Israel has less oversight of its nuclear program than other Western democracies, a study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which was obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post, concludes.
A summary of decades of work on the issue by Avner Cohen, a Professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a Senior Fellow at CNS, and CNS Davis fellow Brandon Mok, but updated with recent developments, the study is being publicized just days before the issue of oversight goes before the High Court of Justice on Wednesday.
That Israel is more secretive is not surprising in light of its unique policy of possessing 80-200 nuclear weapons – according to foreign sources – but without ever formally declaring itself a nuclear power.
But the study shows comprehensively for the first time that the three Western democracies with nuclear weapons, the US, Britain and France, all manage to maintain a high level of secrecy while providing for comprehensive legislation and robust oversight that Israel does not have.
For example, all three NATO powers have a wide array of legislation governing their nuclear authorities, usually dividing issues between civilian and military uses. Israel has only executive orders issued by various prime ministers and cabinets.
All three countries also have multiple parliamentary committees that oversee the budgets, safety and other aspects of the nuclear agencies.
In the US, more than 30 committees exercise oversight over aspects of the nuclear program. The US sets out nonclassified aspects of its nuclear strategy in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review. Civilian academic and scientific experts provide advice to the US government on select issues. There is a challenge in that none of the supervising committees has the full picture, which reduces their power.
In Britain, two main House of Commons committees and one from the House of Lords exercise oversight. One committee even has the authority to refuse to endorse government nuclear expenditures, though that is rarely done.
One thing that is unique about the UK is that its Office for Nuclear Regulations has authority over both civilian and military nuclear issues. Most countries separate the two. This division makes for a unique dilemma for Israel, which does not admit to possessing nuclear weapons.
France’s parliament can issue reports on nuclear issues during budget votes or votes on new military planning laws once every three to four years. That said, the report said that France’s culture is extremely secretive and deferential regarding nuclear issues and there is little involvement from civil experts.
Israel has oversight by an unnamed subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The study says that by keeping the committee not only partially, but completely out of the public eye, any benefit of legislative oversight is lost.
Further, the report says that while the state comptroller provides oversight, none of his nuclear-related reports are made public, and some are not even shared with the Knesset.
“Establishing proper legislation and exercising democratic governance has always been… a uniquely fraught issue for democratic states with nuclear capabilities, especially those with nuclear weapons,” the report says.
However, it continues that “in light of that essential tension, the three nuclear weapons Western democracies – the US, UK and France – have… developed legal regimes with certain transparent governance processes over their nuclear affairs.
“Furthermore, all three democracies have engaged their legislatures in the formulation of legislation on both civil and military nuclear activities, subjected their nuclear activities to independent and semi-public regulatory authorities… Israel stands as the lone anomaly among them,” it concludes.