About 'Israel and the Bomb' : History of the Book

History of the Book

Writing this book was not easy. It required overcoming scholarly, legal and personal difficulties. Some had to do with access to sources, archival and human; some with breaking an Israeli code of silence concerning the discussion of nuclear weapons. The latter was more taxing than the former. I had to abandon acquired habits and practices, and distance myself from modes of thought and speech into which I have been socialized from childhood.

Like other Israelis, I had internalized the norms governing the discourse on nuclear weapons, having learned that Israelis were not supposed to discuss their nation's nuclear weapons program. Israelis avoid uttering the words "nuclear weapons," using instead ambiguous phrases such as "nuclear option," and "nuclear capabilities," just as orthodox Jews would never utter God's Hebrew name, using all kinds of euphemisms instead. Over the years I have come to see these circumlocutions for what they were-burdensome and unnecessary rituals-but even to this day I still feel certain unease talking openly about Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Ambivalence toward and inhibition regarding nuclear weapons are not an Israeli invention-they were part of the cultural legacy of the nuclear age since the Manhattan Project. In Israel, however, these attitudes have been manifested in the extreme. The code of silence over the nuclear issue is a testimony of what Israelis call kedushat habitachon-the sacredness of security.

It is this tension between democratic norms and nuclear secrecy that brought me, in the early 1980s to reflect on the uniqueness of the Israeli nuclear case. I returned to Israel in 1982, after finishing my doctoral studies in the United States. Like many of my generation, I was influenced by the anti-nuclear consciousness of the early 1980s. I started then to ponder about the philosophical puzzles and paradoxes associated with nuclear weapons. The result was a collection of essays, Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity: The fundamental questions which my colleague Steven Lee and I published in 1986.

As I returned to Israel in 1982 I recognized that Israel has elevated the tension between nuclear secrecy and democracy to new heights. It did not occur to me then that a decade later this issue would become, for me, a very personal matter.

The seeds of this book were planted a few years later in a long article I wrote with Benjamin Frankel in 1987-88. In that article we elaborated the concept of "nuclear opacity" as a tool to account for the behavior of second-generation nuclear proliferators. Israel, of course, was our first and best case.

In 1989 I was awarded a research and writing grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for a project under the title entitled "Israel's Invisible Bomb: Culture, Politics and the Non-Proliferation Norm," to study domestic dimensions of Israel's nuclear posture. The initial research design was not historical-oriented since virtually no pertinent documents were known to be available.

I joined the Center of International Studies at MIT as a visiting scholar in May 1990 and was preparing to begin the research when these plans changed as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the ensuing crisis and Gulf War, the establishment of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, and the renewed Middle East peace process. These developments, because of their bearing on the nuclear question in the Middle East, changed the direction of my research. In 1991-92, while I codirected the MIT Project on Arms Control in the Middle East, I wrote and published numerous policy-oriented working papers and op-ed articles.

By 1992-93 I came to two realizations about the direction of my research. First, I became convinced of the importance of understanding the evolution of Israel's nuclear posture. I concluded that Israel's nuclear past was not only fascinating for historians, but that it also constrained the possibility of future arms control in the Middle East in ways that are not often appreciated by analysts and policy makers. Second, I discovered that there existed sufficient archival material to reconstruct the political history of Israel's nuclear weapons program.

These realizations changed the project's focus and methodology. It became primarily historical, focusing on the origins and evolution of Israel's nuclear opacity. The method is historical reconstruction and interpretation. On the Israeli side, I spent weeks of archival research in the period 1992-95 at the Israel State Archives (ISA) in Jerusalem, which, in accord with its thirty-year declassification policy, has opened most of the Foreign Ministry's documents for the period prior to 1966. There I also discovered most of the correspondence on nuclear issues between President John F. Kennedy and Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol.

Other Israeli archives were also useful. Many of Ben Gurion's personal diaries and letters have been declassified, and are now available at the Ben Gurion Archives (DBGA) at the Ben Gurion Research Center at Sdeh Boker. In the Weizmann Institute's archives in Rehovot I found documents on the birth of the nuclear physics department at the Institute and the break, in the early 1950s, of several Israeli nuclear physicists with the Ministry of Defense on the nuclear issue. In the nearby Chaim Weizmann Archives I found documents referring to Ben Gurion's scientific advisor and the founder of the IAEC, Ernst David Bergmann.

The remaining portion of this research was conducted in the United States, since Israel's nuclear opacity was a result of a joint American-Israeli effort to respond to their respective concerns about nuclear weapons and proliferation. I was lucky that in recent years a substantial number of American documents relevant to the evolution of Israel's nuclear opacity have been declassified, covering the period until 1967. My colleague Virginia Foran (who in the early 1990s was working at the National Security Archive) and I submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the correspondence between Kennedy and Ben Gurion, and Kennedy and Eshkol in the period 1992-94. By November 1995, we received some of those documents.

Since March 1994, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library (LBJL) in Austin, Texas, has kept me informed on newly declassified material. In 1995 I obtained declassified documents regarding the Eisenhower administration's reaction to Dimona from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (DDEL) in Abilene, Kansas. During my visits to the United States National Archives (USNA) in College Park, Maryland, I found in 1996 new information about the American visits to Dimona in the 1960s, especially the visits of 1964 and 1965.

In April 1994, after months of discussions with the Israeli military censor, he informed me that for reasons of state he decided to ban the publication of a long journal article that was based on this research. I learnt that this was the first time in Israel's that a product of academic research and scholarship, not a journalistic expose, was suppressed in its entirety by the censor. When all efforts to reach a compromise failed, I petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice to reverse the censor's decision. I soon realized, however, that the censor's objections had little to do with specific information I might have divulged-since during a nearly a year of legal correspondence the censor refused to tell me exactly what he found objectionable or harmful. Realizing that the legal case was costly, time consuming and under gag order, I decided in late 1994 to drop the case and end the legal battle.

That long journal article was never published, but it inspired me to complete a much larger work on the subject, this book.

(Adapted from the Epilogue and the Preface to Israel and the Bomb)

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