Nuclear confusion: Author to speak in S.F. about Israel, Iran and the bomb

With saber rattling by Israel and Iran unnerving the world, one analyst does not worry about all-out war. Avner Cohen thinks both sides are bluffing.

His opinion should count. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and author of two books on Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

“There are questions about the operational wisdom of such a strike in terms of damage,” Cohen said regarding Israel’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear sites. “Israel knows that the damage it could do on its own is not going to be that big. The damage would be probably measures in months, not years, of delay. But the point is, I think, about Israel showing resolve, but at the same time Israelis realize the risk.”

Avner Cohen

As for Iran, he says its leaders “have an inflated sense of their own might” and that they, like the Israelis, want to appear somewhat “resolved, determined and committed.” He thinks this mindset increases the chance of a confrontation.

Cohen will talk about Iran, Israel and the bomb during a Tuesday, Feb. 21 appearance at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. Lehrhaus Judaica and the BJE library are co-sponsoring the event.

While most Middle East observers focus on day-to-day strife in the region, Cohen studies the big picture, as seen through a nuclear lens. Though Israel has never acknowledged its existence, the Jewish state’s nuclear arsenal is perhaps the world’s worst kept secret.

That’s exactly what he titled his 2010 book on the subject.

“The Worst-Kept Secret” describes Israel’s decades-old bargain with the bomb, based on a policy of opacity or, as it is more juicily called in Hebrew, amimut.

Amimut has allowed Israel to develop and deploy nuclear weapons while avoiding the obligations of declared nuclear states: no inspections, no adherence to regulations established by the International Atomic Energy Agency, no dealing with any outcry.

At the same time, amimut requires strict censorship of the Israeli media to avoid any mention of the arsenal, which Cohen estimates between 100 and 200 warheads. His previous book, “Israel and the Bomb,” was published in Israel only after a thorough going-over from the state censor. As a result of the blackout, according to Cohen, Israelis are essentially in the dark about their own nuclear weapons program.

“There is an element of parochialism, perhaps even an almost intellectual laziness,” he said, “because the subject has reached the level of a national taboo. By now, generations of Israelis know very little about the subject and feel very uncomfortable and intellectually constrained saying anything. After all, If you know nothing factual, it’s very difficult to create a discussion.”

Israelis are not the only ones buying into amimut. As Cohen’s book makes clear, the policy was carefully coordinated in secret by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1969. It became the ultimate don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, one that most other nations comply with.

Israel’s nuclear program began years before, with the birth of the state. Founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion believed nuclear weapons would not only provide military deterrence for Israel, they would also normalize relations between Israel and other countries. By the late 1950s, Israel had opened its top-secret nuclear facility at Dimona.

“In the Middle East, it so happened that Israel was the only one that got the bomb, and they got it in a way that has allowed them to create a benign monopoly under opacity,” Cohen said.

Why does Israel get a pass? Cohen cites the country’s “unique predicament” of having lost so many million of Jews to the Holocaust. Just as importantly, he noted, Israel has “a long tradition of being responsible in this area.  Israel under opacity has never made an explicit reference to its nuclear weapons to advance a political agenda.”

That was true throughout all of Israel’s wars, including the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which at moments had Israel on the brink of defeat and Meir contemplating, however briefly, whether to push the button.

Now, say critics like Cohen, the policy of amimut may have outlived its usefulness. He feels the time may come for Israel to admit it has the bomb.

“In a sense, possessing the bomb has allowed Israel indirectly to defy world opinion on basic Middle East and security issues. The bomb has provided Israel a certain kind of arrogance,” he said.

Nevertheless, in light of the Iranian situation, Cohen feels now is not the time for Israel to make any unilateral changes.

“I would refrain from changing Israeli nuclear policy or posture today because I would be sensitive not to destabilize the situation further,” he said, referring to rolling back amimut. “It needs to be done responsibly, gradually and slowly, but it’s not something to shake the system.”

Iran’s apparent determination to acquire the bomb remains Israel’s greatest challenge because, as Cohen believes, Israel is not prepared to have any other Middle East players join the nuclear club.

“Israel without a nuclear monopoly is like the biblical Samson without his hair,” he said. “To shield its monopoly, Israel must demonstrate national resolve, including the willingness to risk a full blown war with Iran.”

Avner Cohen will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis Street, S.F. Free. (415) 567-3327 or

“The Worst-Kept Secret” by Avner Cohen ($35, Columbia University Press, 370 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.