than-honest from the very start with the United States? It may be that part of the answer resides in Ben-Gurion's domestic situation. The American exposure came in a most unfortunate time for Ben Gurion: at the height of the Lavon Affair.7 Though the two issues were substantially unrelated, they were politically related. In December 1960 Ben-Gurion was a weakened national leader, exhausted by the Lavon Affair and by the bitter generational struggle over leadership that it produced. The Dimona project was an item in this political struggle. His weakness at home was probably a factor that shaped his choice of strategy in response to the American demand for explanation about Dimona. Constrained by earlier assurances he had given to Charles de Gaulle and by his struggle at home, Ben-Gurion was determined to avoid a path of confrontation with the United States over Dimona. He could not control the outcome of such confrontation, and he recognized that it could be disastrous both for the Dimona project and his own leadership. Denial involved no immediate public confrontation with the United States.


Ben-Gurion's strategy of denial, however, had profound consequences on Israel's nuclear discourse. It created a climate that made public nuclear debate difficult, if not impossible. To criticize Ben-Gurion on the Dimona project would imply that his statement to the Knesset was not truthful; this could be damaging to Israel and would be looked upon as an unpatriotic act. Virtually all Zionist parties, left and right alike, felt inhibited to voice reservations in public. For one thing, due to secrecy and the technological complexity of the issue, few were competent and informed to debate the issue. For another thing, even those who understood Ben-Gurion's interest in a nuclear option were instinctively reluctant to debate the issue in public. Notwithstanding reservations about how the project had been decided and executed, Zionist parties were committed to the imperative of Kdushar Ha-bitachon--the sanctity of security. For those few who did insist on debating the issue in public, the procedures of the Military Censor made it difficult for them to state their case properly. All in all, the taboo was more self-imposed than imposed by law. This taboo, too, is among the most powerful societal sources of opacity, and has endured the present time.


Around 1962, more than four years after the Dimona project had been initiated, the hidden nuclear dilemma resurfaced politically in two ways. First, the Knesset was no longer ready to be bypassed and ignored. Parliamentarian leaders demanded that Ben-Gurion share information with them on a strictly secret basis. Ben-Gurion agreed and a seven-member sub-committee, made of the leaders of the major parties, was secretly formed to oversee the nuclear project. It became the most distinguished and prestigious Knesset sub-committee. By sharing sensitive information (mostly financial and technological) with this committee on a strictly secret basis (members were not even allowed to take notes in those briefings), Ben-Gurion assured that public debate would not take place. Being sworn to secrecy, these Knesset members became, for all practical purposes, the project's gatekeepers, they almost never questioned the principles, they never discussed the issue in public, and they made the issue off-limits to domestic politics. This fundamental pattern, too, was a domestic source of opacity.


The second action Ben-Gurion took in 1962 was opening the nuclear dilemma to a selected group of Israeli defense leaders, past and present. The issue at stake was whether Israel should make fundamental changes in its military doctrine and force structure: whether Israel should invest its limited sources on non-conventional capabilities (nuclear, missiles) or continue to modernize its conventional forces. The timing of those high-level discussions was triggered in part by Egypt's missile project and by the necessity to make basic decisions since Dimona was moving towards completion. By that time there already had been a quiet but fierce doctrinal debate between those who supported investment in modernizing the conventional forces (armor, tactical air force) and those who were advocating revolutionary shift to non-conventional technologies, missiles and nuclear. In 1962, Ben-Gurion decided to conduct a seminar-like debate between the two schools before a decision was made. Peres and Dayan represented the pro-nuclear view, advocating what Peres called in those days "the doctrine of self-reliance" and the view that for the long-run Israel would not be able to compete in a conventional arms race with the Arabs. Ultimately, nuclear weapons would force the Arabs to abandon hopes of settling the conflict by military means. Allon and Galili represented the other view, disagreeing with Dayan's pessimism and warned of the danger in applying the nuclear deterrence calculus to the Israeli context.


Ben-Gurion was reportedly reluctant to make a final doctrinal choice. He left the big issue open, while making small decisions. For the time being Israel would not invest its limited funds in order to shift towards nuclear doctrine. Instead, it would continue to invest most of its funds on strong tactical air force and tanks. Still, Ben-Gurion initiated a missile project and continued with the plans to finish the nuclear infrastructure but not as a crash program. It turned out that the way Ben-Gurion handled the dilemma in 1962-63 had a lasting effect, much beyond the particulars of the time. This way of resolving the dilemma by default and post-ponement, while in the meantime maintaining the conventional balance and treating the nuclear option as insurance, became the mark of Israel's pattern of proliferation. Israel had been reluctant to accept the nuclear reality through the front door. Inevitably, it created a situation in which the nuclear issue sneaked in quietly through the back door. This was another early source of Israeli opacity.


The seeds of opacity that had been planted during the Ben-Gurion era deepened during the Eshkol era. The nuclear issue remained greatly isolated and insulated from the rest of the domestic politics agenda. Eshkol, like his predecessor, made nuclear decisions in consultations with a handful of ministers and aides. Until his resignation in 1965, Peres was still the man in charge of the project under the prime minister. Later, Zvi Dinstein replaced him, while Galili, Allon, Eban and Rabin became among Eshkol's closest advisors. Eshkol rarely brought the nuclear issue to the cabinet, except to approve his plans for its reorganization in 1966.


During the bitter rift between Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, which led in 1965 to a split within the ruling MAPAI party, the special apolitical status of the nuclear issue was put to a test. Ironically, it was Ben-Gurion's new party, RAFI, which had now an interest in using Dimona as its own achievement and to charge Eshkol with dangerous concessions to the United States. While Ben-Gurion and Peres hinted in that direction, they refrained from using the issue politically in an explicit way. Here, too, Ben-Gurion's nuclear legacy lasted; the taboo prevailed and the nuclear issue kept its non-partisan status. This pattern, too, became an important tenet of Israeli opacity.


Prior to the Six Day War, as Israel was approaching the realization of its nuclear option, Eshkol ordered that a nuclear policy consistent with his political commitment to the United States be formulated. New advisory bodies were secretly formed to deal with those new challenges; they were small, highly secretive, and a-political. Eshkol shifted Ben-Gurion's denial policy into a policy of ambiguity. In line with his commitment to President Johnson not to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, Eshkol deepened his commitment to a strong posture of conventional deterrence through arms purchases from the United States. Eshkol thought of the nuclear option not as an instrument for deterring the Arabs, but rather as a last resort option and a security hedge vis-à-vis the United States. The pledge not to introduce nuclear weapons became the mark of Eshkol's ambiguous nuclear policy. This was another step in the journey towards opacity.


After the 1967 war and in the wake of the advent of the NPT in 1968, Israel drifted towards a bomb-in-the basement posture. It was the post-1967 geopolitical environment, compounded with bureaucratic momentum, which fueled the drift from ambiguity to opacity. The war created a new national agenda in which the nuclear issue had an even lesser role to play. As domestic politics became less relevant to the nation's nuclear policy, bureaucratic politics became more of a factor. It was appointed guardians, not politicians, who made the real decisions. On the matter of the NPT, for example, the issue was hardly discussed in the cabinet. By 1970, a solid tradition had been established which held that the political arena was not the appropriate forum to decide the nation's nuclear policy. This pattern, too, was an important tenet of opacity.

2. The International Sources


The second generic source that shaped Israel's nuclear posture was interaction with outside powers. In the period prior to 1970, two international powers were especially important to that effort. France was the country that introduced Israel not only to nuclear technology but also the delicate art of opaque nuclear politics. The United States was the superpower that was in search of its own global non-proliferation policy at the time that Israel was making its first steps in this area. In retrospect, the United States shaped Israeli opacity more than any other state. In return, the United States was Israel's unknowing partner in the making of opacity.

2.1. France


France of the Fourth Republic was Israel's first and foremost guide to the nuclear age. In Paris, in the mid-late 1950s, Shimon Peres and his associates learned first-hand how a democratic nation can go nuclear without making an explicit national decision to do so. France was the nation that (unknowingly) "introduced" opacity to Israel as a political mode of "going nuclear." Under the Fourth Republic, important nuclear activities were made piecemeal by sympathetic politicians and administrators acting on their own, while the official government could maintain, and rightly so, that no final political decision on nuclear weapons had been made. However, the period of French nuclear opacity was short-lived. It ended in April 1958 (two months before the Fourth Republic ceased) when France openly decided to conduct a nuclear test in the Sahara in early 1960. Still, the French pattern seems to shape the early Israeli nuclear behavior, even in determining the nuclear understandings and agreements with France itself.


The political sensitivities and constraints both in France and Israel forced Ben-Gurion and his nuclear lieutenants not only to maintain strict secrecy about their nuclear activities in France, but also to be non-explicit, tentative, ambiguous, even deceptive about their long-term intentions, ideas and plans. Israel, unlike France, had a strong and autocratic leader who decided single-handedly to initiate a national nuclear project, however, like the French case (but for different reasons), he was reluctant to make an explicit nuclear decision. On the domestic scene the French way of doing nuclear business fitted Ben-Gurion's ever-present desire to keep vague about the program's objectives. As in the French case, the Israeli project's leaders fragmented their activities into smaller sub-projects, all officially explained in terms of exploratory and preliminary preparations for a future national energy program--not a final decision about anything. As to military applications, reference was vague, tentative and always in terms of an "option." This kind of discourse was influenced by the French domestic discourse. In retrospect, Israel excelled in applying the French pattern beyond the limits of the original.


But even more important was the manifestation of opaque discourse on the external scene in France itself. Peres and Ernst David Bergmann, the chairman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (and the head of research at the Ministry of Defense), identified France as Israel's most likely source of nuclear assistance, fashioning an alliance with France's nuclear enthusiasts at a time that French political leadership was still undecided and divided about France's own nuclear future. Both sides of the deal, French and Israeli, shared similar nuclear dreams of an independent deterrent that they could hardly speak about freely and explicitly. Those French nuclear enthusiasts greatly helped Peres in 1956-57 to put together the Dimona deal in a way so that its significance was kept concealed. According to French sources, on both content and format, the Dimona agreements manifested the art of doing business opaquely. By separating the political, technical and commercial aspects of the deal, its architects made it look innocuous--its real significance was compartmentalized and concealed. In the political document Peres signed, Israel committed itself to use the reactor for peaceful purposes. Apparently, no reference to the reprocessing plant and other sensitive issues appeared anywhere in the state-to-state agreements.


It was during Ben-Gurion's last three years in office that he learned the externally imposed limits on Israel's freedom of action in the nuclear field. He had to protect the Dimona project on two fronts: first, quietly with President de Gaulle of France and second, more publicly with American Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

2.2. The United States


If France was the nation from which Israel had learned how a democracy can go nuclear opaquely, the United States was the superpower whose response to Israel's nuclear program greatly shaped the way Israel stumbled into opacity. The historical record indicates that Israel's unique political way of acquiring nuclear capability, and the mode of nuclear proliferation it developed, was closely related to the evolution of American non-proliferation policy in the 1960s.


The United States was not in a position to stop the Israeli nuclear program, but the American security/nuclear dialogue significantly determined the political mode under which Israel went nuclear. Israel went nuclear opaquely, not overtly, in a way that carefully considered American policies and deliberately avoided defying American non-proliferation policy. During the 1960s, while four American administrations came and went, the United States and Israel groped for answers that would satisfy strategic needs, national goals and political requirements. The search continued for nearly a decade. Three pairs of American-Israeli leaders made the critical and distinct stages in that search: Kennedy-Ben-Gurion, Johnson-Eshkol and Nixon-Meir. In a kind of Hegelian-like dialectical path, the search progressed through three distinct political stages, for each pair of interlocutors: confrontation, ambiguity and reconciliation. Israel's nuclear opacity was the ultimate answer to this decade-long search.


In turn, the Israeli nuclear case was an important factor in the shaping and evolution of American non-proliferation policy throughout the 1960s. In a sense, Israel was the first case of nuclear weapons proliferation with which the United States had to contend, beyond Russia, Britain, France and China, at a time when the United States had not yet developed a coherent non-proliferation policy. Israel was a case of a friendly and small state surrounded by bigger enemies and (unlike Germany) outside the sphere of superpower containment. Moreover, unlike the cases of the Soviet Union, the UK, and France (and later China or India), Israel did not aspire to the status of the great powers. And, most significantly, Israel enjoyed strong domestic support in America. The challenge of how to apply the long-held American opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons to the complexity of the Israeli case had lasting effect that went far beyond the Israeli case. The Israeli case was an important learning experience for those three American administrations in their search for a coherent non-proliferation policy.


The Israeli nuclear case evolved in the 1960s as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations grappled to form American non-proliferation policy aiming at creating a non-proliferation order based on international treaty. Israel was a key state for the evolution of American ideas about non-proliferation. Israel's nuclear posture evolved in the 1960s in interaction with the evolution of the U.S. non-proliferation policies. Viewed in this way, opacity came into being as a joint American-Israeli effort to respond to their respective dilemmas, as the co-evolution of Israel's proliferation policy and American non-proliferation policy. The complexity of the Israeli case was an important impetus for the United States in seeking the NPT. By the same token, the specter of such a treaty was an important factor in moderating Israeli nuclear ambitions.


On at least eight occasions during the 1960s, the United States came to the point of a confrontation or near-confrontation with the Israeli government over Israel's nuclear program. The first time was in December 1960, when the Eisenhower administration revealed publicly the existence of Israel's plans to build a nuclear reactor in Dimona and demanded Israeli explanations and reassurances about the reactor's peaceful purpose. Ben-Gurion responded by providing public and private assurances that the Dimona reactor was for "peaceful purposes." But no agreement about American visits to Dimona was struck. That confrontation was short-lived because it started in the last few weeks of the departing Eisenhower administration. The challenge was left to the incoming Kennedy administration.


After it took office in January 1961, the Kennedy administration dealt with the political sensitivity and technical reality of the Israeli nuclear program as a long-term policy issue. If the United States wanted to draw the line on nuclear proliferation, as Kennedy believed it should, the Israeli program had to be curbed. Kennedy found himself in a dilemma. He had a deep personal commitment to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, but he also had a strong commitment to the security and well-being of Israel. This was a time when the United States had not yet developed a coherent global nonproliferation policy. The Kennedy administration found itself searching for a nonproliferation policy vis-à-vis Israel while other allies of the United States--the UK and France--were developing their own nuclear arsenals.


President Kennedy twice tried to intervene in Israel's nuclear affairs, but confrontation was averted in each case through delicate quiet diplomacy at the highest level. In early 1961, shortly after he took office, Kennedy was determined to obtain verifiable assurances, by way of American visits on site, of the peaceful nature of the Dimona project. Ben-Gurion agreed and invited two prominent American scientists to visit Dimona. The visit revealed no indications of a weapons program. It was also a precedent. In the wake of the scientists' positive report the two leaders met in New York on May 30,1961. No better example of that high-level compromise exists than the discussion of nuclear issues at that meeting. The two leaders wanted to avoid a confrontation, and each had a sense of his own political limits, at home and abroad. Kennedy did not raise questions which went beyond Ben-Gurion's tentative assurances on the peaceful purpose of the Dimona reactor. Ben-Gurion respected Kennedy's political needs and did not question American non-proliferation policy as it applied to Israel. Both nations thereby planted the seeds of opacity.8


The meeting in New York presaged the future by setting, unintentionally, the parameters by which both nations would conduct their dealings on the nuclear issue. The verbal understandings reached at that meeting allowed the nuclear issue to be left off the bilateral agenda for almost two years. The issue of Dimona, however, resurfaced in the spring of 1963, as the Dimona reactor was about to become operational. Kennedy was focusing on the problem of global proliferation in connection with the anticipated negotiation of a test ban treaty, what became the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of July 1963. Ben-Gurion's pressure on the United States for American security assurances to Israel was his response to Kennedy's pressure on the nuclear issue. Delaying his response to Ben-Gurion's request for U.S. security guarantees, Kennedy wrote of his concern about the introduction of advanced weaponry (nuclear arms and ballistic missiles) into the Middle East. This dramatic correspondence between the two leaders continued until Ben-Gurion's resignation on 16 June 1963, the day on which Kennedy's tough letter was to be delivered to him. The letter was never delivered to Ben-Gurion because on that very day he resigned from office.9


However, Kennedy did not cease his pressure on Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol took office in late June 1963 during the most severe American-Israeli confrontation over the nuclear issue. Days after he took office, he received one of the toughest messages an Israeli prime minister had ever received from an American president, a slightly modified version of Kennedy's letter to Ben-Gurion. Kennedy demanded of Eshkol a verified implementation of the arrangements Ben-Gurion had agreed to in principle, which would confirm the peaceful purpose of Dimona. The key to these arrangements was Kennedy's demands for "semi-annual" visits by American scientists to Dimona. After weeks of a near-crisis situation, on 19 August 1963, Eshkol proposed a formula, allowing American visits in Dimona, which appeared to satisfy Kennedy's demands. Eshkol's formula, however, left somewhat vague the issue of timing and exact nature of the American visits to Dimona. Once again, a showdown was averted, as Eshkol was able to offer a compromise that seemed to meet Kennedy's demands.10


Although the nuclear understandings reached in August 1963 were vague, they proved lasting and decisive. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy in November 1963, had to implement the Kennedy-Eshkol understanding. Johnson was not as personally committed as his predecessor to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. The Johnson administration pressed Eshkol to allow it to reassure Nasser on Dimona during Eshkol's first visit in Washington in 1964. In the coming years it made at least two high-level attempts to place Dimona under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards--in the Harriman-Komer visit to Israel in 1965 and in connection to the negotiations over the sale of Sky hawks in 1966--but it backed off in face of Israeli resistance. Eshkol was not ready to go beyond his ambiguous pledge that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East and the Johnson administration had no recourse but to accept it. The era of confrontation was replaced with the era of ambiguity.


The seventh time that Israel and the United States had a confrontation over the nuclear issue was during 1968, Johnson's last year in office and the year in which the NPT was signed. The Johnson administration exerted pressure on Israel to sign the NPT. At first Israel seemed to acquiesce in the American request, but by summer 1968 it became clear that Jerusalem was determined not to sign the treaty. The issue came to a point of confrontation in late 1968 as Israel negotiated for the first sale of Phantoms. The American pressure was mounting, but on the eve of the presidential election in November 1968 Johnson decided to put an end to the pressure. Israel received the Phantoms and did not sign the NPT.


In July 1969 the United States conducted the last visit to the Dimona site. Later that year, Prime Minister Golda Meir reached a new kind of tacit understanding with President Richard Nixon which ended the American visits in Dimona. According to this understanding, Israel refrained from making public reference to its nuclear capability--no declaration, no testing--while the United States looked the other way at the Israeli nuclear case. With this understanding, nuclear opacity emerged in its full-blown form. This was the transition from ambiguity to reconciliation.


As a whole, the American-Israeli security/nuclear dialogue throughout the 1960s evolved gradually around three fundamental axes: (a) supply of American conventional weapons to Israel; (b) American assurances on Israeli security; (c) inhibitions on Israel's nuclear program. A few times they came to the verge of collision but always a public showdown was avoided because ultimately neither party was interested in that. These confrontational and near-confrontational episodes created a binational learning curve. It was a process of trial and error, largely tacit, through which both the United States and Israel learned how to cope with the Israeli nuclear case.

3. The Arab "Contribution" to Opacity


The third generic source of influence on the Israeli nuclear posture was the Arab world, in particular Egypt (which in the 1960s was called the United Arab Republic, [UAR]). Just as Israel was committed to attain a technological edge vis-à-vis the Arabs, it was also committed not to provoke the Arabs to take a nuclear path of their own. It was obvious that if Israel provoked the Arabs to initiate their own nuclear project, it might be even more dangerous for Israel than a situation in which neither side has a nuclear program. That is, the Israeli nuclear project, under adverse circumstances, could undermine its own cause: instead of creating stable deterrence that could eventually lead to peace, it could actually make Israel less secure and more vulnerable. Ben-Gurion's nuclear critics in Israel warned that his nuclear obsession could bring about his ultimate nightmare: a pan-Arabic nuclear project headed by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. Secrecy, denial and ambiguity were essential to keep the Arabs at bay.


In the late 1950s, prior to the exposure of Dimona, a key aspect of the total secrecy policy was to keep the Arabs uninformed as long as possible. It was recognized that the French assistance could be jeopardized due to Arab pressure. One of the major reasons for adopting the denial path was to lessen Egyptian suspicions. In his meeting with President Kennedy in May 1961 Ben-Gurion agreed that the reassuring report of the American scientists' visit in Dimona would be passed on to Nasser. Since the first visit to Dimona in 1961, the United States consistently insisted on the need to reassure Nasser that Dimona was believed to be peaceful, as Israeli leaders declared. Without such reassurances the Americans were concerned about the possibility that if Egypt believed that Dimona was about to produce nuclear weapons this could trigger an Egyptian military attack on the Dimona site.


This concern was a constant feature of the American-Israeli dialogue in that period. In the early-mid 1960s there was a common view in Washington (White House, State Department, CIA) that an Israeli bomb could inevitably lead to regional hostilities. The United States was concerned that, apart from the possibility of Egyptian preemption, Israeli nuclearization could lead to the Soviet Union becoming directly involved in nuclear escalation in the region, either by providing Egypt with actual nuclear weapons or by backing it with explicit Soviet nuclear cover. Nasser, himself, declared that he could not tolerate the development of nuclear weapons in Israel, and both the United States and Israel were concerned about the possibility of Egyptian military action against Dimona.


These predictions did not materialize. It appears that Israel's low-key declaratory policy, along with the American reassurances, had a calming effect on the behavior of the Arab world. As long as Israel kept a policy of low profile, Arab governments and leaders tended to marginalize the Israeli nuclear issue. By and large, the Israeli nuclear program did not become in the 1960s a major political issue in the Arab world. The issue usually came out publicly only in response to news reports overseas. Egypt, the country that had been expected to lead the Arab reaction to Dimona, had a surprisingly mild attitude on this issue. When Nasser came out with a series of tough declarations on Dimona, the Eshkol government responded by publicly stating that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region.


Still, there are indications that the Israeli nuclear issue played some role in the series of inadvertent miscalculations that led to the 1967 Six Days War. While it was not the hidden cause of the war, nuclear-related events and considerations, on both the Egyptian and Israelis sides, played a significant role in the evolution of the crisis that preceded the war. In particular, Egyptian reconnaissance flights over Dimona during the May 1967 crisis--at the time the issue was kept secret--changed dramatically the mood among Israeli policy-makers in a dramatic way; it reinforced the intelligence indications that the nuclear complex at Dimona was a top priority target in Egyptian war plans. On the Israeli side, in the days prior to the war Israel moved its rudimentary nuclear capability into a state of operational alert. The Egyptian defeat created circumstances that eased the Israeli drift from ambiguity to opacity. However, the Arab pattern of "taking advantage" of Israel's nuclear opacity in order to maintain a low profile on the nuclear issue continued.11


In retrospect, and somewhat ironically, there was a certain pattern of interaction between the Israeli nuclear policy and the Arab attitudes on the nuclear issue. As long as the Israelis kept the nuclear issue low profile, so did the Arabs. As in the Israeli case, the Arab nuclear pattern seemed a product of evolving historical contingencies, combined with societal-cultural attitudes. In a peculiar way, then, the Arabs were also a partner, junior perhaps, in the making of opacity.

4. The Conceptual-Definitional Source of Opacity


Finally, an important aspect of the makeup of Israel's nuclear opacity involved a cluster of conceptual-epistemic-technical issues concerning the definition of nuclear weapons: What does constitute a state crossing the nuclear weapons status? Where is the nuclear weapons threshold? What is the meaning of Israel's "non-introduction" pledge?


In the case of all five declared nuclear states--the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China--crossing the nuclear threshold was symbolized by a distinct act: a full-yield nuclear test. For years a nuclear test was taken as a necessary step in the nuclear proliferation ladder both for technical and political reasons. Technically, testing of weapons system--any weapons system--was considered the last stage in the development process. The development process cannot be completed without a series of field tests of the entire system. Testing, in this technical sense, is a measure of operational reliability.12 As early as the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in August 1949 it became evident that traces of a full-yield nuclear explosion cannot be concealed. Politically, a first full-yield nuclear test is the act that signifies the transition from the phase of secrecy to the public phase; the test is an act of "political introduction." The test provided a clear-cut and visible criterion for recognizing when and how the nuclear threshold had been crossed.


Viewing the nuclear threshold in this way, nuclear proliferation was perceived as an either/or process; as long as country did not conduct a test it was still given the benefit of the doubt concerning its nuclear status. In the absence of solid information, it is difficult to determine how far a nation has advanced in its nuclear development. Furthermore, even if solid intelligence information exists, there could be powerful political and operational inhibitions against exposing it.


Israel made its nuclear pursuit piecemeal and by taking advantage of this conceptualization of the proliferation ladder. It went nuclear while avowing privately and publicly not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons. If "introduction " means conducting a full-yield nuclear test, Israel avoided--even defied--the political act of "introducing" nuclear weapons. As noted previously, Prime Minister Eshkol resisted pressure from the project's leaders to conduct a nuclear test, keeping his word to Johnson that Israel would not introduce nuclear weapons. Israel crossed the nuclear threshold in a way that made it most difficult to track and to identify. In fact, it went nuclear so opaquely that it appears that its own leaders did not even internalize and digest the strategic and political meaning of the transition. This lack of synchronization came to its peak on the eve of the Six Days War.


A brief analytic detour may illuminate the conceptual-definitional issue involved here. The NPT requires non-nuclear weapon signatories "not to manufacture...nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" (Article II). The NPT itself contains no definition as to what constitutes a "nuclear weapon" apart from a broad reference to all "nuclear explosive devices" (which includes "peaceful nuclear explosion"). As part of the NPT negotiation record suggests, the phrase "nuclear explosive devices" should be understood as the capacity to "release large quantities of energy in a very short period of time from sources of relatively small volume and light weight."13 The critical operational element in the NPT is the obligation not to manufacture a nuclear explosive device. On this matter, too, the NPT itself does not explicate the meaning of this phrase, but its negotiating record (the so called "Foster criteria") suggests a broad interpretation that includes all activities that entail the intention to make nuclear weapons.14


Based on the available records, during the Eshkol-Johnson period, Israel never explicitly pledged not to manufacture or develop nuclear weapons. All it did pledge was not to introduce such weapons. These are conceptually and politically very different pledges. If the NPT framers intended to overcome the lack of definition of "nuclear weapon" by imposing a general prohibition on all activities connected with "manufacturing" of such weapons, the Israeli pledge was inherently vague as to what exactly "introduce" amounted to. Due to this vagueness, Israel took upon himself in effect no specific limitations on its activities in the area of nuclear weapons, apart from the obvious one not to cross the nuclear threshold, that is, not to test a nuclear device. This allowed Israel to maintain maximum fog on its nuclear activities (short of a nuclear test). From an Israeli perspective, the virtue of the formula resided in its great degree of vagueness.


One can say, of course, that the American visits in Dimona were supposed to verify that Israel did not separate plutonium from its reactor fuel, and they seemed to do that. However, the fact remains that elements within the United States intelligence community had suspicions about the credibility of these visits. Since the early to mid 1960, the United States intelligence community believed that Israel had been actively working on nuclear weapons, and that the information obtained from the American visits at Dimona might be misleading. One gets the strong impression that the highest political level of the Johnson administration, as well as the chiefs of the intelligence community, had little appetite to probe the Israeli nuclear issue. Given the extreme sensitivity of the matter, and Israel's absolute opposition to lAEA safeguards in Dimona, the United States had little choice but to accept the "non-introduction" pledge and to make the best of it.


It appears that in the pre-1967 period the United States understood the Israeli pledge as technologically vague but politically clear. It was taken as a political commitment, made at the highest level in Israel, not to cross the nuclear threshold. When Prime Minister Eshkol stated publicly in the Knesset in July 1966 that Israel did not have nuclear weapons and would not introduce them he seemed to equate the absence of weapons with the "non-introduction" pledge. Everything depends, of course, on the exact definition of "nuclear weapons" and the "non-introduction" pledge; such definitions, however, were apparently not discussed in those days between the United States and Israel. Under the circumstances it was better off to leave the operational content of the pledge vague rather than to confront it. The fact that the United States lacked solid evidence as to how close Israel had gotten got to the bomb made it easier for both sides.


The definitional issue about Israel's nuclear status became subtler after the 1967 war. By that time Israel had an interest in "upgrading" the perception of its nuclear program but without breaking its earlier pledge. Professor Amos de-Shalit, a man known to be closely involved in the Israeli nuclear program, acknowledged in a rare interview days after the 1967 war that Israel had the technical knowledge to produce an atomic bomb, and could do so if the government so chose, but that thus far the cabinet opposed such a move.15 During the battle over the NPT in October 1968 Prime Minister Eshkol and Foreign Minister Eban stated, in almost identical language, that Israel "has now acquired the technical know-how" to produce nuclear weapons, even though, both emphasized, "it was a long way from this to producing nuclear weapons."16


While these statements sought to "upgrade" the notion that Israel was technologically advanced in the nuclear-weapons area, they also aimed to maintain the fog about what Israel was exactly doing in the nuclear field. They amounted to a public acknowledgment that Israel had advanced in the nuclear field and should be regarded as having a weapons "potential," "capability," or "option"; at the same time they were meant to be consistent with the Israeli pledge not to "introduce" nuclear weapons. The ambiguities that had been avoided for some time became a matter of contention between the United States and Israel in late 1968 during negotiations for the sale of the U.S.-made F-4 aircraft. Indeed, until the 1968 Warnke-Rabin nuclear discussions in November 1968, I found no evidence indicating that the United States officially probed Israel to clarify what it exactly meant by the "non-introduction" pledge.


In those discussions Paul Warnke pressed Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin about the exact status of the Israeli nuclear program. Rabin evaded those efforts first by reiterating the "non-introduction" pledge, and subsequently, in a response to Warnke's pressure to explicate what "non-introduction" really means, he proposed to equate "non-introduction" with a policy of non-testing and non-declaration. Rabin remained silent about whether Israeli actually manufactured nuclear weapons, but insisted on the point that without a test and declaration a state cannot be considered to have introduced nuclear weapons. All weapons systems, he insisted, conventional and unconventional alike, must be tested prior to operational deployment. Without a test it is impossible to introduce any weapon-system from the developers to the users; this is even more so about nuclear weapons. Rabin insisted that for a state to have nuclear weapons means to test and to declare them.l7 He noted that Israel's commitment not to introduce nuclear weapons amounts to a commitment not to make any political use of its nuclear capability. As long as Israel had not conducted a nuclear test, by definition and by practice, it could not be said to have introduced nuclear weapons.18


During the early period of the Nixon administration similar questions were raised again about the Israeli "non-introduction" pledge. Ambassador Rabin reiterated his explication of the non-introduction formula.19 The issue was left pending for the Meir-Nixon meeting in late September 1969. The United States no longer asked Israel for clarifications about its nuclear project; as of 1970 there were no more American visits in Dimona. By that time another nuance was added to the scholasticism about the meaning of the "non-introduction" pledge. In conversations "between Israelis and Americans on this topic "non-introduction" was often believed to mean that the bomb was there, lacking only one screw (or the equivalent) to make it operational. Only when this "screw" was "screwed in" would a weapon have been "introduced."20 In any case, the nuclear issue was dropped from the bilateral agenda.


By 1970 it became public that "for at least two years the U.S. Government has been conducting its Middle Eastern policy on the assumption that Israel either possesses an atomic bomb or has component parts available for quick assembly."21 While there was some disagreement over the issue of the "last screw"--whether Israel should be judged to have atomic weapons before the last screw or piece of the mechanism is hooked up--it was undisputed that Israel was for all practical purposes a nuclear weapons state. Israel had crossed the nuclear threshold.


The road to nuclear opacity had been traveled.

back to top


1. The editors of The Economist manifested this semi paradox in their choice of language. First referring to it as "The Bomb that Never Is," (The Economist, October 19, 1991), the next week they called it "The World's Worst-Kept Secret," (The Economist, October 26, 1991).

2. Even Israeli reliable sources have recently acknowledged this. See, Yuval Ne'eman, "Israel in the Nuclear Weapons Age," Nativ. September 1995, 38.

3. Hedrick Smith, "U.S. Assumes the Israelis Have A-Bomb or Its Parts." New York Times, July 18, 1970.

4. Avner Cohen and Benjamin Frankel, "Opaque Nuclear Proliferation," in Benjamin Frankel (ed) Opaque Nuclear Proliferation (London: Frank Cass, 1991) 14-44.

5. Michael Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, (Tel Aviv: Zamora Bitan, 1987), Vol. III, 1400 (in Hebrew).

6. Shimon Peres, "About Shalheveth," in Shalheveth Freier: 1920-1994 (Tel Aviv: Israel Atomic Energy Commission, 1995), 12-13 (in Hebrew).

7. The Lavon Affair is commonly regarded as Israel's biggest political scandal. It originated in 1960 when Pinhas Lavon, then the Secretary General of the Union Federation (Histadrut), demanded that Prime Minister David Ben Gurion exonerate him of the charge that he had been responsible for the so-called intelligence "mishap" in Egypt, in 1954, when Lavon was Minister of Defense. Ben Gurion refused and the affair led to a major crisis in Israel's ruling party, MAPAI. The controversy over the "Lavon Affair" continued until the mid-1960s, weakening both MAPAI and Ben Gurion's leadership. The American disclosure of the Dimona reactor, as well as the domestic debate about the Dimona project, were overshadowed and entangled with the controversy over the "Lavon Affair." See, Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

8. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 99-113; Cf., Avner Cohen, "Most Favored Nation," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January-February 1995 (Vol. 51, No 1), 44-53.

9. Ibid, 115-36.

10. Ibid, 153-74.

11. Ibid, 159-76. Cf., Avner Cohen, "Cairo, Dimona and the June 1967 War," Middle East Journal, Vol. 50., No. 2 (1996), 190-210; see also Avner Cohen, "Nuclear Arms in Crisis Under Secrecy: Israel and the 1967 and 1973 Wars," in Planning the Unthinkable: Military Doctrine for the Use of Weapons of Mass-Destruction, Eds. Peter R. Lavoy, Scott D. Sagan and James J. Wirtz, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, forthcoming).

12. It was known early on, of course, that a state could manufacture a yield producing flrst-generation fission bomb even without testing it, as the United States did with its Hiroshima bomb. Testing is required for more sophisticated weapons, small-enhanced radiation weapon or H-bomb. See, "Nuclear Tests and Nuclear Weapons," in Benjamin Frankel (editor), Opaque Nuclear Proliferation (London: Cass, 1991), 175-190.

13. Cited in George Bunn and Roland M. Timerbaev, Nuclear Verification Under the NPT, PPNN Study, No. 5, 1994, 7.

14. The problem is that, except for the reference to manufacture or acquisition of nuclear explosives, nowhere in the NPT is there an explicit effort to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate nuclear research activities. The Foster criteria, the authors stress, put the prohibition on manufacture in terms of activities much earlier than just "the final assembly of an explosive device," as Sweden suggested. Nevertheless, it did not list what those activities are but rather defined them by their purpose. Bunn and Timerbaev, ibid.

15. Ha'aretz, July 21, 1967.

16. "Eshkol: Israel Knows the Secret of the Production of the Atomic Bomb," Ha'aretz, October 4, 1968; "Eshkol and Eban Comments on Nuclear Knowledge Without Prior Discussion," Ha'aretz, October 8, 1968; "Israeli Nuclear Deterrent Urged by Jerusalem Paper," New York Times, October 5, 1968.

17. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 311-19. Warnke's own version of that exchange appears in his, "Nuclear Israel, " a review of Seymour M. Hersh, The Samson Option, in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1992, pp. 41-42.

18. lnterview with General (Res) Mordechai Hod, Tel Aviv, May 28, 1996.

19. Yitzhak Rabin, Pinkas Sherut (Tel Aviv: Ma'ariv, 1979), Vol.2., 251-2 (translation AC).

20. A letter from former a former senior intelligence official to the author, November 9, 1996. In his letter, the author adds another twist to this matter: "Among Americans it was often said that the Sixth Fleet had long since 'introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East area' therefore if the Israelis built and deployed nuclear weapons, they would, in light of the above, not be technically or legalistically the first but rather the second to introduce etc. American thinking along this line was based on past experience with the Israelis where the placement of a comma or lack of an article definite or indefinite, would often be used to evade the intention of an agreement by providing a legalistic or semantic loophole."

21. Hedrick Smith, "U.S. Assumes the Israelis Have A-Bomb or its Parts," New York Times, July 18, 1970.

Table of Contents and Paragraph Index




1. The Domestic Sources


2. The International Sources


2.1. France


2.2. The United States


3. The Arab "Contribution" to Opacity


4. The Conceptual-Definitional Source of Opacity



back to top

Web Editor's Note
This document has been edited slightly to conform to American stylistic, punctuation and hypertext conventions. Other than the inclusion of section and paragraph numbers and a slight change in the organization of the notes, no other changes to the text have been made.
Clicking section and paragraph numbers will access the Table of Contents and all sections and paragraphs can be directly cited on the web by capturing the link from the Table of Contents.
Reprinted in accordance with U.S. copyright law.

Alabaster's Archive
Alabaster's Archive

Free Web Hosting