A conversation with Avner Cohen: On Israel, Nuclear Proliferation, and Conflicts in the Middle East.
In the epilogue to your groundbreaking book Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1998) on the political history of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, you share some of the challenges you faced, both in terms of the difficulties finding sources and the personal cost of breaking the Israeli code of silence concerning the discussion of nuclear issues. Why was it important to you to persist with your research and ultimately publish?
It was not just scholarship for me, but also citizenry. I believe there are certain issues that citizens have the right to know, and there is even a democratic obligation to inform them. My first book in this field was a series of essays I coedited, with my colleague and good friend Steven Lee, on the philosophical (primarily moral) dimension of living under nuclear deterrence. In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a technician working at Dimona, the super-secret Israeli nuclear weapons facility in the Negev desert, publicly disclosed for the first time details about the Israeli program. Around that time I started to look seriously at the oddities of the Israeli nuclear predicament. In 1989 I was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship to work on the question of nuclear weapons and democracy with a focus on Israel. My current view is that even though opacity may have been the right policy strategically in the beginning, it is not the right way today to conduct the nation’s nuclear affairs. Total secrecy stifles open debate and undermines Israeli democracy.
What was the response in Israel?
In 1994 I submitted an early, shorter version of the book to the office of the military censor in Israel and received a total ban on publication. I appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court. At their suggestion, a second version was submitted, but it was also banned. At that point I decided to expand the research, while holding a research position at MIT. It was ultimately published as Israel and the Bomb in 1998. That manuscript was never submitted to the Israeli military censor. By then the Israeli government tried to intimidate me against publication. Several times during that period I had to cancel travel to Israel after learning that I might be arrested upon arrival.
Finally, in March 2001, I made the decision to go back and to face the issue head on. Hours before I arrived, we made a “deal” that I would not be arrested at the airport but would show up for the interrogation the next day. After about 50 hours of interrogation (not continuous), I was told that I could leave the country. A few years later I was informed that the case was closed. The authorities never officially announced that the reason was “no guilt.”
At the end, my work was not able to change Israel’s official policy of nuclear opacity, nor did I expect that, but I believe it helped to change significantly the public discourse on the subject. Furthermore, in some ways I think that the case against me has left me now somewhat immunized, so that I can speak up on the subject safely and say more than what Israelis can.
It seems like you and Israel have a complicated relationship. What are your thoughts on the current situation in the conflict with Palestine and President Trump’s suggestion that he would accept a one-state solution?
Yes, I have a complex relationship with my native birth country. My 92-year-old mother is a Holocaust hero and survivor who arrived by boat from Italy in Palestine in September 1945, three years prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. My late father, who arrived in Palestine as a baby in 1924, was a journalist who covered the Arab-Israeli conflict. I do have a great deal of nostalgia for my rather happy childhood in the 1960s, in a small neighborhood just outside Tel Aviv. In some ways the Israel I grew up in was more innocent, more peace seeking, than the Israel of today. While I still have a deep attachment to the country, I am deeply disappointed about the direction it has taken since the 1967 Six-Day War, and even more so since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1995.
Israel is truly a unique country with an incredible amount of creativity, energy, and ingenuity, but politically, in terms of its future, it is going in a direction that will not allow it to reach normalcy, to reach reconciliation with its immediate neighbors, the Palestinians. And if it reaches some resemblance of normalcy, what some Israelis such as Ehud Barak call “being a villa in the jungle,” it will be at the expense of occupying the Palestinians. The sad fact is that Israel has become an occupier power. A one-state solution would mean a predicament of apartheid for Palestinians as they would never be treated as equal citizens. A two-state solution is the only way to bring reconciliation of the conflict.
What is your next research project?
Well, this summer is the big 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War. In those six amazing days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, gained territory three times its original size, and became the dominant military power in the region. It was then that Israel became an occupier. For the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, the 1967 war brought not only loss of territory but crushing humiliation. In the half a century since, a great deal has been said about those changes, but still little is understood about what actually led to crisis and then war. A project that I am working on with the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP) at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. seeks to bring together Egyptian and Israeli scholars and sources for an in-depth reexamination of the nuclear dimension of the 1967 war.