Book Review: Israel And The Bomb By Avner Cohen

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Book Review – Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen

This book review will consider Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb, published in 1998. The book takes an academic yet highly readable approach, considering mainly archives, memoirs, and interviews in documenting Israel’s nuclear development from its conception around 1950 until Israel formalised an ‘opaque’ nuclear posture in 1970. Prior to writing this Cohen had contributed many journal articles on the subject, but his background was more in nuclear ethics. Subsequently to the publication of Israel and the Bomb, Cohen published The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, in 2010, which considers the merits of Israel’s nuclear strategy.

Book Summary

A lot can be gleaned about the purpose of this book from its name, the name demonstrates the book does not seek to adhere to Kedushah habitation, “the sacredness of security”. This is the idea that anything that could be detrimental to Israeli security should not be spoken about, and it “commands a surprising degree of acquiescence” from Israel’s public. This has meant, many books on Israeli nuclear development, use euphemisms to avoid directly referring to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, such as ‘nuclear capability’ or a ‘nuclear option’. The book’s title, however, is written in the bluntest possible terms, this illustrates a trend emanating throughout the book, wherein Cohen “distances [himself] from modes of thought and speech into which [he has] been socialised” and doesn’t steer away from subjects considered sensitive in Israel.

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Throughout Cohen’s book, he places a special emphasis on factors “which gave rise to Israel’s posture of nuclear opacity.” Summed up in Cohen’s own words: the book “is a story about opacity.” The central research question in this book is: what political factors arrive Israel at formalised nuclear opacity in 1970.. It is not immediately clear what Cohen’s argument, in answer to this question is. Cohen himself writes that he believes the history he offers is what “actually happened” which at times makes it appear as though there is no argument. However, all stories, including histories are interpretations and after some analysis and wider reading four trends appear throughout Cohen’s book in explaining opacity’s roots, Israel’s domestic politics, Israeli-American relations, regional security, and “conceptual-epistemic-technical” issues.

Cohen argues the importance of these causes by considering a broad set of developments over the 1950-1970 period. Some of the key developments Israel and the Bomb considers are the formation of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission in 1952, the formalisation of French material support for Israeli nuclearization by using Israeli participation in the 1956 Suez Crisis as an “implicit incentive”, the disclosure of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, John F. Kennedy’s heavy pressure for American inspections and Israel’s policy to delay on a basis of “domestic politics and the need for secrecy”, the use of American arms sales for leverage on inspections under both Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the nuclear dimension of the Six Day War, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and finally, the solidifying of Israel’s opaque nuclear posture under an agreement between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir that Israel keeps “its nuclear profile low” and America commit not to challenge Israeli nuclearization.

The role of domestic politics in Israel’s opaque posture that Cohen demonstrates is arguably the result of political expedience. In chapter 8 it allowed Ben-Gurion to avoid “putting all [his] eggs in one basket”. Following debate between Yigal Allon, Israel Galili, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres about the merits of a conventionalist vs nuclearized military, Ben-Gurion decided opacity allowed Israel to attain nuclear weapons without having to restructure the Israeli Defence Forces.

Furthermore, Cohen argues opacity was also driven by Israeli-American relations. The United States of America (USA) was pioneering nuclear non-proliferation and Cohen notes that Israel was “the first case of nuclear weapons proliferation in which the United States had political leverage”, as such by the late 1960s when Israel had successfully deceived both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and the US had reached a point where they could no longer prevent Israeli nuclearisation but still wanted to pursue the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this culminated in chapter 17 with Richard Nixon agreeing to Golda Meir that “the United States would not challenge the reality … if Israel kept its nuclear profile low”.

Equally, Cohen writes that Israel’s regional security situation had always been a driver for opacity, from 1961 Cohen demonstrates that Israel knew their nuclearization would be a casus belli for Egypt. Furthermore, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 War Cohen argues that opacity was strengthened because, Gamal Abdul Nasser, left humiliated from his defeat, did not want to consider largescale war with Israel, as such, under opacity, Israel was able to “strengthen its nuclear program without worrying about an Arab reaction.”

The final trend toward opacity within the book is Israel’s technical situation. Cohen argues that because Israel received from France an “unsafeguarded reactor, as well as the accompanying reprocessing technology”. This supported Israeli nuclear opacity because it meant it was less necessary for Israel to conduct nuclear tests, after all, France had already conducted nuclear tests, and the Israelis were using French technology. As nuclear weapons testing was considered the “last stage in the development process”, Israel could just avoid conducting a nuclear test and still maintain it was not a nuclear state, facilitating opacity.

The Literature

Avner Cohen’s book is the first of its kind within the literature. Due to Israel’s nuclear opacity, there is a dearth of material within Israel’s archives, furthermore, to avoid controversy, many speeches or memoirs from Israelis only really make lightly veiled references to Israeli nuclear capability. This has meant that there is a paucity of literature on this aspect of Israeli strategic development. As such, the literature at the time Israel and the Bomb was published tended to either differ in scope, for instance, the first work on Israel’s nuclear posture, Israel’s Nuclear Options, by Fuad Jabber, focused primarily on discussion of the merit of Israel’s nuclear posture meanwhile much of the other literature was journalistic and speculative, rather than academic. This may be because the dearth of evidence leaves enough lacunae that without considerably greater research, a degree of speculation becomes unavoidable. One example of this is Seymour Hersh’s book, The Samson Project. Hersh writes expansively on Israeli nuclear history, covering an even larger time-period than Cohen, however, his more speculative take on the history shows. For instance, he claims that Israel by the mid-80s had “hundreds of low-yield neutron warheads”, while the Defense Intelligence Agency listed it as 60-80. In contrast, Israel and the Bomb avoids speculation, being possibly the only work which has collated such a vast amount of research on Israeli nuclear history, Cohen conducted more than 150 interviews for the book and engaged in extensive archival work. This research method leads to very little speculation and shines a light on more areas of the history. Furthermore, this research reaps its rewards, Israel and the Bomb, comments extensively on the subdued domestic debate which occurred in Israel. The book considers the multifaceted discussion occurring in Israel following the program’s public disclosure, considering public petitions such as Eliezer Livner’s, as well as the formation of Ben-Gurion’s Committee of Seven, which allowed representatives of every major party to weigh in on the discussion. Equally impressively, few books that do consider domestic attitudes toward Israel nuclearisation, coherently connect it to the development of opacity, Israel and the Bomb takes the aforementioned domestic developments and explains how they facilitated Peres’ conclusion that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

Furthermore, the USA, the UK, France, Russia, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, and India all openly acknowledge their nuclear arsenals, as such if one casts a wider net when considering the literature, by opening it up to nuclear studies in general, this book becomes even more significant. This is because, Israel being the only state presently to maintain a posture of opacity means that it is possibly the most understudied case, this is because the nature of opacity makes it difficult to study, as well as the fact that the most common nuclear posture is one of a more open deterrence, meaning it often receives more attention. Cohen’s chronicle of Israel’s posture of opacity has grown to be of greater importance since its publication, this is because with Iran working toward its nuclear capability to become the second nuclear state within the Middle-East, it raises the question of whether they will mirror Israel’s opaque posture. As such, for those analysing the factors that could lead to Iranian opacity, Cohen’s “prolific [writing] on the history of amimut (opacity)” has become something of a textbook. Even for articles which seek to argue it is unlikely the Iranian nuclear posture would be opaque, they still engage the (four) drivers of opacity noted in Israel and the Bomb as a framework to discount the likelihood of Iranian opacity.

To summarise this section, in considering scholarship on the development of Israel’s nuclear posture, Israel and the Bomb is certainly the seminal work of the subject, it contributes a more academic approach, and brings to the fore aspects of the story, such as the domestic setting, which previously had been much less considered. Furthermore, considering the work in the broader literature of nuclear strategy formation; the important trends Cohen locates act as a framework, necessitating that any study seeking to consider a new nuclear power’s potential posture must consider Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb if they are serious about considering all possible options.


Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb is a hugely impressive work of scholarship, it harnesses a tremendous quantity of research (more than 1,200 footnotes) and gives the most detailed story of Israel’s early nuclear history to date, that is not to say, however, that it does not have gaps. For instance, the book argues that Israel’s nuclear desires were made reality by their friendship with France in 1956-1960. However, Cohen fails to comment on Israel’s close relationship with the Soviet Union for the first two years of its existence. Reading this book would give one the impression that the Soviet Union had always supported Arab opposition to Israel, however the Soviet Union’s pursuit for Arab support was only really materialised Nasser’s rise to power in 1952. Before this the Soviet Union had been the first state to recognise Israel as a state and within a year had nuclear capability itself, Cohen outlines how Israel sought either nuclear weapons for Israel or a nuclear umbrella, but never questions why Israel couldn’t seek this from Russia in 1948-1950. This was just one question the book left unanswered.

There are further key developments that Cohen fails to consider in his book, for instance, Israel’s pursuit of fuel for its reactor. Israel’s pursuit of fuel played a major role in its nuclear development during the 1960s and it demonstrates that the US and much of Western Europe must have been aware of Israel’s covert intent for its reactor – and yet they turned a blind eye. Israel’s pursuit of fuel led it to two impressive operations to steal some, which were subsequently named ‘the Apollo incident’ and ‘the Plumbat affair’. The former was an operation to steal 134lbs of uranium from an American company in 1965, which many in the CIA and FBI at the time assumed was taken by Israel, meanwhile the latter was a successful operation in 1968 by Israel to steal an entire freighter of uranium ore in the Mediterranean, Euratom was aware of the hijacking “within months” and yet it took nine years to reach the press. Further to this, both America and Britain were aware that Israel illegally purchased ‘yellowcake’ (uranium oxide) from Argentina in 1963-4. As such Cohen’s strong focus on the conclusions of American Dimona inspections, while disregarding developments in the intelligence community’s assessments means the picture, we get of American perceptions of Israel is one-sided based on the inspection’s conclusions.

While the intelligence community’s assessments were important and available at the time of Cohen’s research, Cohen suggested that because of an overall lack of “technological and organisational sources” he opted to consider the story through its “political dimensions”. While Cohen attempted to address the limitations of his work, it does not negate that the gaps left in the picture he paints. However, in fairness, due to the nature of opacity in Israel, gaps like this are potentially one of what Cohen classified as an “unavoidable mistake.”


Though Israel and the Bomb does contain gaps it is a highly important book, it successfully develops a coherent narrative of Israel’s progression toward nuclear opacity and it avoids speculating, as other works on the topic have, by engaging in detailed research to substantiate every claim Cohen makes. This book should be on the reading list of any individual seeking to understand Israeli strategic thinking, or for any scholar attempting to assess a prospective nuclear states’ nuclear policy options. Furthermore, considering the mystery generated by opacity which shrouds Israeli nuclear thinking, Cohen’s achievements in this area become even more impressive and all the more important to other scholars seeking to write on the  


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