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AVNER COHEN: I have looked over a million of pages of all kind of documents. I spent time in all kinds of dark and more lighted archives, in the United States and Israel.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the history of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. And later, why small weapons are causing big problems.
RANDY RYDELL: We know that each year that tens of thousands of innocent civilians-women and children-die in conflicts all around the world, largely from the supply and use of these small arms.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Israel is one of the few undeclared nuclear powers in the world. While their arsenal is veiled in secrecy, the history behind Israel’s nuclear program has been an even larger mystery-until recently.
PORTER: In 1998 Avner Cohen wrote a book titled Israel And The Bomb. It’s a detailed account of Israel’s struggle to develop nuclear weapons. Cohen, now a senior fellow at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Security Studies, recently spoke with Hélène Papper.
AVNER COHEN: Well, the book is an effort to try to, it’s a study of the political history of the Israeli nuclear program, and even more so the kind of political posture that has evolved around it. What I call “opacity.” So it’s an effort to try to account for the evolution in the Israeli attitude toward nuclear weapons in the context of Israeli debate-in Israel itself, with its neighbors, and primarily with the United States. I look at the United States. The book relates to the period from 1950 until 1970.
HÉLÈNE PAPPER: Why has Israel been so secretive about its weapons projects?
COHEN: It has to do with the very history of this project. Israel always felt that it should not provide incentives to others to do the same. Therefore, because if others, Arab countries, would do what she did, it would undermine the very cause that Israel wanted to have that kind of security. Essentially to assure its very existence. So it’s a very tricky kind of game. Another element in that was the relationship with the United States. The United States in the early days, in the early ‘60s, opposed hard for, to Israel going nuclear. And Israel did not want to confront the United States on this issue. So the kind of declaratory position that has evolved was such that should not defy or confront the nonproliferation position of the United States, which was a kind of a compromise.
Over years the Israelis realized that this gives them a lot of freedom of action. But at the same time the fact that they are not acknowledging openly to have nuclear weapons, it makes it easier with neighbors, as well as with the US, and the rest of the nonproliferation community. So the line that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Which is the line of this policy of opacity, or some other people call it ambiguity, seems to be very much convenient to Israeli interests. And this involves the secrecy.
PAPPER: You characterize Israel’s nuclear strategies as “veiled with opacity” in your book. So, how was the bomb a deterrence if no one was to know about their program?
COHEN: Well, from the very early days that kind of tension, between on the one hand secrecy and at the same time the need to get some gains, some benefits, some utility from deterrence, which means it has to be known to the others, was a real tension. And people felt it. They felt, the Israelis who were involved in that kind of project, that Israel should have some kind of dynamic spectrum, from rumors to some kind of indirect acknowledgments, primarily by others. And therefore it was very convenient for them, the fact that around 1970, the United States not only itself secretly knew that Israel essentially became a nuclear weapons power, but it became also known publicly. So Israel did not have to say openly, but it became known, widely known, accepted, for over 30 years, that this is the situation, in fact.
PAPPER: Did Israel conceal its nuclear force because of the United States? Was that one of the reasons? And if so, why?
COHEN: Over time it has became, in my judgment, a profound matter of the Israeli psyche, of the Israeli culture of national security. Some 30 years ago it has been agreed upon between the President of the United States-at the time Richard Nixon-the Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meier, that it would be the best-served interest of both nations, the kind of policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What I call opacity. That policy in many ways has remained in effect. It is my view that the time perhaps has come to address reality and to find a way in which this lacuna of secrecy would be a little bit more open. That can be done in my view only if Israel would get some kind of legitimacy for what she has.
PAPPER: Is this secrecy not broken already because of these top-secret government papers which you used for your research, that are now declassified?
COHEN: Well, no top secret documents from the Israeli government has been declassified. Some diplomatic stuff, material, that was classified at the time in the ‘60s, is indeed today declassified. Obviously from the material one can draw one conclusion: the fact that Israel is indeed a major, solid nuclear weapons power. However, Israel formally has still adhered to policy of non-acknowledgment. And Israel formally has not published, not released any documents or statements or having making, conducting nuclear tests, in such a way that would make it obviously clear in a transparent sense, but also by way of acknowledgment, that indeed it has nuclear weapons. So it’s a very tricky game. Part of it looks almost stupid and foolish. But nevertheless that game is still going on.
And I believe the time has come to update the game in such a way that realistically Israel, reality would be acknowledged. Once it’s on the table it will be easier, in my opinion, both for people who study that, but also for policymakers. But in particular for Israeli democracy. It cannot afford to have such a, important aspects of, of activity, which is in its entirety considered to be secret and classified.
PAPPER: You say they can’t afford to have such a secret. What would they lose or what would they gain if they…
COHEN: No, I did not say “they.”
COHEN: I said Israeli democracy.
PAPPER: Israeli democracy, OK.
COHEN: I said in terms of Israeli democracy it’s a major flaw. I think that in terms of the decision makers they believe it’s very convenient for them. And in many ways it is convenient for them. And they believe, they are, their fear, the reason why they do not wanted to change it, is they are afraid of slippery slope. It’s more convenient for them to keep this refusal, total, and block general refusal to talk, rather than to make some kind of compromise. Rather than some kind of decision, how far to go. So my argument is not in terms of strategic gain, it is their interest to operate. No, it would not go into a gain. But I think that the interests of Israeli democracy-and also perhaps the hygiene of the America-Israeli relations is at such an important issue, we’ll sit on the table in a more open way.
PAPPER: Many book critics say you’ve achieved the impossible by writing this book. How hard was it? And how did you gain access to the documents that you used to write this book?
COHEN: Well, it was hard, but at the same time exciting and intriguing. I spent on this book for over 10, or just about 10 years. I have looked over a million of pages of all kind of documents. I spent time in all kinds of dark and more lighted archives, in the United States and Israel. It’s, it was exciting detective work. And I’ve interviewed over 100 individuals, who told me some of their involvement in that story. It’s a very exciting story. I also put FOIA, which is Freedom Of Information Act, requests to release American documents. And for some documents I was waiting for a long, long time; in some cases more than five years. And I don’t have the entire story. I mean, the story is not complete. The story is partial. I believe that I have the right sense of interpretation and history, but the story is far from being complete.
PAPPER: I know when you came out with this book you were a little worried about what would happen to you upon your return to Israel. Why? And how has it been so far?
COHEN: Well, the fact is that I’ve not been in Israel until now. Which is about five years. I’m, with excitement but with a little bit intrepidation, going back in short while. And indeed this will be interesting, how I will be received. I think the government has not made its mind whether they would like to, to face some kind of legal proceedings, using the fact that the book has not been submitted to censorship. It’s a long story. I mean, it wasn’t that I did not, simply did not want to submit it to censorship. I was trying to work out some way to deal with it. I felt it was impossible. And indeed, the book was published at the end without censorship. So I’m excited and slightly with anxiety before my going back, my trip back home again in, shortly.
PAPPER: By censorship do you mean government censorship?
COHEN: Government censorship, military censorship.
PAPPER: Do all books published have to go through that?
COHEN: The censor insists that-and again that there is an open issue about that-I’m Israeli citizen but am not living in Israel right now. I live in the United States. So it’s not that clear in terms of precedent, legal precedent, that the book had to be submitted. In fact, many Israeli writers these days do not, especially researchers as opposed to the journalists. Journalists, as a matter of habit, do submit sensitive stuff to the censor. It some cases, when they don’t they’re being fined. So it’s not that obvious I had to. In any case, it’s not clear to what extent this censorship business has, you know, it refers to Israelis all over the world. Whether jurisdiction is outside Israeli borders. But the fact is I did not submit it and we’ll see what will be the consequences of that, if any. I hope there’s none.
PAPPER: Have things changed since you wrote the book? Do you have anything new to add:? You said that the story wasn’t complete.
COHEN: I got some elements, and perhaps there will be another book in the future. I think that my book has helped a little bit to open the debate in Israel. And just as a few bureaucrats within the Israeli government are opposing my book, there are many, many, many Israelis, including people in a position of power, who gave me compliments for the achievement for the book, who mentioned their excitement and interest in reading the book. So, there is at least a mixed view about that. And, indeed it will be very much interested to see how, what will be the reaction.
PAPPER: You mentioned earlier that for this secret to be unveiled that Israel should maybe come clean, or talk abut their strategies?
COHEN: I would like to be more cautious than the way you express it. At the present time I would not recommend changing of the declaratory position. That needs to be done with a lot of caution. For the long run, I would like to see some kind of deal that would provide Israel legitimacy for what she has, its status, but at the same time it would allow to have oversight at home and some kind of accountability with other powers outside Israel. Nevertheless, I am not, I don’t think it would be wise to do it without serious and major consultation with the United States. I do hope, however, that some aspect of the Israeli history, for its own sake, will be open for Israeli students of history. So that’s my interest right now. I think there are some elements, very exciting aspects of Israeli history, that should and ought to be open for historical research. So it’s much more modest than at this point suggesting of declaratory policy. I would not, this is not my view.
PAPPER: But you said it would eventually lead to bettering Israeli democracy.
COHEN: That’s right.
PAPPER: How? Why?
COHEN: I don’t believe that a democracy like Israel-Israel is a democracy in most respects, but not this one-can live with one important aspect that has to-of its life; one area of activity that has a lot to do, not only with military affairs and with security, but also with environment, safety, health, of a lot of people who are involved in that. That area of activity can be kept classified and secrets in a complete way, in a total way, and every faction is serious about that, cannot be on the table, cannot be made. There is something, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed about, democratically speaking, at about that kind of situation. So that’s why I’m saying that Israeli democracy cannot afford to continue with that kind of attitude. There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about it.
PORTER: Avner Cohen is author of Israel And The Bomb.
MCHUGH: Coming up, a report on the United Nations’ efforts to stop the global flood of small arms and light weapons.
RANDY RYDELL: You have brokers. You have third parties who are buying arms. Sometimes quite legitimately. And then diverting them and selling them for illicit purposes all around the world.
PORTER: The United Nations identifies revolvers, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, and portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems, as small arms and light weapons. These are the weapons of choice in most of the world’s ongoing conflicts. Controlling the international flow of these weapons is very difficult.
MCHUGH: This summer the UN will have a global conference in New York to address the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. Hélène Papper recently spoke with two experts involved in this effort. Ismail Khairat is the Egyptian representative for the conference; Randy Rydell is a senior official in the UN’s Department of Disarmament Affairs.
RANDY RYDELL: The type of weaponry we’re talking about here are differentiated from the type that you find in civil society. This is-we’re not talking about weapons used by hunters or by private citizens in their own home. These are, tend to be weapons, although they are operated by only one person, or a small number of people, are manufactured and intended specifically for military purposes. So there is a distinction to be made very clearly at the outset between these weapons having military capabilities and those having purely civilian or domestic use. Also, obviously weapons that would be useful for domestic police uses, for example, are excluded from this definition.
PAPPER: The United Nations is taking actions against these weapons. Why? What problems are caused by small arms and light weapons?
RYDELL: The international community has been trying for some time to gauge the size of this problem, to draw lines around it so that we can understand exactly how grave it is. We know that each year that tens of thousands of innocent civilians-women and children-die in conflicts all around the world, largely from the supply and use of these small arms. The Secretary General of the United Nations has repeatedly decried this situation in numerous reports, in reports he’s done on the conflict situations in Africa and in deliberations during the Millennium Assembly last year.
Now, the estimates vary. The experts tell us that over 500 million of these small arms are currently in circulation in the world. Some estimates go as high as 1 billion. It’s impossible to know exactly how many there are because it’s very difficult to keep track of them. They cross borders very easy; they, customs people find it very hard to see them and to count them. We don’t know how many have even been produced. And some of these weapons have been destroyed and are no longer available. So the calculations are very difficult. But the safe number is generally over a half billion of these weapons are still out there and ready to use in killing people.
PAPPER: An upcoming conference regarding small arms is currently under preparation. What is the 2001 conference about?
ISMAIL KHAIRAT: This program of work is to try to identify the problems. It’s trying to put a solution for the problems. It’s trying to suggest some elements in order to combat and eradicate the problem of illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Then there’s a program of action which has been under discussion. We are going to discuss a revised version of this program of action in order to refer to the conference to adopt it.
PAPPER: Randy Rydell?
RYDELL: The full title of this conference is “The United Nations Conference On The Illicit Trafficking In Small Arms And Light Weapons In All Its Aspects.” So it’s a very, very broad-ranging treatment of this issue. It will address matters relating to stockpiles to production to how to monitor flows of these technologies, these weapons around the world. And the event is going to be attended by the overwhelming majority of states in the United Nations. It will get a great deal of attention not only from member states, but also from the non-governmental community, which will be involved closely in monitoring the discussions at this conference. And even contributing sometimes, some information that is useful for the deliberations.
PAPPER: Who are the main exporters and importers of small arms right now Mr. Khairat?
KHAIRAT: Exporters: there are many exporters. We cannot define the one and leave the other. We can say that there’s many. Importers: what we are having the problem is the importers of these weapons in areas where conflicts are existing. In particular in the cases of field states. I feel also that the illicit state in small arms and light weapons, it aggravates the existing conflicts that are in many places in the world. Especially in Africa, some in Latin America, and some in Asia.
PAPPER: Are these imports done legally or illegally, for the most part?
RYDELL: An exporter is typically one who simply ships arms in world commerce. And an importer is the buyer. But the actual market situation is a lot more complicated than that. Because you have intermediaries. You have brokers. You have third parties who are buying arms. Sometimes quite legitimately. And then diverting them and selling them for illicit purposes all around the world. So you have a gray area that is between the legal trade and the illegal trade that is being exploited on the black market, and leading to large numbers of these weapons turning up in precisely the conflict areas that were just mentioned earlier, most of which are in Africa. The other problem that we have at the UN is that a lot of these guns are being placed into conflict areas in countries that are currently under UN arms embargoes. So this is greatly complicating the work of the UN Security Council in trying to enforce these arms embargoes. When you have countries that have very weak governments, they don’t have effective border controls. They don’t have the capacity of patrolling very, very long borders. And as a result these arms go in and out of borders very, very easily. So the, in sum I think the problem in addressing small arms in all its aspects must look at not just the, who is producing these weapons and who is using them, but also the intermediaries and the middle men.
PAPPER: In the US the NRA is opposed to most limits on handguns and rifles. Are you aware of any role being played by the NRA on this issue at the global level?
RYDELL: The NRA does have a presence. They show up and they monitor very closely what is going on. And I’m certain that they will do so in the July conference. Incidentally, it will be between the 9th and the 21st of July. And the NRA will not be the only non-governmental organization. There will be quite a large number of others that will be there observing as well, watching the deliberations and trying to bring information out for public debate. The Vienna Convention, the firearms, focuses on law and order and domestic crime uses. And the focus of this conference by contrast, in July, will focus more on the use in civil wars around the world and domestic large-scale military violence in terrorist uses and the like, that are quite distinct from these other issues that are being handled in the Vienna forum.
PAPPER: Can worldwide limits on small arms ever be a reality? If they are easily available for purchase in the United States?
KHAIRAT: I think so. What we are speaking is that we are speaking about the gray area. The gray area, like Randy just said, it is the problem. All of the states have the right to export. Every state has the right to import. But what’s going in between within the exporting or trying to go to some places where we have a state, a field state, or we have a conflict, this is the problem. We are trying through the conference, and trying to adopting the program of action, to put some kind of cooperation between states in customs, in law enforcement, for exports. And many other things which can exist.
RYDELL: Each country has their own unique circumstances that lead it to be either a battleground or a zone where these weapons are either passed through or are used in. As a result, measures to control this problem have to be tailored to very specific local circumstances. So it’s very difficult to have a single uniform global standard that in all times will apply to local levels. There clearly has to be some adaptation that goes on to local conditions. And it’s very interesting that in preparation for this conference in July that at least three regions that I’m aware of have had regional intergovernmental meetings to prepare for this conference. There’s been one in Brasilia, for example, that has been fairly recent. There was one held in Mali, in Africa, to coordinate a regional position on this issue. And there’s one also that’s been held in Cambodia fairly recently, dealing with the issue of coordinating an East Asian approach to dealing with this.
Now, the problem is one, I think, largely of increasing the capacity of governments to be able to manage the problem on their own. The idea here is not, it’s very unlikely we’re going to be heading toward a great global, universal organization that’s going to be controlling this problem. It’s more likely to be that some general standards and principles will be agreed to. A solemn agreement on discrete actions that are needed. And then it will be in the hands of individual governments to take these principles and to apply them by means of training local customs officials, integrating these standards into their domestic laws. That’s one of the most important things, to try to get these standards changed so that they are binding domestically in these countries. And then, doing the best we can through financial aid, technical assistance, workshops, training arrangements, and other arrangements like this, to help countries to increase their own capacities for dealing with the problem.
KHAIRAT: The outcome of the conference on this illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, it will be a political outcome nature. It will not be legal binding document. So that’s why it is upon all states to implement it the way it wants.
PAPPER: In what ways do you think small arms are easier or harder to control in comparison with nuclear technology?
RYDELL: They’re both very difficult to control. The problem with small arms, of course, is that they, the technology for manufacturing them is widely distributed, as are the raw materials and equipment, and materials that you need to build these weapons are also widely available and can be acquired without attracting a lot of attention. They can be manufactured in small facilities and sold very discretely. They’re light weight, can be transported very easily. And as a result of this it does make the control effort very, very difficult. The problem of course, with weapons of mass destruction is that a very, very small quantity of plutonium or highly enriched uranium or biological weapon material or a very, very potent chemical agent or nerve gas, is also able to be moved around fairly quickly and easily. So there is a common dimension in both of these problems. The one difference, however, is that if something goes wrong with the controls on weapons of mass destruction, only one single use can lead to the devastation of a whole city. Whereas the problem with the small arms area is that thousands of people are being killed on a progressive basis through the continued use of these weapons in conflicts that are just raging on around the world. So the problem of control in both cases is to address the political disputes and underlying motives that are leading countries to go to war in the first place. If you can address and resolve these political disputes I think you will solve, eventually, the problem of control both with respect to small arms and with respects to the weapons of mass destruction.
KHAIRAT: Further, we have already international agreements taking care of this, of controlling and combating the trade in weapons of mass destruction. You have the International Atomic Agency and the safeguard system, which are taking care of this. You have the CWC and its severe safeguards system. You have the BWC and they are trying to tailor now a new system for safeguards.
RYDELL: With respect to weapons of mass destruction you have a legally binding international legal treaty regime that is designed to deal with obligations in each of these areas. But you don’t have that in the field of small arms, which makes it a lot more difficult.
PAPPER: What do you hope will come out of the upcoming 2001 conference?
KHAIRAT: The outcome will be mainly a program of action. And we might also adopt a declaration. But it’s not yet decided whether to have one document or whether to have two documents.
PAPPER: The outcome at the very least, I think, will be to raise the priority that is given to this problem in national governments around the world. The fact that this conference is taking place-governments have to send delegations to this conference. It gets attention at the highest levels of governments-ministry-level individuals have to focus on this. And this I think is very important, that it get raised in priority in all these governments around the world. And frankly also in the UN system. Finally, I think it would be also useful in raising the profile of the small arms issue among the general public. Not just in the United States but around the world. There are a lot of interested groups that are very much concerned about this. And the more that they get active, they can act to help support government efforts to control these weapons. And I think it’s that partnership that would be at the very, very pleasant, desirable outcome from this conference. And I hope it does materialize.
PORTER: That is Randy Rydell, Senior Political Affairs Officer in the UN’s Department of Disarmament Affairs. We also heard from Ismail Khairat, a political counselor in Egyptian mission to the United Nations. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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