Israel and the Bomb
by Avner Cohen
New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 470 pp. $32.
Reviewed by P. R. Kumaraswamy
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Middle East Quarterly
Confronted with an intensely hostile environment, Israeli leaders have always understood the significance of nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of the Jewish state's existence and as a potential 'ladder' enabling Arab states to come to terms with Israel.
In pursuing this dual objective, Israel and the Bomb shows, Israel had to cope with an unexpected external problem: the non-proliferation agenda of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. How could Israel establish its nuclear capabilities without arousing American ire? Finding the resources to pursue the nuclear option was just half the battle, for Israelis also had to hide their efforts from their main ally.
The Kennedy and to a lesser extent Johnson administrations were determined to prevent Israel from undermining American non-proliferation agenda. Kennedy even pressured Israel into accepting annual American inspections (or ‘visits' as Israel called them) of the nuclear reactor in the southern Israeli city of Dimona. All the eight visits of Dimona, including the last one on July 12, 1969, reached the same conclusion: "There was no definite evidence of a weapons program." How come, Cohen asks, the "the American scientists did not find what they were not supposed to find?" Because of the deceptive tactics Israel pursued.
Unfortunately, Israel and the Bomb sees only two actors at work here the Israeli and American governments, thereby ignoring the Jewish community in the United States which successfully turned Israel into a domestic issue; the topic at hand cannot be understood absent this dimension.
While offering an enormous amount of hitherto unavailable primary materials, Israel and the Bomb largely revisits familiar arguments on the subjects and leaves some of the major controversies (the sources of heavy-water, the Vanunu disclosures) unanswered. Despite the media hype and the pre-publication blitz, then, Israel and the Bomb must be read alongside other works on the subject, notably the studies by Leonard Spector. It contains many new details and exhaustive notes, but not a new interpretation.
Unwittingly, Israel's ability to successfully pursue the nuclear option despite explicit threats, regular inspections and political pressures from Washington provided a model for the clandestine nuclear programs of countries such as Pakistan and Iraq. Also, by the time the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970, Washington reluctantly recognized Israel crossing the Rubicon; this was a precedent for similar treatment of India over two decades later.
Related Topics: Israel, US policy | P. R. Kumaraswamy | Spring 2001 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.