My Promised Land VIII The Project 1967

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


VIII     The Project 1967


1967 is not about the Six Day War. It is about the Dimona nuclear reactor. It is not even about the role Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons played in that war. (Cf. Avner Cohen (2007) “Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons,” Arms Control Today, 37:5, June 12-17.) .Ari’s father was a young chemist at the Weizmann Institute and, therefore, was privy to the private discussions, rumours and gossip about Dimona. In addition to overhearing conversations, Ari also had the books on his father’s shelves that clearly suggested what the project was about. As he writes, “At the age of ten I already knew that the bespectacled engineers and diffident physicists around me were in their own way part of a mythic (my italics) undertaking.” (176)

I will return to the examination of the project as a mythic undertaking. For those who have not read Avner Cohen’s groundbreaking 1998 excellent book, Israel and the Bomb, Ari’s chapter should be read for the summaries borrowed from Avner of the political debates leading up to the decision to build a bomb, how Israelis did so with French help and what takes place there now. I thought at first that Avner would be the hero and central figure of this chapter. After all, Avner blew the cover entirely on Dimona, yet, in spite of virtually everything of key relevance being known about this deep and dark secret, Ari writes, “Officially, however, the nuclear reactor at Dimona is still shrouded in ambiguity. Israel state policy does not allow Israelis to discuss Dimona publicly. I respect this policy and I obey it, and I cleared this chapter with the Israeli censor.”

Avner did not. There is an essential paradox. Ari relies extensively on someone who had credentials in analyzing the nuclear arms race and the moral issues associated with it, Avner Cohen. He read Avner’s book which revealed the secret to the full glare of publicity and relied on it extensively. But Avner did not have the book checked and approved by the Israeli censor. As a result, Avner told me at the time, that he had to flee Israel before the book came out when he received messages that he would be arrested. He stayed away for three years. When he eventually returned, the headlines in one Israeli newspaper read that he would be arrested on arrival. Avner had done his best to undercut that possibility by alerting a number of American papers. As it turned out, he was interrogated for 50 hours but was not placed under arrest. Since then he has travelled back and forth to Israel and was even the Forscheimer Visiting Professor at HebrewUniversity in 2005. He has since published even more extensively on the subject, including his 2010 volume, The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.

Ari does not try to summarize everything that Avner wrote about Israel’s development of the bomb even in the early stages referred to in the book.. For example, Ari does not write about Israel’s clandestine importation of yellowcake from Argentina during 1963-1964 exposed by William Burr and Avner Cohen in the National Security Archive Briefing Book No, 432 or the summary piece in last year’s February issue of Foreign Policy. But Avner, I thought, would have been a perfect example of a person Ari likes to profile in each chapter. After all, Avner won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation research and writing award not once, but twice (1990 and 2004) and was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) twice as well (1997-98 and 2007-08). He was co-director of the Project on Nuclear Arms Control in the Middle East at the Security Studies Program at MIT from 1990 to 1995 and has hopped around the USA as a visiting professor at many American universities. He is the world expert on the Israeli nuclear program and an expert in general on nuclear development.

I, of course, have no problem with Ari citing and borrowing from Avner but deciding not to feature Avner in this chapter. But why could Ari not engage and discuss why he differed from Avner in his interpretations? I had a very long talk with Avner yesterday on this subject and others. Avner was in his office at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Avner was flattered that he was quoted and cited so extensively. But he offered no explanation of why Ari totally ignored all of Avner’s criticisms of the program except that those criticisms did not fit the apologetics he was developing. For example, Ari writes, “In order to create and uphold a Jewish state in the Middle East, a protective umbrella had to be (my italics) unfurled above the fledgling endeavor, a structure that would protect the Jews from the animosity they provoked when they entered the land.” (177) Had to??? That is not a given; that is a question. It was a question at the time and remains a question. It is a question Avner wrestles with. Ari falls back on his necessitarian proposition again just as he did with the clearing of the Arab villages. If we were to succeed, the villages had to go. If Israel needed to protect itself, then the bomb had to be developed. Avner could not be the figure at the centre of the chapter because Avner undercut any such proposition.

Why was such a development necessary according to Ari? Because “the protective umbrella of the West was slowly furling.” (177) Ari’s argument is that Arab nationalism was on the rise in the mid-1950s and Arab nations were modernizing and militarizing rapidly. At the same time, “the colonial era was coming to an end, Europe was in retreat, and Israel was left on its own in a hostile desert.” (177) The colonial era was near its end. Europe was retreating from its colonies, but what had that to do with having a nuclear deterrent?

Though not explicitly stated, the suggestion is that when America faced down both Britain and France over Suez in 1956, Israel had been abandoned by both Europe and the USA. Why does Ari not just say this? Because David Ben Gurion made his decision, against considerable opposition within his own government, in 1955, before the Suez crisis. Suez was really part of a new strategy of establishing regional hegemony by Israel and the bomb was viewed as a tool to consolidate that hegemony. If there was any effort to isolate Israel or to abandon Israel, it was not the result of Israel opting to develop the bomb. It was a result of Israel’s determination to pursue military hegemony in the Middle East. Any isolation or abandonment as Ari dubs it was not the cause of that isolation but the result of the pursuit of military hegemony.

Perhaps the pursuit of hegemony was a correct course of action. Perhaps the pursuit of supposed self-reliance – another essential pillar in the Israel myth – was justified. But there is no rational justification to be found in this book. Just as the clearing of the villages was a necessary act of evil that Israel could now admit, the development of the nuclear bomb was a necessary act that Israel had to undertake if Israel was to survive. In the end, the need to survive  is the bottom line explanation for all actions, but it belongs to the arena of myth creation because the connection between the act and its reason is taken as a given rather than run through a critical examination.

Does Ari’s account, as brief as it is, have any validity? The doctrine of deterrence, or more formally with respect to nuclear weapons, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is that if you dare to use nuclear weapons against me, we will launch our weapons against you. Each side has to assure the other that they have both the capacity for a second strike, the will to use such weapons and that mutual destruction would result if either side resorted to their use. There was, of course, an underlying paradox. If the weapons had to be used, then they were useless for they were there only as a deterrent. Therefore, they were only useful if they were never used. If used, they had failed in their function.

There was no parallel between the East-West deterrent theory and Israel’s strategy. The other side did not have nuclear weapons. It just had many more states, many more soldiers and much greater overall resources. So Israel had a variation in this deterrence strategy. If you ever try to overwhelm us or eliminate us, we will unleash total destruction on that enemy state in turn. The bomb was intended to help even the odds. This is what Ari called the existential insurance policy. But the same logic applied. If Israel had to use its nuclear weapons, it was only because their deterrent function had failed. If we die, then you die as well.

Why would enemy states not suspect that Israel might resort to pre-emptive use? After all, Israel resorted to a pre-emptive attack in the 1967 war. Why wouldn’t one or more of the enemy states try to develop a bomb of their own? If the enemy states believed in the possibility of per-emption, then Israel having a nuclear capacity might stimulate an enemy state to try to develop a nuclear capacity. Given this possibility, why not ardently seek some kind of a peace deal with Arab states as actually eventually happened with Egypt and Jordan? If, however, you believed, as David Ben Gurion evidently did, “that the Arab-Israeli conflict was deep and irresolvable” then that would be a fruitless endeavour. But in hindsight of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement and the Jordan-Israeli agreement, why does Ari not question such reasoning? Why does he just seem to accept it in toto?

Instead, Ari simply records the views of Ben Gurion’s opponents at the time, namely, the Middle East was too unstable an area for nuclear deterrence to work and, therefore, Israel was the one most likely to be hit by a first strike and, therefore, Israel should not give any reason for its enemies to seek to develop nuclear weapons. The answer to that is given by the father of the Israeli bomb. “If they want a bomb, they can develop a bomb. They do not need Israel to inspire them to get one.” The Engineer who developed the bomb becomes the central hero of the chapter, not Avner.

So Ari tells the story of the father of the Israeli bomb whose heart was hardened in 1943 when his father was gunned down driving to his orange grove. The hard heart was then solidified in the 1948 war when he also learned how resourceful, capable and bold he could be. So Ben Gurion’s decision, Peres’ execution and the Engineer’s superb management brought the bomb into being in time for the 1967 war.

As a result of that war, the fear of extinction had been felt in every Israeli Jewish bone. At the same time, as a result of the one-sided quick victory, Israel had a new sense of omnipotence. Maybe it did not need the bomb, the first of which had been produced in 1966. The Engineer believed, however, that only with the bomb could Israel ensure that Jews would not be exterminated. For, according to Ari, the Engineer had flattened Arab villages and forced Arabs to flee. He knew “that they would always want to flatten our own villages.” (189) Just as the engineer had sought vengeance for the gunning down of his father, they would always seek vengeance.. An ultimate deterrent was needed that would force them to pause.

But Israel did not want to stimulate a nuclear arms race. Hence the doctrine of strategic opacity. Life had to be lived as if Dimona did not exist. Let everyone know you have a bomb. But never admit it. More importantly, always act strategically as if you did not have a bomb. “Israel would be a nuclear power but would act as if it were not.” (190) The development of nuclear weapons and Israel’s version of a deterrent strategy combined with the strategy of opacity allowed Israelis to live normal lives for a decade. Furthermore, according to Ari, it was the possession of the bomb “that gave Israel half a century of relative security.” (192)

Why does the bomb get the credit, assuming credit is due? Is there any evidence to suggest that peace was a by-product of the bomb? In the only time that consideration was given about using the bomb in the initial wave of defeats Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War, the use of the bomb as at least a threat was considered. The threat never had to be employed. However, when the threat of an enemy state emerged to actually develop a bomb, Israeli exclusivity had to be maintained. The Osiris reactor in Iraq was bombed. So was the Syrian effort to build a reactor. Iran has built a number of reactors and imported enough centrifuges to produce the material needed for a bomb. Israel rattled the cage so loud, it pushed the West into economic sanctions which in turn pushed the Iranians into the current negotiations. The West presumably had to act lest Israel attack Iran, not with nuclear weapons but with heavy bunker bombs.

So runs one thesis. But Israel’s superiority in conventional weaponry even more that Iran developing a bomb, was the real catalyst that stimulated the strong economic sanctions and then the threats that brought Iran to the negotiating table. It was not Israel’s possession of a bomb, If Iran backs away, even on the global scale, and if there was a threat to Iran that played a significant role, conventional arms posed the effective threat not the possession of the bomb.

According to Ari, “Dimona was the inevitable outcome of the valley, the orange grove, Masada, Lydda, and the housing estate.” (197) They are all not only causally linked, each link is a necessary result of the previous one. That is the tragedy, and for Ari it is a Greek tragedy, but one that is still being played out. “We brought not only water to the Negev but heavy water. We brought not only agricultural modernity to the land but nuclear modernity. Because between the Holocaust and revival, between horror and hope, between life and death – we did the colossal deed of Dimona. And to this day it is still impossible to know if this deed is a blessing for generations to come or a malignant curse.” (197)

And we will never know unless there is a much more probing analysis than Ari provides. For he never once offers any evidence:

a) that David Ben Gurion was right and the nuclear deterrent was needed;

b) that the nuclear weapon did deter;

c) that the nuclear weapon continues to deter.

The evidence suggests that it was the air capacity of Israel that not simply deterred but prevented her enemies from developing s nuclear bomb. Whether or not the Israeli possession of a bomb stimulated the efforts of Israel’s enemies, it was only the quality of Israel’s conventional arms that prevented other states in the region from developing a nuclear capacity.

Was the bomb necessary? Was it desirable? Was it counter-productive and useless?  Did it defend against an existential threat or did it reinforce an ideology that Israel was under a constant existential threat?  Was its real function only prestige and the development of the by-products of Israeli technological prowess? Further, even if the nuclear deterrent had played a positive role, had it also played a negative role? In either case, was the doctrine of opacity totally obsolete and only a stimulant to suspicion of Israeli intentions reinforcing Israel’s sense of exceptionalism and its self-righteousness?

Like the nuclear bomb itself, however, Ari’s chapter is useless for any critical strategic analysis of Israel’s decision to develop nuclear weapons or for persisting in upholding the doctrine of opacity with respect to nuclear weapons. (See Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller (2010) “Bringing Israel’s Bomb Out of the Basement: Has Nuclear Ambiguity Outlived Its Shelf Life,” Foreign Affairs, 89:5, September/October,  30-44.) The strategic utility of Dimona affects the current crisis with Iran. Here, in spite of the doctrine of opacity, the strategic doctrine with respect to nuclear weapons is now played in a high key. It is no longer a matter of refusing to discuss the issue and then sending planes on a secret mission to bomb reactors under development, or, in the case of Iran, secretly assassinating Iranian scientists or using electronic bugs to subvert the program.

The central question that is not raised or even discussed is whether Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons hampers and undercuts efforts at non-proliferation in the Middle East or, instead, becomes a major catalyst for stimulating such an arms race. Is Israel under a potential existential threat from Iran in reality, and, if so, is the bomb necessary or even useful in countering that existential threat, or is the bomb there mostly to reinforce the sense that Israel is constantly under an existential threat? Or will Israel will always be because, in Ben Gurion’s words, the Arabs in the Middle East, and Muslims in general will never forgive Israel for the Jewish return to the Middle East and more specifically the necessary ethnic cleaning that Israel had to undertake to ensure the basic living room for a viable state in its ancient homeland?

This is the bottom line premise of the reconstructed mythology.