It’s Not Just Rouhani. Many Israelis Want to Come Clean About Their Nukes, Too.

It’s Not Just Rouhani. Many Israelis Want to Come Clean About Their Nukes, Too.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanded on Thursday that Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a step that would require Israel to dismantle the nuclear weapons it has never publicly acknowledged that it possesses.

It’s a time-honored talking point from Tehran’s leaders. But it comes with an ironic twist. A significant number of Israelis kind of agree Rouhani’s demand — or, at least the part about Israel finally owning up to its nuclear arsenal.

Tel Aviv has for decades maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear stockpile, believed to be one of the largest in the world. Earlier this month, nonproliferation experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that Israel had 80 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build as many as 190 more.   

Generations of Israeli leaders have refused to utter a word about those weapons, and an Israeli nuclear technician who leaked details about the program in the 1980s before fleeing overseas was arrested by Mossad agents, brought back to Israel, and ultimately sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. Today, though, there’s a little-noticed debate raging within the country about whether the time has come to drop the facade and simply admit to being a nuclear power.

Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born expert on his country’s nuclear program, believes that Israel’s policy of "amimut," Hebrew for "opacity," is a dangerous anachronism. Cohen, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the author of "The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb," argues that the official silence makes it impossible for Israel’s elected leaders to debate the merits of the nuclear program or provide proper oversight over the arsenal itself.  The country’s "nuclear priesthood," he writes, answers only to itself.

"Israel’s insistence on a commitment to absolute non-acknowledgement makes its bargain and the resulting tensions most incompatible with democratic values at home and with norms of transparency in the international arena," he writes in the book.

In an interview, Cohen said Israel’s evasiveness about its nuclear program didn’t make sense when the world has known about the arsenal for decades. He said that Israel should wait for an important political milestone – like Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist or an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal – and then disclose more information about its arsenal.

"To play these kinds of games when everyone knows the truth is childish and idiotic," he said. "There are a growing number of journalists and analysts in Israel who believe the time has come to move beyond this policy and accept that it no longer serves a purpose."

Indeed, Cohen is far from the only Israeli public intellectual who feels that the time has come for the country to drop what amounts to a nuclear version of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and open up about its weapons program.

Reuven Pedhazur, a defense commentator in the Haaretz newspaper, routinely calls for Israel to abandon what he derides as the "fiction of nuclear ambiguity." Amir Oren, another columnist for the paper, penned an essay last month arguing that that the Obama administration and Congress would find a way to legal loopholes to get around legislation that could in theory impose automatic penalties on Israel if it admitted to having nuclear weapons.

"When the president and the heads of the legislative branch have the will, legal loopholes are invoked," he wrote. "The policy of ambiguity has fulfilled its duty honorably and can now retire."

Louis René Beres, a nonproliferation expert at Purdue University, believes that disclosing some details about Israel’s nuclear arsenal would bolster the country’s security. In a working paper he presented at this year’s Herzliya Conference, a gathering of high-level U.S. and Israeli officials, Beres argued for letting Iran know that Israel’s nuclear weapons were ready for immediate use, that Israeli decision makers would use them for retaliatory attacks on Iranian population centers if its own cities were hit, and that the weapons were capable of penetrating Tehran’s most potent defensive systems. Doing so, he writes, would make Iran think twice about using its own weapons or passing them on to terror groups like Hezbollah.

Of course, many Israelis would like to keep the current ambiguity in place for as long as possible. Ephraim Asculai, a former official of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said the unrest in Syria and Egypt and Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear weapon made this precisely the wrong moment to abandon a policy that has largely worked for decades.

"It’s like in physics — if you have a stable situation, why introduce an element that would make it unstable," he told The Cable. "If Israel will have peace with its neighbors, this policy will fall away naturally. But the issue of ambiguity is related to the issue of security, and this is a particularly dangerous time."

The nuclear ambiguity may disappear all the same because of a few slips of the tongue by Israeli leaders. In 1995, then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said "give me peace, we will give up the nuclear capability." One year later, Peres’ successor, Ehud Olmert, said Iran’s nuclear program posed unique dangers because Tehran "openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map."

"Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?" he said then.

U.S. officials have made similar gaffes. During his confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense that same year, Robert Gates said Iran’s desire for a nuclear bomb stemmed, in part, from the fact that its neighbors already had them.

"They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons," Gates said then. "Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf."

Gates, like Olmert, tried to walk the comment back, but it was another crack in the wall of Israel’s longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity. It seems inevitable that the wall will eventually come down. And when it does, Rouhani won’t be the only one celebrating.