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Israel and the bomb

By Avner Cohen

Thursday, May 31, 2007


Forty years ago, Israel became the world's sixth nuclear nation. As the Jewish state was facing the worst crisis in its history - the amassment of Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula and the possibility of an imminent surprise aerial attack - Israeli scientists and technicians "tickled the dragon" as they assembled the nation's first nuclear core.

These crash efforts were aimed toward improvised nuclear explosive devices, not actual weapons. Those devices could not be used, or even delivered, in a genuine military fashion. They were crude, bulky, spider-like devices, somewhat reminiscent of the first atomic "gadget" the United States had exploded (known as the "Trinity" test) at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.

The rush to assemble an atomic device was not initiated in response to any concrete request from Israel's top political leadership - though there is little doubt that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol approved those emergency measures - and certainly not in connection with any particular military need.

The initiative came from above, not from the top. At a time when Israel was setting up temporary burial sites for thousands of people, it was unthinkable for the leaders of the nuclear project to do business as usual. If the capability could be available, it must be available.

For those few who were involved in this extremely secretive crash initiative it was an exceptionally emotional moment. Israel crossed the nuclear threshold in a crisis that evoked for Israelis a collective sense of siege and loneliness associated with memories of the Holocaust. This activity meant a solemn oath of Never Again.

Yet there are two major differences between what the United States did in 1945 and what Israel did in 1967. First, the United States did test its first atomic device; Israel never did. Second, and more significantly, the United States subsequently used its first atomic weapons in anger; Israel never did.

In 1967 Israel won a great conventional victory over three armies in six days. As the war ended there was obviously no need for atomic devices. When one senior officer suggested then that maybe this was the time for Israel to test the device, he was categorically ruled out. Israel kept its word not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. The Israeli narrative of the 1967 war never even mentioned the secret nuclear episode, as if it never happened. This was the nuclear legacy of the 1967 war.

Israel has always been a different kind of nuclear proliferator - a reluctant proliferator. From the very beginning, Israel ran fast on the technology side, but remained ambivalent on the political side. Israeli military leaders in the 1960s, including Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, saw no clear military utility in nuclear weapons. Nor did they believe that Israel would likely ever need such weapons, at least as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remained conventional. That nuclear capability was treated as a sacred national insurance policy.

There are indications that before the 1967 war Eshkol and others entertained the notion that Israel's nuclear option might be bargained away in return for peace. Those explorations did not go too far, and they were ambivalent from the start.

Even after the 1967 victory, Eshkol did not abandon his cautious nuclear policy. To his last days he was reluctant to reject outright the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Eshkol died in office in early 1969 without making a final decision on the nonproliferation treaty. Certain necessary and fateful nuclear decisions, including a decision not to sign the treaty, had to be made by Eshkol's successor, Golda Meir. But her decisions only highlighted and strengthened Israel's character as a reluctant proliferator.

Israel is now uniquely distinguished among all nuclear states in its legacy of extreme nuclear caution, keeping nuclear affairs low profile, nearly invisible and away from politics.

One more reason why the rise of nuclear Iran is so perilous is that it threatens to change the subtle nuclear ground rules in the Middle East that were built upon the nuclear legacy of the 1967 war. This legacy is a reminder of why a nuclear Iran must be prevented. If Iran's goes nuclear, then Israel's reluctant style of being nuclear will no doubt be replaced by a major nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.

Avner Cohen is a senior research scholar with the University of Maryland and the author of "Israel and the Bomb." A longer discussion of this subject will be published in the June issue of Arms Control Today .



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