Saturday, April 3, 2010

Iran, Israel & the Conspicuous Absence of Nuclear Debate

In an extensive, research-based 2009 position paper titled: On Nuclear Weapons: A Feminist Perspective, Ednay Gorney and Hedva Eyal of the Isha L'Isha Haifa Feminist Center wrote, "the Israeli public remains excluded from the [nuclear] debate. The public does not ask questions, does not demand that the state takes responsibility, nor does it demand to be involved in decision making; it accepts and is content with the information or, more accurately, with the lack of information."

This passive indifference to the nuclear weaponry widely believed to be in the public's backyard is, in my view, a highly dangerous manifestation of Israel's longtime and entrenched militarization. As Gorney and Eyal have put it, "Decision-making in all areas related to security is characterized by secrecy and vagueness, excluding anyone who does not belong to the security elite. … The secret functions both on the outside as well as on the inside. Denying information under the guise of maintaining secrecy is one of the common ways through which elites maintain their status. … [While o]ne of the ways they can attain legitimacy for their control and actions is to continuously disseminate and instill fear – real and imaginary – among the citizens of Israel. This fear justifies and, in turn, foments military power and its use against any security threat, as defined by this elite group."

Meanwhile, Gorney and Eyal have noted, "We are flooded with information on the great threat Iran poses and on the necessity of military operations. The debate within the Israeli public discourse is almost devoid of the possibility of solution through diplomatic means."

Outlining the severely undemocratic suppression of any public nuclear debate in Israel, the position paper lists a line of researchers, journalists, politicians, activists and ex-security personnel who's critical voices have been stifled by the security establishment, using a broad range of tactics. This in addition to the constant dissemination of fear underpinning militarization in general and the unquestioning Israeli public acceptance of its governments' nuclear armament in particular. Thus, the risks of such armament to this public itself, as well as the entire area or even the globe, go unexamined and undebated for decades on end.

Resisting this reality and reaching for an actual, participatory democracy, Gorney and Eyal explain, "As feminists we wish to expose the connections between the policy of opacity, concealment and fear, and the current perception of security. We want to take responsibility for our lives and for actions carried out in our name."

In one of the rare public voices taking up these issues, the position paper concludes:
"We demand the removal of opacity surrounding the issue of nuclear weapons in Israel; We demand a public debate and the development of an alternative policy that will enable us to live in peace in the Middle East; We demand nuclear disarmament; We demand that the State of Israel join the International Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons."

To read the full 22 page position paper, see:


Another such public voice, sounded now for many years, is that of nuclear historian and analyst, Avner Cohen, whose work is one of main sources repeatedly referred to by the Isha L'Isha position paper. Cohen is equally critical of successive Israeli governments' successful barring of nuclear debate and, in the recent op-ed forwarded in full below, offers a series of serious arguments against what he views as the irresponsible and extremely dangerous possibility that Israel might launch a military attack against Iran in an attempt to quash its nuclear capacity.

Cohen's op-ed, converging in part with some of the conclusions presented by the Isha L'Isha position paper, was published April 2nd in Haaretz.

Rela Mazali


Fri., April 02, 2010

We look at Iran and see ourselves

By Avner Cohen

If Israel takes military action against Iran, it will be one of the biggest decisions in the history of the state. The risks involved will make it unprecedented.

There is no comparison between such a decision and the ones that established and implemented the so-called Begin doctrine: the decision by Menachem Begin's government to attack the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 and the attack on the nuclear facility in Syria in 2007. In terms of both the complexity of the military operation and the uncertainty about the consequences and where they may lead, there is a qualitative difference between the legacy of the past and the challenge of the present.

The seriousness of the challenge requires as open and thorough a public discussion as possible. But unfortunately, such a discussion has been virtually nonexistent, even on a basic conceptual level. Instead of a public discussion there has been a belligerent press, which makes demagogic use of statements that intensify the message of the politics of fear. These include expressions such as "Iran is galloping toward a bomb" and a "second Holocaust" that Israel must prevent. Such discourse creates a feeling that if Iran is not attacked, and soon, we have no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran.

It's doubtful whether the people making those statements are capable of giving them a precise (technical and political) interpretation. It's doubtful whether they have a suitable answer to the question: When should Iran be considered a nuclear state? Where exactly is the red line? What is the precise significance of such a line and what makes it red?

One thing is clear: As long as Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it will not be able to test a nuclear device or declare that it has one. Also, as long as Iran is subject to the treaty, it will not be a nuclear state according to the accepted definition of such a state.

It's true that under cover of the treaty Iran can get very close to the nuclear threshold and still claim - as it claims now - that it is not deviating from its legal obligations under the treaty. Iran as a threshold state can perhaps even position itself a few weeks away from a nuclear test. Such an Iran, despite supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency, will of necessity be opaque; there will always remain a fear that it is working in secret, including making weapons in secret. But even in such a case, Iran would be considered a threshold state, not an actual nuclear state.

Even those who disparage the practical limitations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (as Israelis tend to do) must recognize that it is almost impossible for Iran to be a nuclear state in the full sense without withdrawing from the treaty. And even if it is outside the treaty, it will take Iran years, many years, to make the transition from a threshold state to a mature nuclear state. Such a transition is not trivial; certainly it is not inevitable, even if we look at the experience of states that in the past were considered threshold states and were not bound by the treaty's restrictions.

For example, India, which carried out a nuclear test in 1998, is still making this transition slowly, and many experts say it should still not be considered a mature nuclear state. Even Pakistan, whose nuclear path was faster and more purposeful than India's, needed about a generation to become a nuclear state to all extents and purposes. In its nuclear behavior Iran is more like India than Pakistan.

It's ironic that an Iran under attack would probably become more determined and purposeful in its nuclear ambitions. After an attack, Iran would abandon the treaty in protest, declare its right to nuclear arms and almost certainly succeed in implementing it.

The public discussion in Israel about a nuclear Iran is simplistic, inadequate, confused and confusing. It reflects to some degree our own biases. We come from a culture of national security in which nuclear opacity has been exploited to the hilt to create a specific model of deterrence. The result is that when we look at Iran we see ourselves: how we would behave in a similar situation. But Iran is not Israel exactly, and the Israeli experience does not necessarily reflect Iran's behavior. On the contrary, it leads to systematic errors when making assessments.

The writer is the author of the book "Israel and the Bomb." His forthcoming book, "The Worst-Kept Secret," will be published in the United States in September.

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