Shopping Cart   |   Help

The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb

Avner Cohen

Share |

Paper, 416 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13699-0
$28.00 / £19.50

October, 2010
Cloth, 416 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13698-3
$85.00 / £58.50

Copyright information


In an interview on the eve of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary in 2008, author David Grossman reflected on his country’s condition: "Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss." Grossman is not the first Israeli to refer to the angst hovering over Israel, but he is one of few who link it, by contrasting it, with the bomb.

Today, Israel is the Middle East’s military powerhouse, the region’s only state with nuclear weapons, but this has not alleviated Israelis’ sense of insecurity. They still are surrounded by enemies who publicly proclaim their desire to see the destruction of Israel. Thus, sixty years after their country was created, Israelis still face existential threats. Despite all the remarkable achievements of Israel as a state and a society, the Israeli identity is still infused with the collective experience of being under siege, and the Israeli collective psyche cannot be understood without considering the centrality of this sense of siege, the old Jewish "the-world-is-against-us" outlook.

This mentality or, better, "disposition" stems from the Israeli condition of having to grapple with the very legitimacy of Israel as a state. Israel’s existence is still not formally recognized by most of its regional neighbors, especially its most immediate neighbors, the Palestinians. Israel seeks normalcy, and Zionism as its national ethos means normalizing the condition of the Jewish people. But after sixty years this normalcy is still elusive.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Israel was an abnormal, illegitimate, and illegal political entity that was bound to disappear from the pages of history, Israelis interpreted his statement as openly expressing the desire to have Israel obliterated by the bomb. When he denied that interpretation and claimed that Iran had no intention of dropping nuclear weapons on Israel—in fact, that Iran has no intention of developing them and all he meant was that Israel itself, as a matter of historical force, would cease to exist as a Jewish state, he touched an Israeli nerve.

When Palestinian mainstream intellectuals and politicians lose faith in the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and proclaim support for a one-state binational solution, they also touch an Israeli nerve. Those who support this view argue that left to demography—the Palestinian birthrate is much higher than the Israelis’—and that over time Israel would cease to be a Jewish-Zionist state. This also is Hamas’s historical outlook on the conflict.

Israel’s conflict with its next-door neighbors (the Palestinians) and its more distant neighbors (the Iranians) concerns recognition and legitimacy. As long as the core of the conflict, the Palestinian issue, remains unresolved, the rest of the conflict will also remain unresolved. Notwithstanding Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel still has not been recognized by the majority of its Arab neighbors and the majority of Muslim countries around the rest of the world (the United Nations has 192 member nations, of which fifty-two are Muslim countries, most of which do not recognize Israel).

Just as Israel lacks legitimacy from its neighbors with regard to its identity as a Jewish-Zionist state with recognized and defined borders, it also suffers problems with legitimacy at home. Six decades after independence, Israel still does not have a constitution, the fundamental document by which a citizenry defines the contract that links it with its state.

The absence of a constitution means that none of the issues concerning Israel’s identity as a Jewish-Zionist state has been determined and resolved: the nature of Israel as a Jewish-Zionist state, the relation between the Jewish state and its non-Jewish communities, the relations between Israel and the rest of the world’s Jewry, and the like. One consequence of governing without a constitution is that it reinforces the old Jewish idea of governance as a communal arrangement built on consensus (such as the Censora).

At home and outside, Israel is defined by its problems with legitimacy. The lack of recognized borders and the absence of a constitution are two faces of the unresolved, undefined, and even opaque nature of the Israeli condition. If normalcy is the goal of classical Zionism, if the driving idea of Israel is creating a homeland for the Jewish people and thereby normalizing the Jewish condition, this normalcy has not been attained and is still far away. Amimut, indeed, is the proper Hebrew term to describe the Israeli condition more broadly.

Israel’s special bargain with the bomb, centered on amimut, is a microcosm of the Israeli larger predicament . The close relationship between the two, the Israeli condition and the bomb, can be seen in the metaphor that Israeli essayist Ari Shavit suggested, seeing the Israeli bomb as a "glass greenhouse shield" encapsulating and shielding Israel’s existence. As long as Israel exists in a hostile, conflict-ridden environment, it needs a shield. But this shield—this greenhouse—is not a substitute for normalcy. The bomb is not a substitute for peace with and recognition by neighbors. In fact, the bomb is a manifestation of this abnormal situation.

Israel’s bargain with the bomb reflects one of the great achievements of the Zionist enterprise. David Ben-Gurion thought of that greenhouse shield from the very start, soon after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He took action to initiate the nuclear project by the end of Israel’s first decade, and the outcome became available on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War. Realizing this hope took less than a decade.

The bomb has made two contributions to the Zionist enterprise. It gave Israel that "greenhouse glass," a deterrence shield that allowed Israel to grow and flourish in a hostile environment. The bomb may also have helped lower the intensity of the conflict and even may have contributed to the recognition of Israel by Egypt and Jordan. But it has not transformed the core of the conflict. It has not been able to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to reach a realistic compromise; it has not even led them to a cold coexistence with Israel. In fact, the presence of the bomb may have even strengthened Israeli intransigence.

Furthermore, as long as Israel can maintain a regional nuclear monopoly, the bomb gives it existential comfort, what Shalheveth Freier referred to as "assurances in times of gloom." But once that monopoly is no longer assured, the old Jewish angst will resurface. Israelis are more anxious today about an Iranian bomb that does not (yet) exist than Iranians are about the sizable Israeli arsenal of atomic destruction, which they believe does exist. The bomb has not liberated Israelis from that feeling of being "at the edge of abyss."

Israel’s bargain with the bomb is a microcosm of the Israeli condition in another sense. The bargain with the bomb suffers from the same basic flaws that characterize the Israeli predicament more generally. Just as the Israeli condition is typified by problems with legitimacy, the Israeli bomb lacks recognition, legitimacy, and acknowledgment. Israel is the world’s sixth nuclear-weapons state, and yet it has never been recognized as such by others or even its own people. Unlike all the other nuclear-weapons states, including India, Pakistan, and even North Korea, Israel has yet to find a way to acknowledge its nuclear status.

If amimut reflects a fundamental feature of Israel’s national predicament, it also is the ultimate mark of Israel’s nuclear condition. Taboo and nonacknowledgment at home, exceptionalism and lack of recognition abroad, are two sides of the same legitimacy problem. If I am correct, the problem of amimut is more than an issue of politics and strategy; it is an issue of Israeli identity.

In conclusion, I want to suggest some abstract and philosophical ideas that capture and connect some of this book’s themes. First, a few words about the historicity of Israel’s bargain, specifically about its growth from infancy into maturity. In his Knowledge and Human Interests, Jürgen Habermas offered a variant of the Hegelian-Marxist project of historicizing the human enterprise. Habermas argued that human societies are defined by their interest in physical control and in intersubjective understanding and how they respond to each.

The interest in physical control is the interest in controlling nature, which leads to the creation of agriculture and architecture, technology and engineering. The interest in intersubjective understanding is the ability to communicate and reflect through language and ultimately to transform personal wonder into intellectual products. This interest gives rise to language and culture, religion and folklore, literature and art, philosophy and science.

Habermas argues that beyond a certain point in pursuing these interests, these human practices may become counterproductive, even detrimental, to our existence. Continuing to pursue physical control after it already has been achieved can lead to the wasteful consumption of material goods, the waste and spoilage of resources, and pollution and ecological disasters. Likewise, pursuing and intersubjective understanding beyond a certain point may lead to xenophobia, nationalism, racism, and belligerence.

This leads, then, to a need for a third interest to be addressed, what Habermas refers to as the interest in authentication. By "authentication" Habermas means being tuned to the historicity of the human endeavor, the need to address the authentic needs of today, rather than to ritualize interests that were met long ago. This outlook could acquire a Freudian flavor. That is, as children grow up, vulnerable and exposed, they develop various defense and denial mechanisms and the behavioral practices associated with them that allow them to cope with certain difficulties and challenges of childhood. But ritualizing these very practices when they are adults may be counterproductive and damage their perspective of reality. The mark of a healthy and well-integrated adult is the ability to modify, even abandon, those behavioral responses that used to be beneficial in the past and instead to adopt modes of behavior that address today’s needs and interests.

I believe that the same is true with amimut. From its very beginning, amimut was a unique Israeli defensive (at times, even a denial) strategy designed to allow Israel to handle its early pursuit of nuclear capabilities. At that time, Israel was unsure about its ability to seek legitimacy for its nuclear pursuit and certainly was not ready to announce it. Israel had good reasons to be concerned about the risks of "introducing" nuclear weapons to the region. So amimut, with the United States’ blessing, allowed Israel to possess nuclear weapons without really "introducing" them.

Amimut served Israel well in the early days of its nuclear pursuit. But today, both Israel and the world are radically different. Israel’s original interests on the nuclear front have already been met, and amimut helped make it possible. Therefore, exhibiting the same defensive behavior regarding nuclear issues as if these interests have not yet been met may now be, or soon will be, counterproductive. Amimut forces Israel to maintain total nuclear secrecy, which is incompatible with the values of contemporary Israel. Israel thus needs to authenticate its nuclear conduct, at home and abroad, to make it compatible with today’s and tomorrow’s interests and norms, not with yesterday’s interests.

This leads me to my other conclusion. Israelis are mistaken in continuing to believe that there is a direct connection between amimut, on the one hand, and their possession of nuclear weapons, on the other hand. This equivocation may have been acceptable at a certain time, but by now it has outlived its usefulness. The belief that the two are inextricably linked is by now not only a myth but also an obstacle to seeing things differently, to moving beyond amimut.

In his annual report to Congress in 1862, Abraham Lincoln observed:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Israel’s past was not that quiet, but Lincoln’s assertion that the dogmas of the past are no longer adequate to the stormy present also applies to a nuclear Israel. The growing interest in a world free of nuclear weapons, in the production of nuclear energy, and Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons forces new choices and outlooks on Israel. The most important step toward this new thinking and new action is for Israel to begin divorcing itself from amimut. The notion that doing so is too perilous to contemplate also is a myth. Israel must disenthrall itself. Israel now must find a way to live more openly, honestly, and maturely with the nuclear issue. If Israel believes that it has the right to have the bomb as long as others have the bomb, it should find a way to say so. Israel does not have fewer rights than other states do, and among these rights is the right to self-defense, especially when Israel’s very existence is being threatened.

But Israel does not have fewer obligations, either. There are obligations to the international community and the norms of nonproliferation that this community adopted four decades ago, and there are domestic obligations to the rule of law and the values of democracy.

After sixty years, Israel should be less worried or defensive about proclaiming its rights, and it should also be more forthright and honest about accepting the obligations that civilized states have accepted.

Such an open and honest acceptance of rights and obligations would not, in itself, normalize the Israeli condition, but it would be a step in the right direction. It is time for Israel to take this step.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Copyrighted © 2010 by Avner Cohen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail us or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

About the Author

Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the Washington Office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. He has published on subjects as varied as nuclear proliferation and nuclear history, political theory, skepticism, and Israeli history. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb and the coeditor of Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity and The Institution of Philosophy.

top of page