Israel: Censoring the past
By Aluf Benn
Armed with Israel’s draconian criminal code on security, Yechiel Horev, head of MALMAB, the security arm of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, launched an offensive in March aimed at trying to conceal the country’s nuclear history, much of which has already seen the light of day.
Caught in Horev’s net was Avner Cohen, an Israeli historian and author of the book Israel and the Bomb, who upon return from self-imposed exile in Washington was investigated about his sources and motives in writing the book. It was Israel’s first-ever criminal process involving academic research. Meanwhile, ex-general Yitzhak Yaacov, a former head of Israeli defense R&D, was secretly arrested and indicted for writing his memoirs. A few months earlier, the private papers of late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, held for decades by his widow, had been confiscated and put under guard in the state archives.
The determination and thoroughness of these actions might lead one to believe that the country is in grave danger. But all three incidents involve decades-old information, going back to the late 1960s.
For example, Cohen told the world how, on the eve of the Six-Day War of 1967, Israeli technicians assembled two nuclear devices and placed them under “operational readiness.” Eshkol, who died in 1969, presided over Israel’s nuclear maturation process. And the 75-year-old Yaacov, who left the Israeli military in 1973 and lives in Manhattan, aspired to leave some trace of his part in the drama.
Horev, who has guarded Israeli security matters for 15 years, is not satisfied with merely official silence on nuclear matters. He believes that all Israelis, not only government officials, are bound to remain silent.
Keeping the lid on is usually not difficult—both the Israeli media and the academic community are subject to pre-publication military censorship and they are well aware of the limits of tolerance. Avner Cohen, on the other hand, presented an unprecedented challenge to Horev and MALMAB because he was working abroad.
Cohen’s interest in nuclear affairs began with the moral and philosophical aspects of the bomb. Gradually, his focus moved to the history of the Israeli nuclear project, and a decade ago he started work on a detailed study of that project. While Cohen was in Israel, his interviews with former officials and visits to archives caught the attention of the security unit, and he was asked to behave himself. At first, he submitted an article for censorship; it was banned. In 1995, after a futile legal battle, Cohen decided to continue his work in the United States, away from MALMAB and the censor. When he visited Israel that summer, he was met at the airport by a senior police officer.
After that encounter, Cohen stayed away from Israel, fearing imminent arrest. Ignoring Israeli government warnings, he went on with his project. Israel and the Bomb was published in the United States in September 1998, and a Hebrew edition followed two years later.
The book told the story of the Israeli nuclear program from its birth in the 1950s to 1970 and meticulously described the program’s impact on U.S.-Israeli relations. Cohen avoided technical and operational details, and by and large made a case for the program. Nevertheless, the book was a breakthrough. And despite MALMAB’s antagonism, the book made its way to a number of Israeli government offices—the most prominent among them being that of Shimon Peres, Israel’s nuclear entrepreneur, elder statesman, and current foreign minister.
To Horev, the book spelled trouble. His major concern was that Cohen, unlike other authors, had used primary sources like ex-officials and declassified documents from American and Israeli archives. His extensive footnotes gave the book an unprecedented credibility and authority. One item, specifically, bothered the nuclear guardians: the minutes of a 1963 meeting chaired by Eshkol, in which the prime minister explicitly said, “We have a [plutonium] reprocessing plant.” These words amounted to an official acknowledgment of the purpose of the reactor complex at Dimona. Cohen put the document on his web site for all to see, and a team of MALMAB investigators was sent to the state archives to find out who had authorized its declassification and why.
Another Horev concern had to do with Cohen’s motivations. Defense officials were concerned that his work was funded by anti-nuclear organizations. As a former defense minister once told me, “They want to lay everything out on the table, and then wipe the table clean.”
In mid-March, Cohen decided to return to Israel to take part in an academic conference. The government promised not to arrest him upon his arrival, provided that he showed up the next day for interrogation by MALMAB. Over a period of three weeks he was grilled for some 50 hours, and formally charged with “possession, disclosure, and transfer of secret information.” MALMAB investigators were mainly interested in Cohen’s sources of information and funds.
By early April, the questioning was over and Cohen was free to return to the United States pending his return for further interviews if needed. MALMAB did not rule out a possible indictment of Cohen, although it seems unlikely. Returning to Washington, Cohen wrote to friends that while he had cooperated with the investigation in order to refute the suspicions against him, at no point did he compromise his professional integrity.
Cohen asserts that all his actions regarding research for Israel and the Bomb were legal—that he never had any classified documents and that his sole motivation was to write his country’s nuclear history. While refusing to discuss details of his interrogation, he said that the government policy of nuclear opacity has become increasingly anachronistic, a relic of another era.
“They try to conceal a significant chapter of Israel’s history, highly important to understanding issues of war, peace, and national image. Secrecy, when properly used in a democracy, has to be limited to operational military matters and should remain effective only for a short term. Declaring a full area of national activity lasting for nearly two generations as completely classified information is intolerable in a de- mocracy. I was put through a personal ordeal, and my own reputation was smeared, in the name of an anachronistic policy.”
Horev believes it is his duty to preserve Amimut, the Hebrew word used to depict Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity” or “opacity.” Amimut means that, although everyone knows what capabilities Israel has, it remains silent about them. This policy has been the basis for a long-held understanding between Israel and the United States, by which Israel undertook not to declare itself a nuclear state, nor to test a nuclear device, and the United States promised to look the other way. The common thinking in the Israeli defense establishment is that any erosion in nuclear ambiguity might lead Israel to a collision course with its American ally.
Cohen believes that the policy, in its current and never-changing form, is overdue and needs to be replaced with a set of updated understandings with Washington and a statutory arrangement of authority and responsibility for the nuclear program.
Even as Cohen was answering MALMAB's questions, another affair was blowing up. On March 28, government agents arrested Yaacov (known in Israel as “Yatza”) as he was boarding a plane. A court issued a blanket gag order, banning the publication of any information about the arrest and subsequent investigation and indictment.
The Israeli public learned of Yaacov’s arrest only four weeks later, when the story found its way into the Sunday Times of London, thereby circumventing the court order and the Israeli censors.
Yaacov was charged with “giving secret information with the intent of harming the state security.” According to the published part of his indictment, his crime was in writing drafts of two books, one fiction and the other an autobiography, showing copies of these drafts to “unauthorized persons,” and giving an interview to Ronen Bergman, a newspaper reporter, who duly submitted the story to the Israeli censors. Bergman’s story was never published.
When Munia Mardor, the founder of Israel’s national armament laboratory, wanted to publish his recollections in 1981, he sought and obtained permission from defense higher-ups, and then disguised his nuclear tale with euphemistic terms like “the big project”—although there was little doubt as to his true meaning. A decade later, when the nuclear connection of the book was made public in a newspaper article, security officials were upset and regretted giving permission for the publication.
Yaacov began writing his memoirs in 1998. But unlike Mardor, he sought no official endorsement. When Horev discovered the book was in progress, he called Yaacov and warned him to stop. Yaacov refused, and when he came to Israel to attend a party held in his honor, he ended up in jail.
Yaacov’s case is the opposite of Cohen’s. Cohen is a private citizen who was never privy to classified information. Yaacov was sworn to secrecy, and was not supposed to share his recollections with others. The government has a clear-cut case against him.
Given Yaacov’s service record and his contributions to Israel’s high-tech industry, however, the press has bashed Horev and the state attorney not only for how they treated “Yatza,” but particularly for concealing his arrest. Even though defense officials used harsh words about a former colleague, they too disapproved of his arrest and believed he deserved more respectful treatment.
The outcome of the Yaacov and Cohen cases will eventually determine the scope of nuclear ambiguity and government secrecy in Israel. Is it illegal even to ask questions about nuclear matters? Do former officials have to die with their lips sealed? Is there no time limit on old secrets? Horev would probably answer affirmatively to all these questions. But now his actions may have to withstand a legal test.
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.