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David Aikman

Nuclear Promised Land

Ever since Israel's founding, the same question has been asked by nosy journalists and students of international affairs: "Does Israel possess nuclear weapons?" And ever since the administration of Levi Eshkol (1963–69), right up through Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime ministers have responded with the same mantra: "Israel will not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."

What that reply means, of course, all depends on what you mean by "introduce." If it means "announce the possession of nuclear weapons," or "openly test nuclear devices," or "threaten to use nuclear weapons," then Israel has clearly not yet "introduced" nuclear weapons into the Middle East. But if "introduce" means to have ready for actual deployment several nuclear warheads and a credible delivery system, then Israel actually introduced nuclear weapons into the region as far back as 1967. Early that year, to use the somewhat edgy language of Washington-based Israeli scholar Avner Cohen in this entirely fascinating book, Israel already had "a bomb in the basement," a primitive but usable nuclear fissionable weapon.

What makes Cohen's book so interesting is not that it openly reveals this fact; after all, several earlier books have sketched out, often in convincing detail, the basic facts of Israel's nuclear-weapons program. Cohen's agenda is much more basic. He wants to examine what he calls the "opacity" of Israel's nuclear status in both the domestic and international arena. He wants to probe the motivations and intents of Israel's political, military, and scientific leaders in making Israel's nuclear status the holy unmentionable name of Middle East politics.

It was not until 1970, incredibly, that the CIA finally was certain that Israel had become the world's sixth nuclear state (after the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China), and the word—not convincingly denied by the Israelis—spread quickly through British and American news ...

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