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Boston Globe
March 14, 2001

Israeli author queried on nuclear security

By Dan Ephron, Globe Correspondent, 3/14/2001

TEL AVIV - Authorities questioned an Israeli scholar for more than eight hours yesterday on suspicion that he committed security breaches by publishing a book on the history of the country's nuclear weapons program, an issue that the Jewish state shrouds in secrecy.

Avner Cohen, who has lived in Takoma Park, Md., for the past 10 years while researching and writing "Israel and the Bomb," was told he would face more questioning and could not leave Israel until the investigation was complete, an Israeli security official said.

Cohen arrived in Israel a day earlier for an academic conference.

"He's suspected of committing offenses against Israel's security," said Shlomo Dror, the Defense Ministry spokesman in Tel Aviv, where Cohen was interrogated. "We're checking if the information he got for the book came from inside the defense establishment. If it did, that would be a violation of the law."

Other officials said Cohen, who has a doctorate in philosophy, could be charged with publishing state secrets, a broad category in the criminal code that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Members of Israel's domestic Shin Bet security agency and a special unit in charge of security breaches inside the Defense Ministry took part in the questioning.

Cohen's lawyer, Nahum Oren, said his client broke no laws by publishing his book.

Cohen's book, published in the United States two years ago, traces the political and diplomatic maneuvering Israeli leaders conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in establishing the Dimona nuclear plant, where several hundred nuclear weapons are believed to have been built.

Cohen describes how David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, decided the Jewish state needed nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against a second Holocaust, how a deal with France was arranged for construction of the reactor and how successive US presidents failed to block Israel's nuclear development.

He also explains how Israel decided early on neither to admit nor deny having nuclear weapons. The ambiguity afforded Israel a deterrent against hostile Arab neighbors without inviting US pressure to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The policy remains in effect today. In a country where even the most mundane issues are hotly debated, Israel's nuclear capability is one of the few remaining unmentionables.

Israelis know of their country's arsenal mainly from foreign press accounts. The most detailed Dimona report came from a former technician at the plant who told the Sunday Times of London that Israel had built 200 bombs there. Mordechai Vanunu is serving an 18-year sentence for his disclosures.

In the book's epilogue, Cohen argues that the secrecy has stifled public debate and marks a striking failure in Israel's democracy. He also suggests it might be time to come clean.

Cohen, who refused to be interviewed while the investigation is being conducted, has said his book is based almost entirely on declassified documents and interviews. In an interview last year, he said the real reason Israel's defense establishment was pursuing him had to do with his call to end the hush-hush nuclear policy.

"On the political spectrum there is a national consensus that it would be wrong for the country to hold a debate about it and that it should be left to the bureaucrats," he said.

Dror, the Defense Ministry spokesman, denied that was the issue.

"Israel doesn't care if someone raises the nuclear issue or criticizes a policy. There are a lot of people who criticize this policy. The question is if he used material that he got from inside. That's what we're checking now," he said.

Cohen is to deliver the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science today in Jerusalem. His lawyer said Cohen had planned to return to the United States on March 22 but would remain in Israel if the investigation was still underway.

This story ran on page 8 of the Boston Globe on 3/14/2001.

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company




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