A blast from the past

What did the U.S. know in the 1960s about Israel's nuclear option? Apparently, the U.S. knew everything: Within six to eight years Israel would conduct its first test and by 1975 it would have an appropriate nuclear force, as a new study reveals.

By Amnon Barzilai


Cheshvan 23, 2004

In late October, 1964, Israel's prime minister, Levi Eshkol, sent a message to the president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. The message included "a very personal and informal" request to postpone the next visit of American government officials to the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Eshkol asked to postpone the visit until after the Knesset elections in November, 1965.

This request is one expression of the dispute that had already begun over the development of the Israeli nuclear project. One aspect of the dispute was the pressure exerted by the U.S. to halt the project or to ensure American supervision over it. Another aspect, an internal one, peaked in a harsh disagreement between Eshkol and David Ben-Gurion, who had resigned from the position of prime minister a year and a half earlier. Eshkol admitted that he had committed to "seasonal supervision" of the reactor in Dimona, but he feared that if he were compelled to fulfill this commitment, he would come under fierce criticism by Ben-Gurion and the others who had bolted Mapai to form the Rafi faction in the Knesset. Eshkol explained to U.S. administration officials that Rafi's accusations against him would be liable to hurt his political standing.

Eshkol's message to Johnson appears in a U.S. State Department memorandum discovered by Dr. Zaki Shalom, a senior researcher at Ben-Gurion University. Shalom is currently publishing a study entitled "From Dimona to Washington" about the relationship between Israel and the U.S. during the years 1960 through 1968, concerning the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

"Eshkol's unusual request sent to the White House is also one of the keys to the understandings that ultimately developed between the U.S. and Israel with regard to continuation of the nuclear project," Shalom says.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy had already dropped his intention of squashing the Israeli nuclear plan and adopted a policy of keeping a low profile. This change, Shalom believes, was part of an attempt to stabilize Eshkol's leadership at any cost. The American administration's assessment was that it would be easier to discuss the nuclear issue with Eshkol than with Ben-Gurion.

On the eve of the Israeli elections in November, 1965, Shalom says, "Eshkol persuaded the Americans that a blow to his political standing would bring Ben-Gurion back to power. And there was nothing the American administration wanted less than to see Ben-Gurion return as prime minister."

Shalom's study of the argument between Jerusalem and Washington over the development of Israel's nuclear capability is based entirely on documents from official archives in the United States, England and Canada. The documents clearly indicate that in 1963 the American administration had a precise timetable on the Israeli nuclear program: Within six to eight years Israel would conduct its first nuclear test and within 10 to 12 years - that is, 1973 to 1975 - Israel would have an appropriate nuclear force.

In order to ensure the capability of independent launches, Israel also began to develop - with the assistance of the French firm Marcel Dassault - a two-stage, ground-to-ground Jericho missile, fueled by solid propellant, with a range of about 500 kilometers and capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The missiles developed in Israel were similar to the American Pershing missiles. Based on information the American intelligence branches had in 1963 and on memoranda the State Department sent to President Kennedy, it appears that Israel decided to produce between 200 and 300 missiles at a cost of $700,000 per missile.

Shalom focuses on the enormous interest two Democratic presidents in the 1960s - Kennedy and Johnson - showed in the Israeli nuclear initiative. The book examines their activities regarding this issue and the pressure they exerted to ensure that the reactor in Dimona would be under close supervision. Israel had a ready answer to explain why it was building a nuclear reactor - it was ostensibly intended to develop energy for water desalination. But when questions were asked about missile development, Israel stuttered and stammered.

Robert Komer, who briefly served as Johnson's national security advisor in 1966, asked during a discussion with the American president, "Why does Israel need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that has little [deterrent] benefit [as long as it carries only conventional warheads]?" One can understand from this question that the U.S. believed the missiles were intended to carry nuclear warheads. Myer "Mike" Feldman, a presidential advisor from 1961 to 1965, pressed Eshkol to inform the U.S. how many missiles Israel planned to produce. The memorandum in the State Department archives reveals that the Israeli prime minister responded to Feldman's prodding in the style of a Jewish shopkeeper: "Perhaps five less, or more than 25, perhaps 10, 20 or 30."

Questions of ambiguity

Some 40 years later, Israel is still concealing all information about its nuclear capabilities, but an unforeseen breach has been exposed. Though access to relevant archive documents is still blocked in Israel, the U.S. is ignoring Israel's sensitivity regarding the nuclear issue.

When Shalom began his research about four years ago, some of the documents dealing with foreign relations from 1963 to 1967 were declassified in the presidential archives of Kennedy and Johnson and in the national archives of the U.S., Britain and Canada. Thus, a considerable amount of material surfaced that documents conversations between U.S. administration officials and Israeli government leaders about the U.S. demand to halt the development of Israel's nuclear capacity and allow full American supervision over the activities at the nuclear facility in Dimona. These documents, now accessible to the general public, document the most intimate conversations about the Israeli nuclear program and raise questions about Israel's continued policy of ambiguity and vagueness regarding its nuclear status.

Shalom's study reveals that the U.S., Britain and Canada established a joint mechanism in Israel, through their embassies, to collect information on the Israeli nuclear program. The ambassadors and military attaches exchanged and compared information about the Israeli program and sent reports back to their governments. The government of Israel also used this mechanism, exploiting it to send messages, sometimes as "trial balloons."

In February, 1961, the British ambassador in Israel raised a series of questions about the Dimona project. The questions were passed on to Ben-Gurion, who responded in a detailed letter that Israel harbored no intention of producing nuclear arms. Nonetheless, he emphasized that Israel was surrounded by hostile countries and that it would be difficult to assess the future.

According to Shalom, "In these words, Ben-Gurion officially raised the nuclear option as a possibility that Israel might choose if certain changes take place in the diplomatic and strategic reality in which it operates." Shalom says that Ben-Gurion "had no doubt that this clarification would also be passed along to the American administration. Nonetheless, it was comfortable for him at that stage to gauge the anticipated response via the British government, without risking a direct confrontation with the American administration."

Shalom discovered the clarifications Ben-Gurion sent to the British ambassador in a report written by the Canadian ambassador to Israel; he found this report in the archives of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Ben-Gurion had already used this same tactic in a meeting with Canada's prime minister, John Diefenbaker, the day before meeting with President Kennedy on May 30, 1960. Ben-Gurion told Diefenbaker that Israel was likely to build an experimental facility that would produce a limited quantity of plutonium each year. This was a clear hint that Israel planned to build the capacity for producing nuclear weaponry.

"But," Shalom notes, "Diefenbaker did not fall off his chair when he heard this, so Ben-Gurion could assume that his meeting with President Kennedy would also be conducted in relative calm."

No quick grab

The documents also indicate that the warnings Ben-Gurion sounded in his talks with U.S. government officials about Israel's susceptibility to sudden attack and destruction by Arab states eventually fell upon attentive ears (though after he was no longer prime minister). The U.S. government ultimately enabled Israel to develop the nuclear option. One of Shalom's conclusions is that this nuclear development was not the result of a quick grab by two or three Israeli prime ministers. He presents the surprising conclusion that, due to U.S. pressure on Israel, the decision-making process regarding the development of nuclear capability was more open and democratic in Israel than in any other country in the world.

The United States developed its nuclear weapons in the secret Manhattan Project, and the citizens of the U.S. and the world learned of the American nuclear project only after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Israel, on the other hand, there was intense public debate throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Shalom notes. The argument over the logic of developing a nuclear capability took place within the ruling party - Yigal Allon and Yisrael Galili were prominent opponents - and in the academic world, and was widely reported in the press.

Many publications have appeared in Israel and the world about the development of the Israeli nuclear facility. In March 1965, The New York Times reported that representatives of the U.S. administration visited the Dimona reactor. This published report aroused a storm in Israel. The Rafi faction, led by Ben-Gurion, accused Eshkol of capitulating to American pressure. Eshkol's associates complained that the American administration was responsible for leaking news of the Dimona visit to the media. In their view, it proved that Israel could not place complete faith in the administration's ability to be a full partner on such a secret and sensitive issue as the nuclear project.

Israel the poker player

Dr. Zaki Shalom's study appears four years after the Hebrew publication of the controversial book by Dr. Avner Cohen, "Israel and the Bomb," which deals with the development of Israel's nuclear capability. Cohen's book was delayed for a long time due to arguments raised by Yehiel Horev, the Defense Ministry's director of security. Horev claimed that the book includes information that could harm Israel's security.

Shalom's book does not deal with the development of the nuclear project, but focuses on the construction of an Israeli nuclear option. "What is exciting," Shalom says, "is the Israeli success in creating an image of reliable deterrence without having to publicly prove its nuclear capability. In this sense, Israel is similar to a poker player who succeeds in creating the impression among the other players at the table that he holds all of the winning cards, despite the fact that he does not show them."