Nuclear Irony: Roots of US Strategy Ignoring Israel’s Nukes Revealed in Documents

[This post is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post newspaper by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli espionage and security, Spies Against Armageddon.]

Israel and the United States worked together to formulate the Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine, archival documents released Tuesday by the US State Department reveal.

The documents detail the secret discussions that took place on Israel’s nuclear program between officials of the two countries.

We would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device,” one of the US memos declares.

The documents reveal that — according to American intelligence — Israel planned to have ten Jericho surface-to-surface missiles (based on a French missile) equipped with nuclear warheads.

The publication of the documents comes as part of a routine release of historical information by the Department of State. However, the timing of the revelations — against the background of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the nuclear agreement with Iran — gives them extra resonance.

There are those who would claim that the timing of the release is not a coincidence, and is in fact intended to embarrass Israel, which staunchly opposes the deal with Iran.

Perhaps pointing to Israel’s unacknowledged — by widely known — nuclear arsenal is an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues in his efforts to persuade Congress to reject President Barack Obama’ cherished deal with Iran.  Netanyahu argues that the Islamic Republic, partly because it supports terrorist groups, cannot be allowed to keep a nuclear infrastructure.

According to the American documents now released, which cover events from 1969 to 1972, Israel was asked to provide a written obligation neither to arm its Jericho surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads nor to deploy them.

Up until that point, the official policy of Israel — enunciated to the US in the early 1960s by then-deputy defense minister Shimon Peres  — was: “We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.”

This policy has been defined up until the present day as the hallmark of Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity.”

As a result of the “not be the first” pledge, it was agreed during the administration of President John F. Kennedy that American inspectors would visit — once or twice a year — the nuclear reactor in Dimona where, according to US suspicions, fissile material for a nuclear bomb was being made.

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

However, in 1969, as a result of the Six-Day War and on the background of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union — as well as efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Arab countries — the administration of President Richard Nixon looked to formulate a new approach centered on preventing, or at least limiting, the further development of Israel’s nuclear program.

The Nixon administration asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel had agreed several years beforehand to join the treaty — first signed by other nations in 1968 and in effect as of 1970.  However, Israel employed stalling tactics in order to get out of that obligation.

In secret meetings attended by officials of the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, American officials discussed how the US would react to a potential attack on Israel by the Soviet Union, which was arming the major Arab nations.

The Nixon administration established a special committee to explore the issues. The committee determined that “our goal is to convince Israel to join the NPT by the end of the year. And to ratify the treaty.”

Later, a meeting was set up between administration officials and then-Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. According to the documents, Israel was asked “to provide us with written assurances that it will stop creating and will not deploy Jericho missiles or other strategic missiles with nuclear warheads.”

Israel was developing into a pro-American ally, yet there was an assumption that — on nuclear matters — Israel would cheat.  One document expresses American concern that even if Israel joins the NPT, it is liable to continue covertly producing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Kissinger wrote in a memo: “We judge that the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Near East would increase the dangers in an already dangerous situation and therefore not be in our interest. Israel has 12 surface-to-surface missiles delivered from France. It has set up a production line and plans by the end of 1970 to have a total force of 24–30, ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads.”..

Kissinger also pointed out: “When the Israelis signed the contract buying the Phantom aircraft [from the US] last November, they committed themselves ‘not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons’ into the Near East. But it was plain from the discussion that they interpreted that to mean they could possess nuclear weapons as long as they did not test, deploy, or make them public.

“In signing the contract, we wrote Rabin saying that we believe mere ‘possession’ constitutes ‘introduction’ and that Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons by our definition would be cause for us to cancel the contract.”

Kissinger claimed that the vow not to “introduce” was not enough, because Israeli officials took this to mean that they could have nuclear weapons as long as they didn’t carry out tests, deploy or make the issue public.

And so, a Kissinger memo suggested the United States would demand a new Israeli pledge: “Reaffirm to the US in writing the assurance that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East, specifying that ‘introduction’ shall mean possession of nuclear explosive devices. [For our own internal purposes, we would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device.]  Give us assurances in writing that it will stop production and will not deploy ‘Jericho’ missiles or any other nuclear-capable strategic missile. [NOTE: I do not believe we can ask Israel not to produce missiles. Israel is sovereign in this decision, and I do not see how we can ask it not to produce a weapon just because we do not see it as an effective weapon without nuclear warheads. We might persuade them not to deploy what they produce on grounds that the rest of the world will believe that the missiles must have nuclear warheads.]”

Re-read that paragraph, written by Henry Kissinger on July 19, 1969, to consider the irony of the current issues with Iran: whether Iranian work on ballistic missiles and other military systems can indeed by prevented — whether as part of a nuclear restriction agreement or otherwise.

Did Israel make the commitment that Kissinger intended to demand in 1969 (six months after Nixon took office as president)? That is not clear from the documents just released.

Yet the fact is — as a result of a visit to the US by then-prime minister Golda Meir and her meeting with Nixon — the US stopped its inspections of the Dimona reactor in 1969.

In later foreign reports, it was claimed that ambassador Rabin and Meir promised that, in exchange for a halt to the inspections, Israel agreed not to be the first to deploy or arm nuclear weapons, and likely vowed not to conduct nuclear bomb tests.

To this day, Israel has yet to join the NPT, and it is believed to be, according to multiple foreign reports, the sixth biggest nuclear power in the world with a stockpile numbering around 100 nuclear warheads.

August 18, 2015

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