On Brothers and Keepers: a Missing Link?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

On May 6, just before dawn, Ameer Makhoul was arrested.  Initial reports state that the Haifa home of the director of Ittijah, a network of NGOs and grassroots organizations representing the interests of Arab citizens of Israel, was invaded by 16 Israeli security agents police officers.  They confiscated documents, maps, computer hard drives, a camera and a tape recorder belonging to the couple and their two daughters.  Ameer was taken away, as  another security service team raided Ittijah‘s offices, taking possession of documents and computer hard drives.

On May 7, the IAEA released the preliminary agenda for its June 2010 meeting, and for the very first time, Israel’s nuclear program is slated to be scrutinized as never before.


Ameer has a brother, Issam.  Between 1999 and 2006, Issam was an elected member of Israel’s parliament (Knesset),  representing  the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, better known as Hadash (New), a small Arab-Jewish “communist” political party.   Issam became the first Member of Knesset (MK)  to break the taboo on any public discussion of Israel’s nuclear policy.  In a speech he delivered to the Knesset on Feb. 2, 2000, he dared to speak  the unspeakable:

The international community has recognized that the nuclear issue is not an internal affair of any state, but has implications that reach beyond national and geographic borders and require international attention. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other treaties relating to this issue are the sum total of worldwide human wisdom mobilized to defend us from nuclear holocaust. Israel has chosen to remain outside the realm of human wisdom. That was a dangerous choice. The mentality of ‘a nation unto its own’ entails, in the context of the issue at hand, the syndrome of national suicide. Our lives and our security will not be guaranteed by the reactor in Dimona, nor by the hundreds of atomic bombs, nor by the millions of biological warfare germs that are produced at the Biological Institute in Nes Tsiona, nor by the chemical weapons that Israel is developing. Rather, our security would come from an inspired initiative to make the Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. Israel is the party that started the race, and it bears the responsibility for changing that course.

Makhoul praised the recent release of portions of the transcripts from the trial of Mordechai Vanunu.  [Vanunu was a 31 year old technician at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor who described Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program in detail to the British  Sunday Times,which published his revelations on Oct. 5, 1986. Subsequently, a  seductive Mossad agent named “Cindy” facilitated Vanunu’s involuntary repatriation to Israel, where he was tried in secret, and spent 18 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement.]  But more had to be done.

Makhoul declared that the Dimona reactor should be opened to international inspection, and Israel should declare a moratorium on the production of all weapons of mass destruction–nuclear, biological, and chemical.  Not only did Makhoul propose the release of all information about the quantity of bombs that Israel possesses, but further demanded that Israel announce, as a confidence-building measure, its willingness to begin unilateral nuclear disarmament, to be completed in the framework of a general Middle East treaty.

Members of the Likud, the National Religious Party, Shas and several other Jewish parliamentarians had stormed out of the Knesset in protest even before Makhoul began to speak.  Those who stayed excoriated Makhoul.  The Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot reported the next day (Feb. 3, 2000) that the ruling coalition’s parliamentary chairman, the dovish Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor party, had shouted at Makhoul, “You are committing a crime against Israeli Arabs today!”  Yosef Pritzky of the secular and relatively progressive  Shinui (Change) party told Makhoul, “If anyone needed justification why Arab Knesset Members should not be members of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, you just provided it.”

“What are you blabbering about? Makhoul yelled back at his hecklers. “What I said appears in every newspaper in the world. You’re dummies!”

In spite of an attempt on his life in 2003 — a small bomb rigged  under the family car exploded, nearly killing his wife — Issam Makhoul hasn’t given up—or shut up—about Israel’s weapons of mass destruction program.   This past October, he wrote an article for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center:  “Hiroshima and the World: From the Old Nuclear Order to the New Anti-Nuclear Order”. In it, Makhoul pointed out:

What motivates the public debate in the nuclear question today is not really the dangers facing countries who possess nuclear weapons, but rather the obsessive desire of these countries to preserve the old nuclear order which grants them, arbitrarily, a monopoly of nuclear weapons, both globally as well as regionally. This is especially the case with countries that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such as Israel, but threaten disastrous war on those nations that aspire toward nuclear capability. Those who oppose the Iranian nuclear project and wish to stop it cannot turn a blind eye to the extensive Israeli nuclear arsenal without being accused, and rightfully so, of hypocrisy.

Issam’s brief bio appended to the above article  noted that he is “a member of the International Planning Committee of the NPT Review Conference in May.” That NPT Review Conference is taking place right now in New York, (May 3-28, 2010).  Whether Issam is actually there now, actively involved or on the sidelines, or just served on a planning committee whose work is done, is unclear at this time.

Nevertheless, Issam Makhoul now has a support base of unknown but presumably somewhat influential nuclear experts from around the world who also are working on nuclear non-proliferation issues.  From a public relations perspective, the Israeli government can’t afford another Vanunu scenario, especially right after the Dubai assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh back in January, allegedly by Mossad-linked agents carrying forged international passports, which is currently being investigated by various governments,   Is it conceivable that, rather than attempting to rein in Issam, the Israeli security apparatus might go after his brother Ameer instead?

About two weeks before the beginning of the NPT Review Conference, on April 21, Israeli Interior Eli Yishai had barred Ameer from leaving the country for 60 days for unspecified reasons of “national security.”  The security officers and police who took Ameer from his Haifa home on May 6 claimed they had a warrant for his arrest signed on April 23.  Why did the Israeli security services (not usually known for dragging their feet on matters concerning security threats) wait until two weeks after the warrant was issued to arrest him–one day before the IAEA announced its June agenda?

Understandably, human rights groups and political activists are viewing Ameer Makhoul’s arrest as another example of Israeli repression of Arabs, which, of course, it is.  But no one yet appears  to have considered the possibility of a link between Issam’s efforts to bring an end to Israeli nuclear “ambiguity” and to subject Israel to the kind of international accountability and scrutiny it demands be imposed on Iran.

Of course it might all just be a coincidence.  Issam is not his brother’s keeper (Israeli security officials apparently are, at least at the moment), nor is Ameer responsible for Issam’s activities.  Surely a “Jewish and democratic state” like Israel would never arrest an Arab political activist and hold him without charges—no discussion in the media allowed!—on account of something his brother had done?  Like pinching Israel’s nuclear nerve again and again, and watching its politicians squirm…?

When the Israelis break the silence surrounding Ameer’s arrest, perhaps we’ll learn that these speculations are totally off base and the dots don’t connect at all. Even so, Issam’s writing on the Israeli nuclear issue–past and present– makes for some interesting and timely reading.


Updates: May 10, 8:30 am

The Israeli military censor’s gag order on any discussion of Ameer Makhoul’s arrest has now been lifted.   Haaretz reports that Makhoul and Omar Said have been detained by the Shin Bet on suspicion of spying for Hezbollah:

Unofficial sources say Makhoul was in contact with a number of foreign activists, some with links to groups classified by the government as terror organizations. These include a Lebanese citizen, Hassan Geagea, who is married to the daughter of Palestinian writer and historian Akram Zaitar.

Hussein Abu Hasin, a lawyer who has handled several cases of spying charges, told Haaretz that espionage laws in Israel were so wide-ranging that an internet chat or telephone conversation with anyone in an ‘enemy state’ could lead to prosecution.

In another Haaretz article, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak insists that there is “No Threat to Israel’s Policy of Nuclear Ambiguity“:

Despite recent international pressure pressure on the Netanyahu government to  answer claims it holds atomic weapons, there is no real threat to Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday.

“I do not think there is a real or significant danger to Israel’s traditional stance of nuclear ambiguity,” Barak told the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied having nuclear arms. But the country is widely believed  to have begun a weapons program in the 1950s and analysts estimate that Israel now has as many as 200 atomic warheads.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. A fascinating piece. As good as anything that’s appeared on this site. Thank you.

    The Israeli tactics Ms. Cohen describes remind me of the KGB in the Breznhev era. Back then right-wingers like me did everything we could (and rightly so) to turn Russian cases resembling Makhoul’s into causes celebres. Now, when Israel is the oppressor, the Wall Street Journal, the National Review and the rest are silent. It seems that only liberal Jewish Americans care enough to publicize these enormities.

  2. RE: In another Haaretz article, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak insists that there is “No Threat to Israel’s Policy of Nuclear Ambiguity” – Marsha B. Cohen

    FROM GRANT SMITH, 05/10/10: …In 1968 as Israel noticeably ramped up activities at the Dimona nuclear weapons facility, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford placed a final urgent call to Johnson, “Mr. President, I don’t want to live in a world where the Israelis have nuclear weapons.” President Johnson was abrupt before he hung up on Clifford, “Don’t bother me with this anymore.” By the time Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier lobbied President Nixon to redefine U.S. non-proliferation policy as “ambiguity” toward Israeli nuclear weapons, Israel’s stockpile and number of deployed weapons was steadily growing…
    SOURCE – http://original.antiwar.com/smith-grant/2010/05/09/declassified-gao-report/

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