The Avner Cohen Collection

By
Avner Cohen


U.S. CORONA satilite photo of the Dimona nuclear facility, taken 11 November 1968

The Avner Cohen Collection features exciting new materials regarding the development of the Israeli nuclear program, including interviews with key policymakers and scientists from Israel, the United States, and France that shed new light on the development of the Israeli nuclear program.

Table of Contents
 
 
Introduction
 

More than sixty years have passed since Israel began its nuclear project and almost half a century has elapsed since Israel first crossed the nuclear weapons threshold. Yet Israel’s nuclear history has no voice of its own: no insiders have told the story from within.[1] Unlike all seven other nuclear weapons states, Israel’s nuclear policy is built upon non-acknowledgement. Israel believes that nuclear silence is golden, referring to this national conduct as amimut (opacity in Hebrew).  

Amimut is the public trademark of Israel’s relationship with the bomb. It involves secrecy, ambiguity and taboo. As such, researching Israel’s nuclear history poses serious challenges. I recall how Israel Dostrovsky and Shalheveth Freier—the second and the third heads of the Israeli Atomic Nuclear Commission—told me that the deeds of that history resisted the written record. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War down broke out, Freier ordered his subordinates to stop communicating with anyone in writin

In accordance with this policy, Israel keeps its nuclear archives totally sealed. Almost no Israeli archival material on the nation’s nuclear history is available. Furthermore, the United States’ own hand in this policy has led the U.S. government archives—often used as a back door into the records of other nations—to treat their own Israeli nuclear files as highly sensitive. A great deal of the American record on the subject remains unavailable to researchers. A similar pattern exists in other Western states that have ties to Israel’s nuclear history, such as France, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Germany.

Given this state of affairs, oral history is indispensable to any effort to study Israel’s nuclear history. Oral history has its own familiar flaws—the human memory is often selective, subjective, slippery and even self-serving—yet it is essential and necessary for such a historical project.

When I began to trace Israel’s nuclear history in earnest during the 1990s, I decided to rely significantly on oral history. During a decade of research for Israel and the Bomb, I conducted nearly two hundred interviews while collecting as many documents as possible.

As a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center between 2008 and 2010, I had the privilege to work among the group of nuclear historians that helped the Center to develop and initiate a new, scholarly consortium devoted to the study international nuclear history. Thanks to a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP) came into being within the History and Public Policy Program (HAPP) at the Center in 2010. Within a short time, the NPIHP became a hub of international nuclear history research.

A year later, I accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California (MIIS). I left my personal research archive under the custodianship of the NPIHP in order for the materials to be preserved, cataloged, digitized, and ultimately posted online as part of the new HAPP digital archive.

This collection, now referred to as the “Avner Cohen Collection” represents nearly two decades of academic research on the history of Israel’s nuclear program. It includes tens of thousands of pages of copies of archival documents, countless press clippings, and hundreds of hours of oral history interviews. I drew upon these materials to write both Israel and the Bomb and The Worst Kept Secret and subsequently donated the “raw materials” of my research to the Wilson Center in July 2011.

I have always wished that my professional research on this fascinating history should be available to other researchers. Many items contained in this collection are not available anywhere else, in part because those insights were never committed to paper and because many of those individuals that I interviewed have since passed away.

While this collection serves as a guide to the past, it may also enlighten our understanding of the present and help shape a more peaceful future. Historical scholarship on Israel’s nuclear program affects contemporary thinking on nuclear matters in the Middle East and globally. Greater public knowledge of Israel’s nuclear policies is critical to the country’s continued ability to flourish as a vibrant democracy. Moreover, historical transparency may help promote regional stability by reducing distrust between Israel and its neighbors.

In the coming years, the NPIHP and I are committed to release many new items in the Wilson Center’s publically accessible digital archive. The “Avner Cohen Collection” seeks to enhance research on Israeli nuclear affairs in a responsible and scholarly fashion. This and future accessions to the digital archive are made (and will be made) after careful and deliberate review. The first release, published on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, includes seven items and all of them are new to the public record, including:

  • A video interview with Azarayahu “Sini” Arnan, which includes a dramatic eyewitness description of a closed-door ministerial consultation in which Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir overruled Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, halting preparations to use nuclear weapons during the 1973 War.
  • An interview with Professor Avraham Hermoni who served as technical director at Israel’s Weapons Authority (RAFAEL) during the 1960s and oversaw some aspects of the nuclear project.
  • An interview with Edwin (Ed) Kintner, a team member on at least two of the US teams that visited Dimona in the 1960s.
  • An interview with Myer Feldman, a senior White House aide during the  Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-65), who was tasked with the special responsibility of handling Israel’s most sensitive matters on behalf of the U.S. presidents.
  • An interview with Walt Rostow, National Security Advisor to President Johnson.
  • Two separate interviews with Dr. Bertrand Goldschmidt and Dr. André Finkelstein, key figures at the French Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (CEA), on the origins of French-Israeli nuclear relations and the Dimona deal with two.

Additional materials will be added to the collection in the coming months as they are readied for publication.

Acknowledgements
 

This first release of materials from the Avner Cohen Collection represents nearly two years of fruitful, collaborative work between individuals and institutions on both coasts: my hard-working colleagues at CNS/MIIS in California and the fantastic staff of the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP) in Washington D.C. In Monterey, thanks are due to my colleagues at CNS, especially to CNS director William C. Potter and CNS deputy director Jon Wolfsthal, Director of the MIIS Digital Learning Commons Bob Cole, as well to my two faithful graduate research assistants Megan McWilliams and Shane Mason.

On the D.C. side, special thanks are due to NPIHP co-directors Christian Ostermann and Leopoldo Nuti, who have provided a great deal of encouragement and support on this project. Timothy McDonnell, Laura Deal, and Evan Pikulski have all provided invaluable editorial input and organizational expertise at each step. The hard work spent organizing, transcribing, and translating the collection's materials by research assistants David Najmi, Emily Hoffman, Jake Schindler, and Ronen Plechnin also deserve special thanks.  Finally, Drew Sample of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s communications office has been an invaluable asset on the media side.  Many heartfelt thanks to all those who have made this project possible.

Interviews
 
This interview with long-term Israeli government insider Arnan "Sini" Azaryahu includes a dramatic eye-witness account of a closed-door discussion where Golda Meir overruled defense minister Moshe Dayan, halting preparations to use nuclear weapons during the '73 war.

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive
 
Avraham Hermoni served as senior technical director of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. In this interview, he recounts the relationship between the Israeli government, the IDF, and the Weapons Development Authority (RAFAEL) during the development of Israel's nuclear capability.

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in both the Hebrew original and English translation on the Digital Archive
 
Edwin Kintner, member of the U.S. inspection team to the Dimona nuclear facility, expresses his disbelief in this interview that the Israelis had successfully hidden a nuclear reprocessing facility deep beneath the Dimona site in the Negev desert.

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive
 
Bertrand Goldschmidt was a leading French nuclear scientist who helped develop the PUREX plutonium extraction technique. In this interview, Goldschmidt explains the background of the French role in constructing the Dimona nuclear facility. 

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive
 
Myer Feldman, close aide to JFK and special liason to Israel, discusses the negotiations between the U.S. and Israel regarding the Non-Proliferation treaty in this 1994 interview.

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive
 
André Finkelstein, deputy director of the IAEA and a ranking official within the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), discusses Franco-Israeli nuclear technology exchange and collaboration in this 1993 interview. 

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive.
 
Walt Rostow served as national securty advisor to U.S. president Johnson. In this interview, Rostow discusses the U.S. perspectives on Israeli nuclear capability through the 1960s and 70s. 

See the biography and interview notes linked above, and read the interview transcript in the Digital Archive

 

 

Dr. Cohen, widely known for his path-breaking history of the Israeli nuclear program, is an internationally recognized author and expert on nonproliferation issues, focusing on the Middle East. A consultant to a range of NGOs and governmental agencies, Dr. Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Director of the CNS Nonproliferation Education Program, and a Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management. Previously he served as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009-2010) and held a ten-year affiliation with the Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) at the University of Maryland.

 

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Leopoldo Nuti // Co-Director, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project; Public Policy Scholar
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant