Documents from the Nixon administration, recently declassified, indicate the US was concerned about Israel’s nuclear program and sought to convince Jerusalem to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a document that Israel, to this day, has not signed.
The 1,100-page official report, which covers meetings from 1969-1976 and details American strategy on Israel’s program, comes weeks after Iran and world powers reached a deal to restrict the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
A July 19, 1969 memorandum from then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger to President Richard Nixon outlined the proposed approach to Israel, and showed a vested interest in keeping the Israeli nuclear program from becoming public knowledge. Israel today still upholds its policy of “nuclear ambiguity” — neither denying nor confirming the existence of nuclear weapons.
The memorandum also highlighted disagreement between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense, and State Department on what demands to present to Israel, and whether to threaten to withhold its supply of weapons. All agreed, however, that urging Israel to sign the NPT was a top priority.
Kissinger, meanwhile, sought to keep information on Israeli nuclear efforts under wraps, maintaining that “public knowledge [of Israel’s nuclear program] is almost as dangerous as possession itself.”
“What this means is that, while we might ideally like to halt actual Israeli possession, what we really want at a minimum may be just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact,” he wrote.
There was across-the-board support to pressure Israel to sign the NPT by the end of the year, though Kissinger noted that becoming a party to the treaty would not hold Israel back from covertly developing nuclear weapons.
“Everyone agreed that, as a minimum, we want Israel to sign the NPT. This is not because signing will make any difference in Israel’s actual
nuclear program because Israel could produce warheads clandestinely,” the memo said. “Israel’s signature would, however, give us a publicly feasible issue to raise with the Israeli government — a way of opening the discussion. It would also publicly commit Israel not to acquire nuclear
The US administration also sought “a bilateral understanding on Israel’s nuclear intentions because the NPT is not precise enough.”
On the various assurances it was seeking from Israel, the various defense branches were divided.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of Defense said the US should hinge its delivery of Phantom jets on Israel’s agreement to curb its missile program. The State Department said the US should not use the Phantoms as leverage.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff “felt that if Israel’s program becomes known, we should be in a position to say we did everything in our power to prevent Israel from going nuclear,” while the Department of Defense felt that “we could live with the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons provided they were not deployed.” The State Department, meanwhile, believed “we should try to keep Israel from going any further with its nuclear weapons program — it may be so close to completion that Israel would be willing — and make a record for ourselves of having tried.”
Washington also set a goal of preventing Israel from developing its “Jericho” missile program further, maintaining that the projectiles were primarily designed for the purpose of carrying nuclear warheads and did not have an alternative use that justified the program.
As part of the plan, a meeting of then-ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin with Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard and Acting Secretary Elliot Richardson was encouraged. “If Rabin tried to stonewall, Richardson and Packard would state exactly what we want and make clear that Israeli unresponsiveness would raise a question about our ability to continue meeting Israel’s arms request,” Kissinger suggested.
The memo proceeds to outline “the dilemma we face” if the US moves to stop its arms supply to the Jewish state.
“Our problem is that Israel will not take us seriously on the nuclear issue unless they believe we are prepared to withhold something they
very much need — the Phantoms or, even more, their whole military supply relationship with us,” it said. “On the other hand, if we withhold the Phantoms and they make this fact public in the United States, enormous political pressure will be mounted on us. We will be in an indefensible position if we cannot state why we are withholding the planes. Yet if we explain our position publicly, we will be the ones to make Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons public with all the international consequences this entails.”
Three days later, a memo from Nixon approved the plan, but “specifically withheld authority to link explicitly at this stage the delivery of conventional weapons to the Israeli response on the nuclear question.”
According to the documents, the meeting between Rabin, Packard and Richardson was held on July 29.
Rabin quoted ex-prime minister Levi Eshkol’s statement that Israel was reviewing the NPT, as it had stated earlier, and would not comment further. Moreover, “Rabin said he wanted to make clear that he was not accepting the US assumption that Israel has the capability to build nuclear weapons. He could say neither that Israel was capable nor that it was not,” minutes from the meeting said.
In an October 1969 memorandum to Nixon, Kissinger appears to resign himself to the fact that Israel would not imminently sign the NPT.
“What we have to settle for, I believe, is an Israeli commitment that will prevent Israeli nuclear weapons from becoming a known factor and further complicating the Arab-Israeli situation,” he wrote. He then offered an alternative, which “would in effect ask the Israelis to accept privately the key obligation of the NPT while allowing them more time to sort out their position on more generally unpalatable aspects of the treaty (e.g. safeguards and public renunciation of the nuclear option).”
Nixon approved the recommendation.