Israel’s leaders, in private exchanges with senior US officials in 1975, flatly denied that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, and foreign minister Yigal Allon also claimed Israel had no intention to build such weapons, according to diplomatic cables published this week by whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
This despite the fact that, according to foreign reports, Israel is now believed to have begun full-scale production of nuclear weapons soon after the 1967 war, and to have stockpiled a number of nuclear weapons by the early 1970s.
The cables are part of a trove of more than 1.7 million US diplomatic cables sent between 1973 and 1976. Among the 5,000-plus documents that deal with Israel are messages that shine light on the development of Israel’s nuclear program, as well as on Israel’s relationship with pre-revolutionary Iran and a 1973 plan by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan to extend Israeli citizenship to Palestinian residents of Ramallah and Bethlehem.
In May 1975, senator Howard Baker asked prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister (today President) Shimon Peres about speculation that Israel had acquired nuclear weapons.
“Rabin told senator Baker that GOI [the government of Israel] had made a commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. Israel had kept its word,” states the document, which was quietly declassified in 2006 but only published now by WikiLeaks.
In the document, which the US Embassy in Tel Aviv sent to the embassy in Turkey, Peres is quoted as saying that Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons into the Middle East would lead to a conflict with Washington and would encourage the Soviet Union to give similar devices to the Arab nations in the region, which “would bring [the] Middle East to [the] point of no return.
“Peres, in reply to [a] direct question, states that Israel has not constructed a military nuclear device,” the document continued. Baker asked whether that meant Jerusalem had not constructed an explosive device, and Peres answered affirmatively.
Israel has always pursued a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither denying nor confirming the possession of atomic weapons. Yet the existence of an Israeli nuclear-weapons program has been widely reported in the foreign media, and it is widely believed that Jerusalem has had such devices since at least 1973.
In one of the cables from the summer of 1975, Rabin said that Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty “because it regarded this as part of [an] arms race issue in [the] area and of an eventual overall political settlement” of the Middle East conflict.
The Israeli prime minister also commented on repeated American requests to inspect the nuclear facilities in Dimona, telling Baker that Jerusalem and Washington had in 1969 — “and rightly so” — agreed that such visits had been “terminated.”
“The Dimona facility was not open for inspection,” the document states.
A few months earlier, in January 1975, a cable that the US Embassy in Tel Aviv sent to Washington quotes US senator Charles Mathias asking foreign minister Yigal Allon about Israel’s nuclear capabilities.
“Allon replied that Israel had the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, he said that [the government of Israel] did not currently possess nuclear weapons, nor did it intend to manufacture them.”
The senator then remarked that the secrecy surrounding the Dimona reactor and Jerusalem’s refusal to allow inspection “were a public relations problem for Israel in the US.” Allon agreed in principle, but offered no immediate remedies.
In November 1976, a dozen American senators visited Israel, with “one of their principal interests” being an inspection of the Dimona nuclear reactor, according to another US Embassy cable. Jerusalem denied the senators’ requests. “When asked regarding the reason for this decision,” the document states, “we were simply told that adequate attention would be given to Israel’s energy situation in briefings and a visit to Dimona would not be considered useful.”
The US Government suspected Israel of having nuclear weapons since 1970 and, according to foreign media reports, Israel assembled more than a dozen nuclear warheads during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1986, former Dimona nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu gave detailed information about the country’s “secret nuclear arsenal” to the London Sunday Times. In 2008, former US president Jimmy Carter said that Israel had at least 150 nuclear weapons.
The diplomatic documents, which WikiLeaks dubbed the “Kissinger Cables,” also reveal that, in the 1970s, military legend Dayan — serving as defense minister — planned to grant Israeli citizenship to Palestinian residents of Bethlehem and Ramallah, while retaining full control over the West Bank.
A cable from May 1973 quotes former minister Gad Yaacobi, who was a close ally of Dayan, saying that Dayan was preparing to expand the degree of autonomy for Arab municipalities in the West Bank, which Israel had captured in the Six-Day War.
Yaacobi said Dayan encouraged Israeli settlements everywhere in the West Bank except in “Arab metropolitan areas.” The two exceptions to that rule were Ramallah and Bethlehem, which Dayan considered parts of the “greater Jerusalem area.”
“As for Dayan’s thinking on [an] ultimate peace settlement with Jordan, Yaacobi said Dayan would only return one or two small enclaves of the West Bank,” the cable states. “But Dayan, according to Yaacobi, envisages [the] rest of [the] West Bank population though living under Israeli sovereignty as being full-fledged Jordanian citizens, with [the] exception [of] inhabitants of Ramallah and Bethlehem, who would become Israeli citizens.”
‘What the Iranians and Israelis are specifically cooking up in the arms field remains to be ascertained, but the Shah has a complex game going’
The Kissinger Cables, named after former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, also shed light on Israel’s close military ties with Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which turned the two countries into bitter enemies.
In 1976, several top Israeli government officials, including Rabin, Peres and Allon, secretly visited the Shah in Tehran, writes then-US ambassador to Iran and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency Richard Helms in a cable.
Rabin’s visit, in July of that year, was clouded in particular secrecy, Helms writes. It was followed by a trip to Israel by Iranian vice minister of war Hassan Toufanian, ostensibly to discuss several joint military projects, such as the 1977 Project Flower.
“What the Iranians and Israelis are specifically cooking up in the arms field remains to be ascertained, but the Shah has a complex game going with both the Israelis and the Egyptians, the obvious purpose of which is to exchange or at least have available certain kinds of ammunition and weapons which are not subject to US Congressional control or veto,” Helms writes.
In a separate cable, Helms reports to the State Department in Washington that the Shah complained to Peres during a visit to Tehran about Jerusalem’s efforts to dissuade the US from selling arms to Iran.
In a third cable, Helms says that Toufanian told him that his trip to Israel and Peres’s visit to Tehran “were basically get-acquainted sessions.” The Iranian official said that “ways will be explored to expand military cooperation between the two countries, but that it is important [for] the prime personalities to get to know each other first and to come to understand each other’s particular problems.”