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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

Relaxing the Taboo: Israel Debates Nuclear Weapons
By Merav Datan


On February 2, 2000, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, held a brief, heated discussion on the state's nuclear policy. The decision to allow an open dialogue, which lasted less than an hour, followed a motion by Member of Knesset (MK) Issam Makhoul. During the discussion, several MKs walked out, others stayed and protested against the raising of the issue or heckled the speaker, and a few were asked to leave. A vote the following week on whether to hold a wider debate within the entire Knesset lost by 61 - 16 votes, from a total Knesset membership of 120. None of the cabinet ministers voted. Moreover, this was not an official confirmation by the Government of Israel that it has nuclear weapons since Makhoul relied on foreign information sources.

But the debate, short and sharp as it was, set a precedent. The ice is broken. Israel's open secret - called a nuclear option, nuclear capability, or nuclear arsenal - is more open and less secret than ever, and this trend is likely to continue. The background to this debate, its content, and its implications all point to a shift within Israel towards more transparency and accountability regarding the nation's nuclear history and policy. As the Knesset debate suggests, this shift is likely to be contentious and difficult at times, and is likely to be driven by a variety of concerns and interests.

Background to the Debate

In late November 1999, the popular daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot published excerpts from over 1,200 pages of transcripts of the trial of Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona. In 1986, Vanunu had disclosed photographs and information about Israel's nuclear program to the London Sunday Times, having left Israel earlier that year and converted to Christianity in Australia. Shortly after the disclosures - and a few days before the Sunday Times ran the story - Vanunu was lured to Rome and abducted by Israeli agents, then brought to Israel, charged with espionage and treason, and tried behind closed doors. In March 1988, he was sentenced to 18 years in solitary confinement. The transcripts of the trial were kept secret in the name of national security.

Late last year, Yediot Ahronot received permission from the State Prosecutor to publish excerpts of the trial following a petition filed four years previously. The State had responded to the petition by requesting and receiving time to decide what may be published. The revelations from the trial, which appeared on November 24, 1999, and over the next few days, included testimony by Vanunu regarding his motives, abduction, and personal history, as well as testimony by security agents that questioned him, the Sunday Times reporter who interviewed him, and former prime minister Shimon Peres, who had ordered that Vanunu be brought to Israel. Senior government and security personnel testified that Vanunu's disclosures did grave damage to national security.

The trial disclosures were accompanied by analysis and editorials in Yediot Ahronot and other Israeli newspapers regarding Israel's nuclear policy. Arguments were also presented that Vanunu's disclosures have strengthened Israel's deterrence capability. With that, there was support for maintaining Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, on the basis of the promise Israel has officially and repeatedly made that it "will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." One well known military analyst sees this promise, together with ambiguity, as essential for allowing the US and NATO allies to demand of Russia and China not to give nuclear assistance to Iran and Iraq, without being accused of a "double standard" for not preventing Israel's nuclear program.1 (This tendency within Israel towards short-sightedness regarding international perceptions is discussed below.)

The Knesset debate was requested by Arab MK Issam Makhoul of the Communist party, Hadash.2 His original request, which preceded the publication of the trial transcripts in Yediot Ahronot, was rejected. After the publication Makhoul raised the issue again with Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. Burg then proposed that the topic be brought to a closed meeting of the Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee for security considerations. Makhoul rejected this idea and petitioned the High Court of Justice to allow a debate in the Knesset plenum.

After consultations with MK Dan Meridor, head of the Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, and Minister Chaim Ramon, the prime minister's liaison with the Knesset, Burg decided to allow the discussion. He noted, when introducing the agenda item that the legal foundations had been set for a public debate, and that the Government of Israel, which is responsible for security, had decided that it was possible to hold the discussion.

The Debate

Makhoul took the floor amidst shouting and a mass exit by the entire Likud (centre-right) faction. "The heckling was then left to MKs from the extreme right National Union Party, the Russian Party Yisrael Beitenu, the ultra orthodox party, Shas, and even a few Labor (centre-left) MK's," reported one observer.3 During the ten minutes allotted, Makhoul was only able to read about a half to a third of his text, the only parts that then went into the Knesset record.A

Among the points Makhoul made were the following: that current foreign estimates place Israel's nuclear arsenal at 200-300 weapons, that "Israel has a huge stockpile of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and that it serves as the cornerstone for the nuclear arms race in the Middle East", that Israel has the responsibility for changing the course of the regional arms race, that accumulated nuclear waste poses environmental and health concerns, that the public has a right to know and debate this issue, and that the "messenger Vanunu" should be released from prison.

Minister Ramon then gave the government's ten-minute response, observing that Makhoul's presentation convinced him that the government's original opposition had been justified. He asserted that the public was involved in nuclear policy making through their elected representatives and Knesset bodies, that Makhoul's claims were unfounded, and the information he demands, "what we have and what we don't have", could undermine national security. Ramon also said that Vanunu had been ruled by the courts a traitor who revealed secrets to the enemy.

Ramon's statement of the official government policy included the pledge that "Israel won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East," which he repeated four times, over constant interruptions. (Four Arab MKs who interrupted Ramon were removed from the session). He went on to say that Israel supports the principle of nuclear non-proliferation, "but at the same time the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT], with all of its global importance, does not provide a fitting solution for our region as proved in the case of Iran and proved in the case of Iraq."4

MK Zehava Gal-On of the party Meretz (left of Labor) had the microphone for one minute, during which she defended Makhoul's motion on the basis of the public's right to know - as distinct from supervision - and observed that information about this issue is widely available and on the internet: "so what is there to be afraid of?" Gal-On had tried before the debate to register to make a motion, but was told it was too late and she could only make a one-minute statement. Her participation, however, undermined the media portrayal of the debate as strictly Arab versus Jew, as does the follow-up vote on whether to hold a wider debate which took place during the next week and which lost, as noted above, by 61-16 votes.

Of the 16 MKs who voted in favour of holding an open debate in the Knesset plenum, besides Gal-On, were Dalia Rabin-Philosof of the Center Party, daughter of assassinated prime minister Itzhak Rabin, and Uri Savir of the Center Party, former Director General of the Prime Minister's Office who has worked closely for a long time with Shimon Peres, former prime minister and an architect of Israel's nuclear programme. Their votes in support of an open debate in the Knesset are noteworthy.


Having learned to live with the open nuclear secret, Israel's apparent lack of interest in furthering this debate is not surprising. It is easier to reduce the issue to the familiar categories of Arab versus Jew, enemy versus patriot. But this explanation is too simple to explain both the raw emotions evidenced in the Knesset and the deeper internal conflicts created by nuclear weapons. It avoids the question whether nuclear weapons are good or bad for security, whether they have become counter-productive even if they have also served as a deterrent in the past. The silence also prevents a thorough consideration of Israel's security needs, which are too easily dismissed by some critics. On the other hand, legitimate criticisms of Israel's overly militarised approach to security and the consequences of its policies - regionally and internationally - are often ignored by Israel. An honest open debate will require breaking both the silence and the simplistic categorical approaches of the past.

The characterisation of the debate as Arab versus Jew reflects a tendency to see any security concerns as easily divided along national lines. "The fact that the debate was the initiative of an Arab MK caused the media's steamroller of stereotypes to go into immediate action," noted one observer, who then dismissed the "demonization of Makhoul" as divorced from the facts: "… everything he said has appeared in the foreign press (and copied to the Israeli papers), including the estimate that Israel has a few hundred atom bombs. The neurotic reaction of the MKs from all corners of the house typifies the attitude of the Israeli public - including the media - to the nuclear question. Everything is discussed, all the sacred cows have been slaughtered or at least discussed, and only the nuclear issue is shrouded in mystery."5

The writer went on to distinguish between secrets that should not be disclosed (where the missiles and bombs are stored, where and how they would be deployed, and what technology Israel actually has) and questions that the media in Israel should be discussing, such as "How much does it cost? Who are the people behind Israel's nuclear policy, what are their qualifications to work on this, who elected or appointed them? With whom does the prime minister consult on this sensitive issue? Who determined the targets to which the missiles point? How many people need to approve a decision to use nuclear weapons? … and of course the big questions: Is the policy of ambiguity good or bad for Israel? Does the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons (yes, yes, according to foreign sources) improve the security of Israel's citizens or endanger them? And so on."

The analysis concluded that "Very few reporters have credible information about nuclear activities in Israel. And what counts as a success in the field of security, is a continuing failure for a media that pretends to be free."6

As a critique of the popular media, this analysis cannot be taken as representative of public opinion. But it does point to an underlying assumption that has shaped the security debate and kept the silence on nuclear issues: that security requires secrecy. The lack of interest, by the Knesset, by the media, and by the public, to engage in a substantive discussion of the nuclear issue reflects a failure to distinguish between transparency for the sake of accountability, and supervision. In addition, secrecy has probably also been supported by an ongoing preoccupation with more visible security concerns, as well as an unwillingness to confront the implications of possessing nuclear weapons, given the moral and security dilemmas they pose.

Signs of Change

The resistance to discussing Israel's nuclear policy has been both external (official, imposed) and internal (a reluctance to question the policy and its effects). Both show signs of change. Recent decisions to allow the Knesset debate and exposure of Vanunu's trial have revealed information and raised questions that will not go away. Other considerations, which may have contributed to the timing of these developments, are the question of easing of Vanunu's prison conditions, internally, and the upcoming NPT Review Conference, internationally.

Vanunu has become a symbol that serves the interests of those who resist greater openness. With a few exceptions, such as the Israeli Campaign for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological and Chemical Weapons, a small and marginalised group, Vanunu receives very little sympathy within Israel. The official, media, and general perception of Vanunu as first and foremost a traitor - to his country and to his religion - has in the past overshadowed the questions about nuclear policy that his revelations raised. Vanunu may still act as a deterrent to challenging Israel's nuclear policy. However, public concern is likely to increase regarding the general nature (as opposed to operational details) of Israel's nuclear policy, including distribution of authority and decision-making, as well as questions about environmental and health effects. Once out in the open, these concerns will override any resistance created by the image and fate of Vanunu. In fact, Israelis may be more inclined to see Vanunu's disclosure as an act of conscience rather than betrayal after the nuclear question receives a full airing.

One aspect of the nuclear question that has received more attention than others is the environmental. A front-page headline in Yediot Ahronot a few days after the debate quoted a former senior scientist at Dimona, warning that the reactor is dangerous and unsafe, and that it should be closed. Professor Uzi Even, a Knesset candidate for the Meretz Party at the last elections, also noted that reactors of this age are usually decommissioned, and that the Dimona reactor had been operating at a higher capacity than intended, thus speeding up the ageing process.7 An accompanying article described 1989 Russian satellite photos that showed an unnaturally barren area west of the reactor, assumed to be the effect of buried nuclear waste.8 Attention to workers' health and the environmental effects of Dimona has been increasing, consistent with the growth of a green movement in Israel.

On the level of security policy, Israel's decision makers are likely to discover that what seems to have worked in the past will not continue to work. The perception within Israel that it can maintain a state of nuclear ambiguity, and thereby avoid international pressure and prevent accusations of a double standard against the US, reflects a widespread Israeli myopia regarding its current international image. Accusations of a double standard regarding US policy towards Israel already permeate the international discussion of nuclear weapons.9 But decision makers in Israel continue to believe in a policy which has in the past seemingly allowed the US to promote the non-proliferation regime while avoiding the question of Israel's nuclear ambitions. A recent publication, and another contribution to greater transparency regarding Israel's nuclear programme, traces the history of Israel's "nuclear opacity".10 This policy, born shortly after the NPT was opened for signature in 1968, grew out of a compromise between US interests in a global non-proliferation regime and Israel's desire to maintain a deliberate state of uncertainty among its neighbours regarding its nuclear capability.

Uncertainty, particularly about nuclear weapons, cannot be maintained indefinitely without provoking reactions, criticism, and pressure on both the US and Israel. Israel's original "wait and see" policy regarding initial US expectations that it would sign the NPT served it well in that US pressure to sign evaporated by 1970.11 By that time, Israel had made it clear to the US that the requirements accompanying adherence to the NPT, particularly international inspections of nuclear facilities, were unacceptable to Israel. Israel also introduced its pledge "not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East" although records of discussions between US and Israeli officials at the time reveal different interpretations of the terms "introduce" (manufacture or explode?) and "nuclear weapons" (an untested nuclear device?).12

An indication that change is necessary and that there is some support for an open discussion can be found in the following editorial from the respected daily Haaretz, which concluded: "Israeli society is mature enough to open its nuclear 'black box' with all due caution and look inside. We can and must conduct a public debate on nuclear policy and deal with questions such as the future of the policy of ambiguity in a Middle East in which there will be a number of nuclear powers, and what kind of deterrence Israel needs in time of peace. A discussion of this kind should be held without endangering confidential material of an operational nature and without exposing Israel to international pressure to disarm itself of its protective armor."13 There is also support for a serious and informed debate from more conservative political voices.14 In the latter view, a serious debate may lead to increased emphasis on strategic deterrence, and the development of a second strike force.


Arguments in support of an open policy of deterrence have surfaced before.15 It is not surprising to see that the concept of greater openness in Israel is psychologically linked to an open policy of deterrence - as opposed to disarmament. The issue has not been exposed and debated, and Israelis have come to link nuclear weapons with security. To date there has been no opportunity to examine the security and moral dilemmas created by nuclear weapons. Within Israel it has been generally assumed that nuclear weapons protect, despite the rejection by most of the world's nations of nuclear weapons. This assumption is not likely to change quickly, but the recent Knesset debate, the fact that it was allowed, the circumstances surrounding it and the greater openness on nuclear issues these days, are all elements of a shift that cannot be reversed.

Notes and References

1. "Ambiguity Wins", Ron Ben Ishai, Yediot Ahronot, Saturday Supplement, November 26, 1999, p. 6.

2. Thanks to Hillel Schenker, spokesperson of Israeli Physicians for Peace and Preservation of the Environment (IPPNW- Israel) for the information that follows regarding background and content of the Knesset debate.

3. Hillel Schenker, report on Knesset debate, February 2, 2000.

4. "Hadash MK's debate of Israeli nuclear policies stirs Knesset storm", Nina Gilbert, The Jerusalem Post, February 3, 2000, p. 2.

5. "Atom and Impenetrability", Aviv Lavi, Haaretz, February 7, 2000, unofficial translation.

6. "Atom and Impenetrability", Aviv Lavi, Haaretz, February 7, 2000, unofficial translation.

7. "Close the Nuclear Reactor in Dimona", Guy Leshem, Yediot Ahronot, February 6, 2000, pp. 1 & 5.

8. "Reactor Structure Fragile, Environment Poisoned", Yediot Ahronot, February 6, 2000, p. 5.

9. Resolution on the Middle East, adopted without a vote by 174 States Parties to the NPT on May 11, 1995. See also Rebecca Johnson, Non-Proliferation Treaty: Challenging Times, Acronym 13, February 2000, pp. 15 & 39-40.

10. Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen, Columbia University Press, 1998.

11. Op Cit, p. 293-321.

12. Op Cit, p. 317.

13. "With all due caution," Haaretz, February 4, 2000, p. A4.

14. "The Knesset's Nuclear Farce", Gerald Steinberg, The Jerusalem Post, February 8, 2000.

15. Israeli Nuclear Deterrence, Shai Feldman, Columbia University Press, 1982.

Editor's Footnotes

A. See Documents and Sources,

Merav Datan is co-author, with Alyn Ware, of "Security & Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention". She is programme director at the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and a board member of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP). The author is solely responsible for the views expressed here.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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