Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

A Conversation with Avner Cohen

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Avner Cohen

Nonproliferation Studies professor Avner Cohen recently spoke to Communiqué about Israel, nuclear proliferation, and the future of the Middle East.

June 27, 2017

[The following Q&A with Professor Avner Cohen was published in the Spring issue of Communiqué.]

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. 

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