Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, Egypt
Dec 2 - 8 1999 - issue 458
By Graham Usher

Last week the veil was lifted a little on one of Israel's most taboo subjects -- its nuclear capability. On 24 November, Israel's largest selling newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, published excerpts from the transcripts from the trial of its most notorious "traitor". Mordechai Vanunu was a former technician at Israel's Dimona reactor plant who, in 1986, famously sold its secrets to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper and was then abducted in a sting operation in Rome by Israel's overseas intelligence agency, Mossad. Sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for espionage, Vanunu has spent the intervening years behind bars, 12 of them in solitary confinement.

The decision to publish was taken by Israel's State Attorney Office in response to a request from Yediot and was broadly defended on the grounds of the "public's right to know". But the airing of an issue, many in Israel's military establishment would prefer remained concealed, has stirred debate among Israeli commentators around the questions of "why now?" and "know what?" Beyond this there is the speculation that the publication marks the first tentative step away from Israel's historical policy of "ambiguity" on all matters to do with its nuclear capability.

Not that Yediot's revelations tell the informed Israeli public anything it did not already know. They simply shed more light on the personality of Vanunu and the thinking of Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel's nuclear programme and the prime minister who ordered Vanunu's kidnapping in 1986. Asked at one point during the trial whether there was not "some benefit" to the Sunday Times expose, Yediot quotes Peres as saying, "I am not aware of any benefit from publication. Even when I take into account all the reasons given for this, for instance, that Vanunu's publication increased Israel's deterrent ability."

This still appears to be the political consensus in Israel if government reactions to Yediot's scoop are anything to go by. Speaking on the day of publication, Israel's best-known dove, present Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, set the tone. "I am not accusing anyone in particular [about the Yediot story]," he said. "But it was a big mistake to publish." And thirteen years on Peres still holds to the opinion he expressed at the trial. It is better Israel maintains the policy of "anonymity" on nuclear issues, he said, because there are some things "the public doesn't want to know about". Peres seemed especially miffed that Yediot's publication occurred on the eve of his trip to Egypt. "And I assume that this will [now] be a central topic in my meetings [there]," he said wearily. Together with Syria, Egypt has long insisted that Israel go public on "nuclear issues" so that they can be bound by international and regional agreements on non-proliferation, disarmament and monitoring.

But beyond the Knesset the debate took off. Writing in Israel's "liberal" Haaretz newspaper on 28 November, Zvi Barel argued that while the "ambiguous" nuclear policy "blocked a comprehensive [Arab] war with Israel," its continuation, once "the strategy of peace was adduced as a possible alternative" to deterrence, is not only "irrelevant" but may "block a comprehensive peace." Barel is trenchant with his reasons. "When Israel, in addition to its nuclear potential, also has the United States at its side as a strategic shield, it is perceived by Arabs not only as a state that does not belong to the Middle East club but as one that has no interest in joining," he writes.

The opposing view was presented by columnist Ron Ben Yishai in Yediot on 26 November. He admits that the veil cast over Israel's nuclear policies is already a little threadbare given that "so much of Israel's nuclear capabilities has already been revealed". By way of an example, he cites that "approximately one month ago, the CIA reported to Congress that it believed Israel had approximately 40 nuclear bombs". He also agrees that the end of "ambiguity" would "provide an opportunity for an open and organised public debate" about a defence policy based on nuclear weapons, "if they exist".

Yet, despite these reasons, Ben Yishai ends up by advocating a continuation of the policy of "ambiguity". He grounds this argument not only in the usual terms of "deterrence" but, tellingly, on the recognition that a veil over Israel's nuclear ability strengthens its hand both in relation to those states it views as "strategic" (that is, nuclear) threats and those with whom it has peace treaties.

"Israel's nuclear vagueness is necessary to allow the US and NATO allies to demand that the Russians and Chinese not help Iran and Iraq equip themselves with nuclear arms, without being susceptible to accusations of maintaining a 'double-standard' regarding Israel's nuclear arsenal. Israel's neighbours, principally Egypt, are demanding that Israel's nuclear installations be placed under full supervision, and this is another good reason to continue the policy of nuclear vagueness. Were Israel to admit that it has nuclear arms, it would be subjected to supervision and its precise nuclear capability would become public knowledge. The next step would be for Cairo and the countries of the region to demand Israel's nuclear disarmament as a precondition for signing any additional peace treaties with it."

As for the stance of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the debate, he has made it clear that he prefers the veil of Ben Yishai to going bare-head as counselled by Barel. Asked about Israel's nuclear policy by Yediot on 26 November, he replied, "Our policy has not changed: we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East."

Nor will Israel be the second.