Touching On Israel's Nuclear Secrets

President Obama obliquely referred to the Israeli nuclear weapons program Tuesday, and expressed continued U.S. support for it. Nonproliferation expert Avner Cohen of the Monterey Institute of International Studies talks with Robert Siegel about the well-known "secret" program.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When he spoke with the reporters at the White House, President Obama also addressed this subject, one that's been an irritant in U.S.-Israeli relations recently.

President BARACK OBAMA: Finally, we discussed issues that arose out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Conference and I reiterated to the Prime Minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues.

SIEGEL: Earlier this year, a U.N. document on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty singled out Israel as Arab signatories to the treaty had proposed. Israel does not discuss or even publicly acknowledge its role as a nuclear power, and the U.S. doesn't discuss it either. And it doesn't oppose Israel's policy of ambiguity.

Well, joining us now is Avner Cohen, whose forthcoming book is called "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb." Welcome to the program.

Mr. AVNER COHEN (Author, "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb"): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, can you begin by describing Israel's policy regarding its own widely reported nuclear arsenal?

Mr. COHEN: Well, for Israel, it's very, very convenient that everybody knows that she has nuclear weapon, and yet Israel itself has never acknowledged to have that kind of possession. That policy could never be feasible without essentially tacit support of the rest of the world, in particular America.

So Israel has kept loyalty to one phrase that came in the mid-'60s, that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region.

SIEGEL: Introduce in this case meaning in a war actually to introduce the weapons? Or to have them?

Mr. COHEN: No, more than that. Introduction meaning any act providing the bomb to the public domain. That is the declaration, test, which all are, you know, short of using in time of hostilities, short of using in anger, all of them considered to be introduction, so in that respect, silence is golden.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that the Israeli policy may be to have nuclear weapons but never to talk about it...

Mr. COHEN: That's right.

SIEGEL: ...and never to introduce their existence as a factor in the region?

Mr. COHEN: Indeed, indeed.

SIEGEL: Even though everyone somewhere between assumes to know is that they have nuclear weapons?

Mr. COHEN: That's right. And for them, that's part of their constrained policy, that is to say not to contaminate the region's politics into a nuclear politics.

SIEGEL: President Obama chose to raise this issue when reporters heard from him and Prime Minister Netanyahu today. Was it a source of great concern to Israelis that the U.S. let pass the U.N. document that spoke of Israel disarming?

Mr. COHEN: President Obama show us once again his mastery of words. He was able to reassure Israelis that Israel is an exceptional case, and he accept that and he endorse it and he supports that without even mentioning one time the words nuclear weapons.

This was a matter of anxiety in Israel, and I think it was very, very important to hear it from the president himself that there is no change in the policy of opacity for the Israelis. I think they were very much reassured by that.

SIEGEL: How different is Israel's case for having a nuclear arsenal from Iran's case for having a nuclear arsenal? What's the big difference between Israel and Iran?

Mr. COHEN: Well, worlds apart. Historically, Israel got the bomb many, many years before there was empathy. Israel got the bomb on the shade of the Holocaust, and it was very much the world was looking the other side because there was this enormous sense of guilt about Israel, about the Holocaust and the sense that the Israelis should have the bomb to protect themselves existentially.

SIEGEL: You're saying there was more or less a consensus that they should have nuclear weapons?

Mr. COHEN: That's right.

SIEGEL: But not talk about it?

Mr. COHEN: Quiet, quiet. That's right, a quiet, tacit consensus. Thirdly, Israel has never threatened any other countries, so Israel was so far using its - was very responsible custodian of nuclear weapons in its own quiet opaque way.

SIEGEL: It's a policy, as you describe it, with deep roots in the postwar history, does it still make sense? Is it still as useful to Israel or the region as it was in the 1960s, this policy?

Mr. COHEN: Israelis believe so, and I think it's a great deal a matter of habits. I think it's time to start looking afresh on this, slow, responsibly to try to find a way to normalize those issue and to find a better way for Israel to come clean with it.

I think the world is ready, even most of the Arabs are ready. So I think that ultimately Israel with the rest of the world, it would be nice not to have nuclear weapons, to be part of the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But I think the time has come to think in a responsible way how for Israel to come clean, to come with putting its nuclear weapons on the table.

SIEGEL: Avner Cohen, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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