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The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb, by Avner Cohen.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.  370 pp.  $27.99


The added value of Avner Cohen’s new book on Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity—or as he prefers to call it, “amimut”—is at the descriptive level: interesting historical and anecdotal evidence and documentation on the birth, development, and supporting features of Israel’s bargain with the bomb. But analytically speaking, Cohen’s book is largely a disappointment. He is critical of amimut and informs his reader from the outset that the time has come for change. But when he attempts to support his thesis—on both domestic and strategic grounds—the result is weak and unsubstantiated.

It is quite clear that the impetus for writing this book was the domestic Israeli front, and the unacceptable costs that Cohen believes that Israel as a society and a state has paid for maintaining secrecy in the nuclear realm and upholding the national nuclear taboo. Intellectually, however, Cohen knows that the case for ending amimut must be anchored in strategic realities. The problem is that his two “strategic” chapters—which appear almost as an afterthought —offer a logic that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, especially for the more informed reader.

On the issue of taboo, it seems that Cohen cannot escape the chains of his own past experience—namely, the personal price that he paid with the taboo-keepers in Israel for writing his previous book on Israel and the Bomb. But this personal aversion to secrecy should not be confused with the strategic dimensions and implications of Israel’s policy of ambiguity and/or the discussion of whether the time has come for a change.

Cohen’s depiction of the taboo’s effect on society is troubling. His static portrayal fails to appreciate the reality that has evolved in Israel, especially over the past 10 to 15 years: the quite extensive debate that is carried out on this topic in Israel on a regular basis—in the media, at conferences, and in academic writing. Academics address the nuclear issue frequently and without concern. One of Cohen’s mistakes is to reduce “having a debate on the nuclear issue” to the presence of an active protest movement against the bomb—a problematic criterion for assessing whether Israelis discuss their nation’s nuclear policy.

Cohen has harsh words for the Israeli public—he regards Israelis as willing accomplices in a culture of non-debate of nuclear issues. He derides them and complains that they support the nuclear policy even though they don’t understand it. Even the educated, in his view, have little understanding of the “legal and political intricacies of the nonproliferation regime,” and blindly support amimut. From their position of ignorance, “Israelis regard compromising amimut as a direct threat to their national security.”

But Israelis might be smarter than Cohen gives them credit for. Indeed, they most likely well understand the rather straightforward strategic logic of nuclear ambiguity, which gives them an insurance policy at very low cost. They also seem to realize that “coming clean” will be viewed negatively world-wide, and will increase demands for Israel to disarm. Indeed, although Cohen assumes that people are holding on to their positions for the wrong reasons, they are more likely doing so for the right ones.

At the end of the day, the strongest advocate for the continuation of a nuclear taboo—in the sense that he will not admit to any erosion of the omnipresent norm—seems to be Avner Cohen himself. The taboo is actually the linchpin of his analysis—without it, his thesis crumbles.

On the strategic front—where the logic of amimut is solid and strong—Cohen’s attempt to undermine the policy is even more problematic. He provides a superficial and often tautological reasoning for ending amimut that rests on repeated assertions that the policy is anachronistic. But to say that “everybody knows” Israel is nuclear is not a compelling argument—this has been the situation for at least 25 years. And the original deal of amimut was in any case never about secrecy per se—it was rather grounded in the logic of maintaining a low profile. Therefore, Israel’s position of non-admission has importance, regardless of the facts that people know. Moreover, for deterrence to work, some information actually has to find its way into the public domain.

Despite what Cohen asserts, regional arms control dialogue in the Middle East can proceed—as it did in the early 1990s—without first revealing the nature of Israel’s nuclear program. And if lack of transparency really was a problem, what about other ambiguous WMD programs in the region? Moreover, regarding Iran’s developing nuclear program, the amimut reasoning portrayed by Cohen himself is so convincing that he doesn’t even attempt a counter-argument. Indeed, the analysis in this case ends up strengthening the case for amimut, rather than undermining it.

Overall, the book suffers from crippling tensions: between historical inquiry and strategic analysis, and between personal experience and national considerations. Cohen insists on emphasizing the secrecy, lack of truthfulness, and his interpretation of amimut as indication of Israeli shame, rather than focusing on the purposeful low-profile mix of nuclear deterrence and restraint which has been the successful hallmark of Israel’s policy of ambiguity over the years.

There may come a point where the best course for Israel would be to end amimut, but we’re not there yet. Cohen uses the Iranian nuclear issue as the primary hook for his call for a review of amimut. But the discussion that must come as a function of Iran’s nuclear program—whether due to increased pressure on Israel for greater openness or to Israel’s own strategic calculations—is not the natural outgrowth of Cohen’s analysis of the taboo. It is a discussion that should take place at the strategic level, unrelated to the intricacies of Israeli society’s bargain with the bomb that Cohen goes to such lengths to describe. And one can only hope that it will be a more rigorous discussion and debate than what the author seems to have hastily included in the current volume.

Emily B. Landau

Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)

Tel Aviv University