The blurb on the cover by Israeli journalist/historian Tom Segev says that "Cohen's book will necessitate the rewriting of Israel's entire history." There is something to this.
This exellent historical overview of the evolution of Israel's nuclear program suggests that the Israeli government's quest for a nuclear arsenal was a major unrecorded factor in a number of the critical junctures in the country's history. According to Cohen, three men were the father's of Israel's nuclear program: Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the nation's political leader; Prof. Ernst David Bergman, his chief scientist; and Shimon Peres (then director general of the Defense Ministry and deputy defense minister), BG's chief executive officer. "Israel's nuclear project was conceived in the shadow of the Holocaust," writes Cohen. "The determination not to be helpless again, a commitment to the idea that Jews should control their own fate, characterized Ben-Gurion's determined campaign for Jewish statehood after the Second World War. It also inspired his pursuit of nuclear weapons."
Ben-Gurion, and his protégé Peres, had a great belief in the ability of science to compensate for a lack of numbers and natural resources. Because of Israel's geopolitical circumstances, Ben-Gurion suffered from a strategic pessimism, telling one of his aides: "I could not sleep all night, ever for one second. I had one fear in my heart: a combined attack by all Arab armies." His solution to this danger was: l) to seek a formal alliance with one or more of the Western powers (an unsuccessful quest); and 2) to develop a nuclear deterrent capability.
In a farewell address to the employees of RAFAEL (the Armaments Development Authority) on June 27, l963, eleven days after he announced his final resignation from the premiership, he provided his justification for the nuclear project: "I am confident that science is able to provide us with the weapon that will secure the peace, and deter our enemies."
President Eisenhower's l953 Atoms for Peace Program appeared to offer Israeli policy-makers an avenue to develop their nuclear dreams. This did lead to the establishment of the small Nachal Soreq Nuclear Center, under American auspices, but anything more ambitious was prevented by American conditions against utilizing the program for military purposes. Since most of the few Israeli senior decision-makers and scientists involved in the project believed that Israel could not develop a nuclear potential on its own, another foreign source had to be found.

Suez, Sevres, Dimona

Since l953 Shimon Peres had advocated the cultivation of France as the primary external source for Israeli armaments and military technology. The Suez Crisis in l955-56 offered the opportunity Peres was waiting for. When Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on July 26, l956, Peres advocated responding positively to the French prime minister Mollet government's request for Israeli participation in a tripartite alliance with England to regain control of the Suez Canal. According to Cohen's documented and verbal sources, one of Peres's primary motivations for saying that "under certain circumstances I believe that we would be so prepared," was the belief that this was the opportunity Israel had been waiting for to get a nuclear reactor. According to his l995 memoirs, Peres wrote that the nuclear issue was discussed briefly at the end of the secret Sevres Conference (Oct. 22-24), which cemented the British-French-Israeli cooperation. He wrote: "Before the final signing, I asked Ben-Gurion for a brief adjournment, during which I met Mollet and (Foreign Minister) Bourges-Maunoury alone. It was here that I finalized with those two leaders an agreement for the building of a nuclear reactor at Dimona, in southern Israel, and the supply of natural uranium to fuel it."
Alongside natural uranium, heavy water was also needed from an external source. Since the American Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) refused to supply it without placing it under peaceful use safeguard regulations, the Israeli Mapai-dominated government used its good connections with the Norwegian Labor Party, the longtime dominant force in Norwegian politics, to obtain the necessary heavy water through a process of negotiations (l956-l959), without being constrained by safeguards and inspections. Ironically, these same good connections were to be used 35 years later for peaceful purposes, to prepare the Oslo Accords.
The next major historical juncture affected by the nuclear program was the l967 Six-Day War. Israeli interpretations of the events focus on false Soviet intelligence reports of an imminent Israeli attack on Syria, which led to a series of miscalculations by Nasser. Most accounts agree that a series of miscalculations by Egypt, Syria, Israel and the UN contributed to the outbreak of war.
Cohen suggests that the nuclear issue should be taken into account as one of the factors that led to the war. He writes that in 1967 "Dimona was not the cause of Nasser's miscalculation," but as the crisis evolved, "he may have entertained the idea that an Israeli action would provide him an opportunity to attack Dimona in 1967." On May l7, a few days after the crisis had begun, "two Egyptian MiG 2ls made a brief high-altitude reconnaissance flight over the Dimona nuclear facility." That was also the day that UN secretary general U Thant withdrew the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) from Sinai. Cohen writes that "on the evening of May l7th, General Aharon Yariv, the head of the (IDFs) Intelligence Branch, altered the basic assessment he had provided during the previous two days: Egypt's intentions were no longer benign, they appeared to be aggressive." On May 2l, prime minister Eshkol told the Defense Ministerial Committee that he feared the Egyptian intent was "to stop Israeli shipping through the (Tiran) straits, and would bomb the nuclear reactor. A full military assault would follow." The following night, Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
Cohen believes that anxieties about a possible attack on Dimona contributed to a breaking of the deadlock in the newly formed National Unity Government on June 2, leading to Israel's preemptive action on June 6.
While the debate about whether president John F. Kennedy was a peace-maker or a Cold Warrior continues among historians, Cohen writes that "no American president was more concerned with the danger of nuclear proliferation than John Fitzgerald Kennedy." A l962 study prepared by the Office of the Secretary of Defense stated that Israel was considered the most likely proliferator after China, followed by Sweden and India. With the specter of between 15 and 25 nuclear nations by the 1970s haunting him, Kennedy applied pressure, first on Ben-Gurion, and later on Eshkol, to allow American inspection of Dimona, to ensure that the facility was only being used for peaceful purposes. A series of eight American inspections (the Israelis insisted on calling them "visits") took place at Dimona between l961 and l969. Cohen make it clear that the inspectors were not given sufficient time or access to reveal all that was going on at the nuclear facility.

The Parameters for a Nuclear Program

The book also elucidates the internal Israeli debate about nuclear weapons. On December 2l, l960, American political and journalistic pressure (articles in Time and The New York Times) induced Ben-Gurion to admit in an address before the Knesset that the facility at Dimona was not a "textile plant" or a "desert agricultural station," but rather "a research reactor with a capacity 24,000 thermal kilowatts…which will also be used to train Israeli scientists and technologists for the future of an atomic power station." He stated that the reactor "is designed exclusively for peaceful purposes."
This public revelation led to the formation of a citizen's lobby called the Committee for the Denuclearization of the Middle East, supported by some of Israel's leading intellectuals such as professors Martin Buber, Efraim Auerbach and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and backed by Dr. Nahum Goldmann, the influential president of the World Zionist Organization. Socialist intellectual Eliezer Livneh wrote an article in Ha'aretz in l963 entitled "A Last Moment Warning," in which he argued that the nuclearization of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be catastrophic to the region. Within the Zionist body politic, the centrist Liberal Party and the leftist Mapam party were both opposed to the introduction of nuclear weapons.
A second form of opposition came from security-minded leaders opposed to the Ben-Gurion-Dayan-Peres analysis that nuclear deterrence was the key to Israel's long-term survival. Led by former Palmach commander Yigal Allon and former Haganah chief of staff Israel Galili (then leaders of the leftist Achdut Ha'avoda Party and ministers in the government), they believed that Israel's security should depend upon conventional weapons.
During the course of this internal debate, and in response to American pressures, Peres and Ben-Gurion developed the formulation that "Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." It was left to president Johnson and prime minister Eshkol to officially formulate the parameters of the Israeli-American compromise on the nuclear program: that "Israel would not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, while the U.S. would provide Israel with sophisticated conventional armaments so that Israel could defend itself without recourse to nuclear weapons." As part of its compliance with the l963 Partial Test Ban Treat (PTBT), Israel asserted that non-introduction included no testing, while the Americans insisted it also should include no possession.
Cohen writes that "according to credible reports, on the eve of the (l967) war Israel 'improvised' two deliverable explosive devices." He concludes that "if physical possession of nuclear weapons is the criterion by which a state is judged to be a nuclear weapon state, then by May l967, Israel was a nuclear weapon state. In a political and strategic sense, however, Israel was not a nuclear weapon state. The Eshkol government did not renege on its pledge not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region."

Against Nuclear Proliferation

The advent of the l968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was the background of the final American attempt to prevent Israel from going nuclear. While Israel was not a member of the Conference on Disarmament which negotiated the treaty, it supported the UN General Assembly non-binding endorsement of the treaty. President Johnson's secretary of state Dean Rusk and assistant secretary of defense Paul Warnke tried to pressure the Israeli government into officially signing the treaty. While UN ambassador Abba Eban and deputy prime minister Yigal Allon felt this would become a major problem in Israel-American relations, Eshkol's government decided not to sign the NPT "without new and firmer American security assurances, in the form of an alliance," which were not forthcoming.
The last American inspection visit to Dimona took place on Saturday, July 12, l969. Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, was always chosen for these visits, because few people would be around to notice the activity.
Efforts against nuclear proliferation, culminating in the establishment of the NPT regime, were promoted by two Democratic presidents, Kennedy and Johnson. When Republican Richard M. Nixon became president on January 20, l969, and Henry Kissinger became a central player in the security and foreign policy of his administration, the American attitude towards Israel's nuclear program, and towards international treaties in general, changed (just as they did when George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton). "The CIA assessment (from l967) that Israel was a nuclear weapon state was no longer a matter of 'unconfirmed intelligence reports,' but was shared more openly with Congress, and even leaked to the media." On July l8, l970, The New York Times diplomatic correspondent Hedrick Smith wrote that "for at least two years, the U.S. Government has been conducting its Middle East policy on the assumption that Israel either possesses an atomic bomb or has the component parts available for quick assembly." At this point it was understood that further American inspection visits to Dimona were meaningless, and they were discontinued.
Cohen writes that The New York Times article "signified the beginning of a new era in the public history of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. It revealed what had been known by some for at least two years - Israel was a nuclear weapons state and should be treated as such." And this was l6 years before former Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu's revelations in l986.

Nuclear Secrecy and Democracy

The author consciously chooses to end the book at this point. Thus he does not deal with the possible effect of Israel's nuclear program on circumscribing Sadat and Syrian president Assad's goals when they launched the Yom Kippur War in October l973, on Sadat's motivation to reach a peace agreement with Israel in l977, and on Saddam Hussein's decision not to attach unconventional warheads to the 40-odd Scud missiles he aimed at Israel during the second Gulf War in l99l.
Neither does the book deal with the dangers of a nuclearized Middle East conflict if either Iran or Iraq gains a nuclear weapons potential, alongside Israel, a possibility that many observers believed will be realized within the next few years. This question of whether MAD, Mutually Asssured Destruction, as developed during the Cold War can be applied to the Middle East as a rational theory, was one of the key motivations for the establishment of the Israeli Committee for the Denuclearization of the Middle East back in l962, and it has been of concern to the small group of Israeli anti-nuclear activists ever since.
In his epilogue, Cohen notes that there is an "inherent tension between nuclear secrecy and democracy." Nuclear ambiguity, or what he prefers to call "nuclear opacity," by its very nature stifles democratic discussion, and also tends to infringe on individual rights and academic freedom of research and expression.
Cohen decided to write this book in l994, after the Israeli military censor informed him that "for reasons of state" he was banned from publishing an academic monograph on the subject of Israel's nuclear opacity. With the publication of this book in America in l998, the Israeli Defense Ministry's Security Division warned Cohen, who has been based at Washington academic research institutes for a number of years, that he would be arrested for questioning if he tried to visit Israel. Eventually, the book was published in Hebrew, and in the spring of 200l Cohen came for a visit and participated in public discussions on the book at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University.
Cohen argues in his epilogue that the time may have come for Israel to move beyond ambiguity and opacity, so as to preserve its democratic culture, the freedom of academic and technological innovation, and to clarify its nuclear objectives, i.e., its agreement in principle with the establishment of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East concurrently with a comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. However, he qualifies this position by stating that any hasty movement beyond opacity will be counterproductive and even dangerous, if it is not accompanied by significant progress in the peace process towards a permanent settlement.
While the paper trail is not complete because of still-classified archival material, this book is the product of eight years of meticulous research of unclassified material, and of interviews with most of the relevant living Israelis and Americans. As Cohen writes in the introduction, "this work is not the last word on the subject, but rather an opening of an historical dialogue." Anyone interested in the fate of Israel and the Middle East should read this book.