March 2nd, 2011
On February 9, 2011, Dr. Avner Cohen presented a lecture on his new book, The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. This was a look into the taboo topic of Israel’s nuclear program presented to a group of Georgia Tech students, faculty, staff, and guests from off campus as a collaboration of the Center for International Strategy Technology and Policy and the Daisy Alliance, an NGO focused on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Currently, Dr. Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Previously, he was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Both in the United States and overseas, Dr. Cohen is seen as an expert on nonproliferation issues and has contributed to various newspapers and guest spots on TV news shows. In addition to the book discussed in today’s lecture, he has also written Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1998).
Dr. Adam Stulberg gave the introduction emphasizing the significance of nuclear weapons in the Middle East as a factor in regional stability. The question posed by the lecture was, “Is Israel’s ‘nuclear opacity’ an effective national security strategy in today’s world?” Nuclear opacity, a term coined by Dr. Cohen, reflects Israel’s unwillingness to directly address the subject of their nuclear capabilities and completely avoid any mention of any type of nuclear program. Dr. Cohen notes that it has allowed for there to be a continual global agreement on non-proliferation, particularly in the Middle East. He says it has worked “fantastically” with the Arabs, and allowed for there to be a push for public weapons as a foreign policy strategy. It is due to Israel’s opacity that the Arab states do not feel threatened by their military capabilities, and do not feel the need to retaliate by building their own. Conversely, it is thought that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1977 was due to Egypt’s knowledge of Israel’s nuclear program. Yet, Dr. Cohen finds this system to be outdated and that the reasons for secrecy on the issue are no longer pertinent and have even become counterproductive for those trying to hold peace negotiations in the Middle East.
A brief history of the situation demonstrates that the Israeli Prime Minister and high government officials in the late 1950s realized that they must be the ones responsible for their own state’s security and cannot depend upon outside sources. Israel, in comparison to other countries in the region, is particularly susceptible to attacks because of its dense population centers. Israel became the world’s sixth nuclear state in 1969, five years after China. However, unlike other nuclear states, Israel avoided having an official test and made only one statement on the subject in the ensuing forty years. In order to maintain the security, they needed to ensure that other states within the region were not nuclear capable, and have even gone as far as destroying nuclear research sites. Israel also strives to keep as low of a profile as possible on the subject so as not to be perceived as a great threat. There is even a prohibition of U.S. officials to state publicly that Israel is a nuclear state, which caused President Obama a few minutes of verbal acrobatics at a summit for nuclear disarmament last year.
Dr. Cohen continued his lecture arguing against the continuation of keeping this project in the shadows, stating that while it worked previously, it is not for the betterment of domestic and international policies of today. Cohen reasons that over a period of several years, Israel should prepare its program to be brought to public attention with support of the global arena. His reasons range from domestic–the Israeli people have the right to democratically decide on such programs–to regional–dealing with Iran with secret information could cause the region to implode–to international–with the instability of Egypt a more threatened Israel might react more violently as well as cause issue with the Iranian arms negotiations.
Egypt in particular has a lot to lose in concern to this issue. As one of only two Arab nations to recognize Israel as a legitimate state actor, Egypt has led an initiative to create a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East and will be holding a conference in 2012 on the subject. Israel has already stated that it will not give up its arms unless a resolution to the Arab/Israeli conflict has been around for a minimum of two years. While current changes within the Egyptian government have caused alarm in Israel as they worry about the stability of their peace treaty with Egypt, this only points towards the necessity of having a nuclear arsenal.
In response to Dr. Cohen, two Georgia Tech Professors gave their response to the issue. The first, Dr. Lawrence Reuben, questioned the ideas presented in the book by stating that among other things, the revelation of a nuclear program could lead to more instability with a domino effect of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East using Israel as their justification for having the weapons. The revelation of Israeli nuclear arms would only exacerbate the threat perception held by other countries in the region, emboldening Iran and creating a power vacuum in which it can place itself as the leader by pointing out a verifiable double standard that the west has held in regard to Israel.
Dr. Reuben was followed by Dr. Jarrod N. Hayes, who called himself the devil’s advocate in his response to the book-based lecture. He implied that Israel could stand in the way of the “Global Zero” plan, but only after significant cut backs by the US and Russia, and that Iran’s nuclear movement only involves Israel when mentioned by the speech writers. He denounces Israel as caught in a system which recognizes that neighbors are its enemies. Governments change and friends become enemies as a result and therefore will never disarm as it cannot be a “good faith player.” Conversely, Hayes argued that nuclear weapons could play a role in deterrence as costs would be too high for retaliation.
Regardless of their position, each presenter agreed that Israel’s revelation of its nuclear weapons program will be a long way off in the future. With the constant threat of war and regional destabilization in the region, there will never be that “right moment” for Israel to reveal its arms program and to instigate change. It is the hope of Dr. Cohen that through his book and his lectures there will begin to be a more open discussion of the subject with ensuing debate.
Report prepared by Georgia Tech student Shannon V. Lindsey