JFK and Israel: Bringing Israel into the nuclear age in light of  the Cold War strategy of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East.

John F. Kennedy was the first American president to take the State of Israel seriously. In the two administrations previous, presidents Eisenhower and Truman had more or less ignored the possibilities of allying America with the only democracy in the Near East. Kennedy thought otherwise. He worked through his abbreviated administration setting up a diplomatic policy with the State of Israel that has endured through every successive administration until the present day.

Why did Kennedy feel it so necessary to make Israel the object of a very important part of Near East policy, in view of endangering relations with the oil rich Arab states? Was it because the Soviet Union seemed to be winning the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Egyptians? Would Kennedy have begun this new policy with Israel if the United States did not believe that the Soviet Union held so much influence in such a crucial part of the world? The following pages are an attempt to answer these questions. John Kennedy felt it necessary to rewrite American policy concerning the Near East because he saw Israel as a possible barrier to Soviet expansionism. What Kennedy realized that his predecessors did not was that Israel had the resources to one day become a regional leader, both militarily and economically which would boldly stand against Soviet expansionist and possibly aggressive behavior in an area that was so vital to American interests.

Cold war strategies of Soviet containment dictated policies that were designed to reduce or even eliminate Soviet influence. Kennedy’s Near East political strategy had three components which his administration believed would minimize Soviet influence in the Near East and thereby constitute a cold war victory for the West. The first was solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The State department believed that peace would greatly benefit western interests while contradicting Soviet interests. It was generally believed that the Soviets had everything to gain by keeping the conflict stoked and everything to loose by promoting peace between the belligerents. “The Soviets would almost certainly prefer to exploit the situation (Israel’s nuclear development) to increase Arab dependence on them.”[1] The second was for the United States to find a way to maintain cordial relations with both the Arab States and the Israelis at the same time. Since America’s international mission was to support democracies around the world, support for Israel was essential to American interests. The United States was sensitive to Israeli concerns about how vulnerable it would be to attack from its enemies. However, the oil rich Arab world created a counter balance for American diplomatic interest because of its need for oil. The two juxtaposed diplomacies created a deliberate and careful regional diplomacy. And the third prong of Kennedy’s policy, which is the subject of this paper, was to avoid an arms race, in particular, nuclear proliferation in the area. Escalation of arms procurement, especially in the nuclear area, could bring Israel and the Arab states to the brink.   A future nuclear confrontation between Israel and its enemies might draw the superpowers into an unthinkable third world war.[2]

In order to maintain a non nuclear Near East required some very sensitive diplomatic maneuvering. It was out of this maneuvering that created the special relationship between Israel and the United States. The establishment of the special relationship with Israel was built out of perceptive diplomatic management, cautious policy decisions and a deliberate American participation in many Near East affairs of the early 1960s.

During the previous administration the Soviets had established themselves as a strategic ally of Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. This created a major pathway for the Soviets because Nasser was arguably the most popular Arab leader in the region at that time. By the early 1960s the Soviets were in a position to provide more sophisticated weaponry to their Egyptian allies thereby raising the military stakes toward confrontation.[3]  For Nasser, the defeat of Israel was essential to his Pan Arab goal of becoming the undisputed leader of the Arab world. For Israel, this was a provocative analysis since the Israelis viewed Egypt as its number one enemy in the region. Realizing that it was in their interests to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict fueled, the Soviets were open to Nasser’s demand’s for sophisticated weaponry. Although it hadn’t happened by the time Kennedy took office, both the Israelis and the Americans feared that Nasser’s relationship with the Soviet Union could indeed lead to nuclear proliferation in the Near East.

It is not uncommon for presidential transition teams, after being briefed by the outgoing administration, to meet with members of Congress and other officials on a number of important issues before the president elect takes office. The nuclear question in the Near East was one such issue. The Kennedy transition team began addressing these concerns two weeks before Kennedy actually took office.[4]  Rising tensions between Egypt and Israel could provoke another major war and could possibly draw the United States into a confrontation with the Soviet Union and widen the conflict into a possible nuclearized World War III.

In 1955, the United States assisted the State of Israel to construct a one-megawatt research reactor at Nahal Rubin, near Tel Aviv through the “Atoms for Peace Program”.[5] Nuclear power was thought to be the way of the future at that time. The United States supported several of these projects around the world. Israel’s new reactor was fully supported and frequently inspected by American authorities.

At the end of the Eisenhower administration intelligence authorities discovered that the Israelis, with French assistance were currently in the process of possibly developing a second reactor capable of producing weapons grade uranium. Therefore, the first order was to bring about an understanding of the Israeli intentions of their construction of the nuclear reactor in the town of Dimona in the Negev desert.

On January 9th, 1961 transitionary state department officials met without President elect Kennedy to discuss Israeli nuclear development specifically. Senators Albert Gore Sr., and Bourke Hickenlooper, told Assistant Secretary Lewis Jones to be and Special Assistant Philip J. Farley to be of their dismay that Israeli officials had “‘deliberately misled’ the United States government” about the use of particular buildings constructed in full public view in the Negev desert.[6]  However, this did not mean that the senators were automatically branding Israel an aggressor. Their position was rather circumspect with the coming “Atomic Age” noting that all reactors produced plutonium and that Israel might at some point in the future divert the plutonium into weapons was premature. Hickenlooper made the observation that “peacefully applied atomic energy is like electricity: whether we like it or not countries are going to get it.”[7] With proper international regular inspections the U.S. government should be able to prevent weapon production. The Americans believed they could control the more dangerous elements of nuclear research in Israel.

The fact that Kennedy’s transition team met with members of Congress before the transfer of power is an indication of the seriousness of the issue. The Eisenhower administration raised questions about the Dimona plan only a month before that first January 9th transition team inquiry.  Apparently with French help, the Israelis had been working on the plant since early in 1958 but American intelligence did not discover its existence until almost the end of Eisenhower’s presidency.[8] Too late for Eisenhower to establish policy they related the information they gathered to the incoming Kennedy team. Even if a nuclear Israel was only a possibility, the seriousness could not be overlooked. Therefore, when Kennedy took office the issue was very high on his agenda.

The proposed dilemma for the Kennedy administration was outlined in a memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President Kennedy.

 

Our government’s concern (is) two-fold: a) pursuant to Congressional legislation and firm executive branch policy the United States is opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities; and b) Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would have grave repercussions in the Middle East, not the least of which might be the probable stationing of Soviet nuclear weapons on the soil of Israel’s embittered Arab neighbors. [9]

 

Preventing Israel from obtaining nuclear weapons had to be done in such a way as to not weaken its military position from its Soviet supported enemies.  Since the Soviets could not be trusted not to proliferate nuclear weapons in the Near East, and Israel as a fellow ally needed support, the United States had to approach the subject delicately. While wanting to support their Israeli allies from possible destruction the Kennedy administration also wanted to prevent an arms race from beginning in the area.

The administration needed to determine exactly what the Israeli intentions were with the new reactor. American officials pressed both Israeli and French governments for an explanation. The Israelis responded by saying that they had no intention whatsoever in converting the Dimona reactor to produce nuclear weapons. The United States also understood that no third reactor would be constructed and that American scientific observers would be welcomed to the State of Israel to inspect the installation as soon as the “intense public interest has quieted down.”[10]

Kennedy and his administration were pleased with the Israeli reaction to their inquires. They were satisfied that sending an observer at an appropriate time would remove any accusations of weapon development. However, the Kennedy administration was apprehensive about waiting too long to make the information public. Kennedy believed that this visit was absolutely essential in order to come out publicly to declare Israel’s peaceful intentions and therefore diffuse any possible Egyptian demand for parody from the Soviets. Clearly, the US government desired in this situation to remove any possible provocation that would give the Soviets a reason to act. And, then if the Soviets did it anyway it could be considered provocative. However, by February 3, 1961 The administration wanted to make sure that the peaceful intentions of the Israeli reactor were verified to preempt any Egyptian pressing of their Soviet allies for parity in the nuclear field. Kennedy wanted the inspections earlier than the Israelis had requested. [11]

The United States consistently asked for a “quiet” visit to the reactor construction site to validate its peaceful intentions as claimed by the State of Israel. By March 30, 1961 a weekly reminder to the Israeli ambassador still had not produced the desired visit.[12] Then on April 10, Ambassador Harmon made a formal invitation to the State Department to have inspectors come to visit the Dimona site as early as May 15th. [13]

While these first few months of the Kennedy administration were rather uneventful concerning Israel, and can be considered through the evidence given as friendly and trusting, the United States did not have the same experience with the United Arab Republic. Their attitude was one of mistrust and moving in a direction which might be considered by some as hostile. America had kept its aid commitment to Egypt and hoped that this would bring about better US-UAR relations.

But as noted in the evidence Egypt’s “recent increase (in) anti-American output (in the) UAR media and (the) regrettable failure (of the) UAR authorities (to) assure (the) adequate protection (of the American) Embassy during February 15, (1961) demonstrations” better relations were not forthcoming in those beginning months of the Kennedy administration.[14]

 

However, the Kennedy administration provided aid to the UAR from the beginning of its administration. By 1963 the Kennedy administration was forced to justify this aid because of “charges voiced in Congress and by Zionist groups that U.S. aid was helping the UAR in its conflict with Israel.” The administration argued that UAR aid was designed to expand American influence in the Arab world while not diminishing Israel’s security. To counter the criticism the Department of State was ordered to prepare a defense of UAR aid.[15]

The defense is divided into eight categories but three strategic components continually jump out at the reader as of primary importance. Israel’s security, reducing Soviet influence, and insuring the flow of oil are all thematically used throughout the state department’s position.

Egypt might have been a particular concern because of the combination of Soviet meddling and Nasser’s desire for expanded power but other Arab states under Nasser’s influence were also a problem for America to maintain civil if not cordial relations. [16]

The first face to face meeting between Prime Minister Ben Gurion of Israel and President Kennedy took place in New York on May 30, 1961. The meeting was very cordial. The tenor of the president was forthright and attentive. Prime Minister Ben Gurion was informative and trusting. A number of issues were talked about that day. However, it should not go unnoticed that the first issue on the agenda was the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Once again it appears that Soviet influence in the area, possible escalation of an arms race and the prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors, no matter how distant such a notion might have been at the time, came second to the nuclear issue.

Because Kennedy insisted that “no country believe that Israel is contributing to the proliferation of atomic weapons” the president insisted on American scientists visiting the plant and asked Ben Gurion if reporting the findings to the UAR would be acceptable. Ben Gurion stated that “’you are absolutely free to do what you wish with the report. If you feel you should publish it, we have no objections.’”[17]

President Kennedy seemed to be satisfied with the meeting between himself and Prime Minister Ben Gurion. The evidence shows that Kennedy believed Israel had only peaceful intentions with regard to the Dimona reactor. Consequently, very little is entered into the  diplomatic record after this point concerning the Dimona reactor until March of 1963. This indicates American satisfaction of Israel’s intentions during that time. Most of the  diplomacy during this period between America and Israel concerned other issues, UAR threats to destroy Israel, the refugees, and some kind of solution to water rights, which because of scarcity was, and still is a major issue in the Middle East. The only references to Israel nuclear development was that the government was satisfied about Israel’s intentions. For those two years it became policy not to suspect Israel of developing nuclear weapons. [18]

It is important to note here that Kennedy is riding a diplomatic tightrope by insuring the security of Israel and at the same time maintaining the all important ties with the Arab world. Through matching security for security, investment for investment, and financial aid for social programs in both Israel and the Arab world, the Kennedy administration maintained this delicate connection. [19]

The Israelis for their part tried to persuade the administration to lean in their direction. Israel wanted the United States to declare itself in full support of the Jewish State. The U.S. resisted this position because of their commitments to the Arab world and the vital need for Arab oil. With the Soviets drawing themselves closer to Nasser and Nasser further nestling himself under the Soviet wing, the Israelis must have felt insecure with their position.[20]

In March of 1963, Kennedy raised the specter again of Israel’s capability of developing nuclear weapons. Beginning in March of that year, the administration made a major jump in its policy toward the proliferation of modern weaponry in the Near East including the development of nuclear weapons. From this point forward and into the next administration, Israel’s nuclear development is closely watched by American officials.[21]

Concern at this point was driven by the rapidly changing military nature of the Middle East. Egypt was securing more advanced weapons from the Soviet Union and Nasser was making threats to “liberate Palestine.” While Israel’s military capability is still assessed by American analysts to be superior to all of its immediate enemies combined, the American government raised the question that Israel might think this superiority is not enough. Therefore on March 6, 1963 the first of two assessments of American analysis of a nuclear Israel is placed into the diplomatic record.[22]

It is of interest to review these assessments here in light of the accusations made some years later that Israel did indeed possess nuclear weapons as a direct result from the construction of the Dimona site. The American assessment of March 6, 1963 was then put into practical action and to this day, American diplomacy still follows on some level this analysis.

The assessment is broken up into four sections, 1) implications for America, 2) for Israel, 3) for the Arabs and 4) for the Soviet Union, if Israel were to develop nuclear weapons.

For America, the consequences would be further loss of prestige in the Arab world. America believed that no matter what the State Department did to salvage the situation America would be seen as complicit in the perceived Israeli domination over the Arab world.[23]

In regards to Israel It was not understood that the Jewish State would use this clear advantage to make war on its enemies as it was generally alleged in the Arab world. However, American analysis of Israel did conclude that the Jewish State would use this extra strength to “exploit the psychological advantages of its nuclear capability to intimidate the Arabs and to prevent them from making trouble on the frontiers.” This would be seen as more provocative in the Arab world and could possibly raise the natural tensions that already existed to what many considered to be already dangerous levels.[24]

The Arabs would have been “frustrated” more than anything else.[25] The position of the Arab states embodied in the bellicose speeches of Gamul Abdul Nasser stated plans on destroying Israel as soon as they felt they held a military advantage. Israel’s obtainment of nuclear weapons would at the very least put Nasser’s plans back several years. After badly losing one war as the president of Egypt and another experienced first hand as a colonel in the Egyptian army, Nasser new he could not defeat Israel unless military superiority was without question.[26] Israel’s advancement into the nuclear realm “frustrated” Nasser’s assessment.

The Soviet reaction, which was the main concern for the United States, concluded that the Soviets would not supply their Arab allies with nuclear weapons but might install weapons on Arab soil and man them with Soviet technicians. Even though they did that in Cuba only a year earlier, American analysis concluded that this would probably not happen in the Middle East. [27] What Americans did fear was that the Soviets would capitalize on the propaganda value the situation created. They might ease Arab “frustrations” with sympathetic pronouncements of support. But, they also would use Israeli restraint of going to war as evidence to prove to the Arabs that it was from their protection which kept Israel at bay through this crisis. The State Department feared that these kinds of tactics would entrench the Soviets further into Arab politics.

This assessment was enough for the State Department to recommend to the President that some kind of American policy be implemented to insure that Israel did not develop nuclear weapons in the future. After President Kennedy read the assessment of Mar 6, he  instructed McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant for National Security Affairs,  “to direct a letter to Secretary Rusk asking that he, in collaboration with DCI and Chairman, AEC, submit a proposal as to how some form of international or bilateral US safeguards could be instituted to protect against the contingency mentioned.”[28]

However, only a month later Shimon Peres, the deputy defense minister, reiterated Israel’s position of not developing nuclear weapons unless other states in the area were to embark on such a program.[29] Because of the situation becoming increasingly difficult from the Israeli point of view it is quite possible that the thought of nuclear weapons might be something whose time had come to the Near East. Nasser’s statements of destruction were becoming more intense, sending wild messages to the Arab street, where Israelis would watch night after night on the news and listen to news reports of people in Cairo calling for the death of Jews in Israel.

 

Conclusion

 

Several conclusions can be drawn from Kennedy’s Near East policy. Whereas the policy concerning other concerns in the Near East at the time remained constant since the end of World War II, the relationship with the State of Israel became profoundly different beginning with the Kennedy administration. Relations with the Arab world were strained because of Arab perception of American complicity in the State of Israel’s survival. But both Truman and Eisenhower treated the State of Israel more as a diplomatic nuisance rather than an ally. The Kennedy administration embraced the State of Israel as an ally and a friend.

From the point of view of American involvement in the Near East, Kennedy’s policy was superior to that of Truman and Eisenhower. This is clearly evident in the nuclear issue. The Israelis had been working on the Dimona reactor since early in 1958, but without close American contact Eisenhower did not find out about it until almost two years later. Kennedy was able from the start to hold the Israelis close in order to demand certain explanations from them about their nuclear intentions. The seriousness taken on nuclear issue followed through with a closer look at the region and what the prospects were toward an arms race, war, and the continued inability to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Eisenhower’s clearly impotent Near East policy failed to recognize a serious move toward nuclear proliferation in an already volatile area. A policy continuation of this kind might have had disastrous consequences if Kennedy had followed Eisenhower’s lead.

Why did Kennedy see this where his predecessors did not? From the outset the Kennedy administration voiced concerns that nuclear development in the Near East would be an internationally dangerous development. Recognized as a highly volatile area which had already experienced two major wars in the previous thirteen years, the superpowers were on a course for confrontation in another war between Israel and its neighbors. While a conventional war with superpower involvement of any kind was undesirable from the American standpoint, a possible nuclear confrontation between the belligerents was unthinkable and needed to be avoided at almost any cost. As seen in the evidence the stepped up attention of nuclear proliferation by the Kennedy administration in 1963, was an indication of how important the issue became.

What is apparent from the Foreign Relations documents is that Kennedy was totally comfortable with considering helping Israel to better its security situation. Time and time again throughout Kennedy’s administration the question was brought up that even with all the threats coming from Gamal Abdul Nasser and Soviet assistance in helping the UAR reach Nasser’s goal, the Kennedy administration never thought for a moment that Israel was in danger. Israel noted several times of given situations in the Middle East, (for example the Jordanian Coup attempt) that more power given to the UAR could drastically change the balance in the Middle East. But, the American assessment was always certain that even if Israel were to go to war with Jordan, Syria and Egypt at the same time they would be able to handle the situation. American assessment considered the Israeli arguments as trying to improve their situation for faster victory.

With the Israelis feeling uncomfortable with the Nasser question moving to destroy them probably forced a change in Israeli policy as history moved toward the Six Day War. Because they could not obtain the weapons they desired to improve their already superior position from the United States, France and the rest of the Western world, they allegedly developed nuclear weapons. As has been mentioned earlier in the notes of this piece, Israel’s total route of the Arab countries during the June 1967 war might have had a very different outcome if Israel had not developed a nuclear capability.[30]

The Kennedy administration might have been correct. It is entirely possible that even though through 1961, 1962 and maybe even 1963 the Israelis had only peaceful purposes in mind for the Dimona reactor. Atomic energy in the 50s and 60s was thought to be the way of the future in energy consumption. Israel might very well have been thinking of their future and development of energy resources within their country. However, given their self described tenuous position surrounded by enemies bent on their destruction it is possible that also in the back of their collective minds they would also have the resources to quickly develop a nuclear weapon. The Kennedy administration seemed to conclude this assessment by the spring of 1963. [31]

 

 

[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, (FRUS) Entry 179. Editor: Nina J. Noring, Washington: United States Government Printing Office,1994, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/kennedyjf/xvii/. Memorandum From the Board of National Estimates, Central Intelligence Agency, to Director of Central Intelligence McCone. Washington, March 6, 1963. This particular passage in the FRUS documents goes on to further explain Soviet intentions if the Israelis did develop a nuclear weapon capability. “The Soviets would, however, see plenty of opportunity for winning political advantage. According to their habit, they would seek to please the Arabs with resounding declarations of sympathy and support, and with dire threats against Israel or any other power that might dare to use military force against an Arab state. Experience from the time of the Suez affair suggests that these manifestations would indeed win friends and influence in the Arab world. If the Israelis refrained from attacking the Arabs with major military force (as we believe they would), the Soviets might even persuade many Arabs that they had in fact been protected from destruction solely by the exercise of Soviet power. In such fashion, without involving themselves in dangerous commitments, the Soviets would substantially enhance their influence and position throughout the Middle East, and perhaps find the basis for a firmer Bloc-Arab alignment against the West than they have so far been able to achieve.” This was the prevailing view through most of the Cold War. John Gaddis and others have since questioned those motives after the release of post Cold war  documents. However, it matters little what the truth really was, American perceptions of  Soviet intentions was the driving force to develop Middle East policy regardless of what we know today.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Near East, 1962-1963,volume XVIII, Nina J. Noring, ed., Washington: United States Government Printing office, 1995, p. 544. Kennedy outlined this trepidation in a letter to Ben Gurion in May, 1963. “We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel. I cannot imagine that the Arabs would refrain from turning to the Soviet Union for assistance if Israel were to develop a nuclear weapons capability—with all the consequences this would hold.” But Kennedy goes on to cite what he felt was a potentially more dangerous problem.  “But the problem is much larger than its impact on the Middle East. Development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would almost certainly lead other larger countries, that has so far refrained from such development to feel that they must follow suit.” So it was not only the possibility of a superpower nuclear confrontation that troubled Kennedy but he believed that a nuclear Israel might someday lead to most countries utilizing a nuclear weapons capability. In other words a whole world defended by nuclear arsenals raises the stakes for nuclear confrontation on any local or regional dispute.

[3] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Near East, 1962-1963, volume XVII, Nina J. Noring ed., Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1994, p. 135. In their meeting of May 30, 1961, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion told President Kennedy that because of Russian help the gap in “quantity is growing and the gap in quality is being narrowed.” He claimed that there were over 200 military advisers in Egypt helping the Egyptians learn about the weapons they were providing. .

[4] FRUS, Vol. XVII, The very first issue discussed in Near East diplomacy was the Israeli reactor at Dimona in the Negev Desert. It is actually the second entry into the Vol. XVII but the first issue a telegram sent from Tel  Aviv that is not at the time of this publication declassified. There is no explanation.

[5] FRUS, Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/1-3061, Washington, January 30, 1961. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/kennedyjf/xvii/17702.htm

[6] FRUS Entry 2, Memorandum of Conversation, Washington, January 9, 1961.  Source: Department of State, Central Files, 984A.1901/1-961. Secret. Drafted by Jones (NEA).  Other participants in the meeting who also held these views were Senators Fullbright, Carlson and Sparkman. However, the document indicates that those three were not present for the entire meeting.

[7]FRUS, Entry 2, This points to a real trust that certain Americans in power held for the relatively new State of Israel. This is a perfect condition to begin what Kennedy had coined as a “special relationship.”

[8] National Security Archives, Document 1, “Post-Mortem on SNIE 100-8-60: Implications of the Acquisition by Israel of a Nuclear Weapons Capability,” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/israel/documents/reveal/index.html, The memorandum that accompanied this set of documents describe American intelligence on Israeli nuclear activity as a “blunder” because it took two and half years to discover Israel’s construction. Since the “blunder” can probably be attributed to the lack of a serious policy concerning Israel during the Eisenhower administration, this spurned the Kennedy administration to change that policy to a closeness that other Western allies seem to enjoy with the United States.  There seems to be a rush of activity both in the NSA archives and FRUS documents to establish some kind of policy regarding Israel’s building of the reactor. One, to confirm the intention of why it was built and two, to make sure the Israelis understood the implications of building a reactor capable of producing weapons grade uranium.

[9] FRUS, January 30, 1961. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/kennedyjf/xvii/17702.htm

[10] FRUS, Entry 3. Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations (Macomber) to the Executive Director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy (Ramey)/1/ Washington, January 19, 1961. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/1-1961. Secret. Drafted by Farley (S/AE) on January 17 and cleared by Meyer (NEA/NE) and Schnee (H). Copies of the letter and its enclosures were sent to the Atomic Energy Commission and the Central Intelligence Agency. In the letter  he basically outlined the department’s inquiries to both the French and the Israelis at that time. The most telling part of the letter exists in the second paragraph where Secretary Macomber states: “The official statements which the Israeli and French Governments have now given us are unequivocal as to the non-military character of the Israeli program and French assistance to it. We do not anticipate that these Governments will provide us with significant additional information in the near future. You will note, however, that we have been given formal assurance that visitors from the United States or another friendly country will be received when the present intense public interest in the question has subsided. We believe that this will be very helpful in providing first-hand reassurance, and we intend to follow up this offer at an early date. “

[11] FRUS, Entry 7, Department of State, Secretary’s Staff Meetings: Lot 66 D 147, February 3, 1961, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/kennedyjf/xvii/17702.htm, “While attending Secretary Rusk’s staff meeting, President Kennedy expressed his concern that the Israeli reactor might stimulate Egypt to press the Soviet Union for aid in nuclear weapons development. According to the memorandum of conversation, the President indicated that ‘this might make it urgent for us to push a public announcement concerning the peaceful uses of the Israeli project.’”

[12] FRUS, Entry 28, Department of State, Central Files, 611.84A45/3-3061. Secret. From Acting Secretary of State Chester Bowles to President Kennedy, March 30, 1961.  “The enclosed chronology regarding the Dimona reactor shows that the Department has been reminding the Israel Government at approximately weekly intervals through Ambassador Harman of the importance of an early “quiet” visit by Americans to Dimona.” Ambassador Harmon continued to acknowledge Israel’s commitment to the visit but had replied that it would be doubtful that any visit could be arranged before the current political situation in Israel and Ben Gurion’s political problems within that crisis is settled.

[13] FRUS,Entry 31,  Memorandum of conversation,  Department of State, Central Files, 884A.1901/4-1061. Secret. Drafted by Philip J. Farley, April 10, 1961.  Apparently Ben Gurion took the reminder by the State department on March 30th rather seriously. It could be considered an immediate response since the Passover holiday in Israel which ran from April 2nd to April 10th precluded any diplomatic activity until the end of the holiday.

[14] FRUS, Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the United Arab Republic. Department of State, Central Files, 611.86B/3-1861. Secret. Drafted by Brewer (NEA/NE) on March 17; cleared by Ferguson (AFW) in draft, Buffum (IO/UNP) in draft, Valdes (EUR/WE) in draft, Chase (AF/N) in draft, Perkins (S/S), and Brown (O) in substance; and approved by Jones (NEA) who initialed for Rusk. Repeated to Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and USUN. Washington, March 18, 1961, 2:27 p.m.

[15] FRUS,  Entry 240. Memorandum From the Department of State Executive Secretary (Brubeck) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), Washington, May 8, 1963. Source: Department of State, Central Files, AID (US) UAR. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/kennedyjf/xviii/26209.htm.,See also Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, United Arab Republic, 4/63-5/63). The categories mentioned are, Principal Interests of US in Near East, Principal Threats to Attainment of US Interests, Benefits to US from Aid to UAR, Effects on US Interests if Aid Cut Off,  Implications of Cairo Unity Proclamation (4/17), Factors Bearing on Israel’s Security, Effect of US Aid on UAR Arms Purchases and Programs, and Conclusions. Note: The Cairo Unity  Proclamation of 4-17  outlined the inter-Arab conflict but the concern for American aid to the UAR were statements about the UAR goal of destroying Israel and opposition to Zionism and imperialism.

[16] FRUS, 220. Memorandum From the Department of State Executive Secretary (Brubeck) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), Washington, April 27, 1963,/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Israel, 5/4/63. Secret. A handwritten note on the source text reads: “Orig and enc taken to Pres’s meeting.”Egypt receives Soviet military assistance and, despite these threats to annihilate Israel, large-scale financial aid from the United States and other Western powers. The latter serves “to set the Russian arms in action against Israel”. Nasser had his agitators all over the Near East, in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and to some extent Lebanon.

[17] FRUS, Memorandum of conversation, President Kennedy speaking with Prime Minister Ben Gurion, New York, May 30, 1961, p.135. Ben Gurion’s relaxed demeanor seems to even put Kennedy off balance a bit. Clearly he was very solicitous of Ben Gurion not wanting to put Israel in an uncomfortable position. From this conversation and other correspondence it is rather clear that at this point in time the Israelis did not intend to make a weapon factory out of their plant in Dimona. The question then has to be asked then why did Israel change its mind only a few years later? The answer might be found in the next topic of discussion between the president and Prime Minsister Ben Gurion, Israel’s security and the growing in balance between the UAR and acquired Soviet weaponry.

[18] FRUS, vol. XVII, entry 204, p. 244. In a letter from Secretary of State Dean Rusk, to Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Rusk wrote: “We sought and eventually gained, the opportunity to examine the Dimona installation. This examination satisfied us that, for the present, the Government of Israel in not actively engaged in programs aimed at nuclear weapons production.”

[19] FRUS Entry 238. Editorial Note On May 8, 1963, during a press conference, President Kennedy responded to a question on the military balance in the Near East and U.S. policy toward the security of Israel and Jordan by making an extended statement of U.S. policy in the Near East. After indicating that he did not believe that the arms balance in the Near East had changed recently, Kennedy affirmed that the United States supported social, economic, and political progress in the region, supported the security of both Israel and its Arab neighbors, sought to limit the arms race, opposed the spread of Communism and the use of force or threat of force, and would work with the United Nations or act unilaterally to prevent or put a stop to aggression. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, page 373)

[20] FRUS vol.XVIII entry 368, p. 798. “Its (Israel) consistent policy seemed to be to force us into an openly pro-Israeli stand despite our protests that this would undermine us with the Arabs and give the Soviets a field day…Israel might think that a net outcome in which the US backed Israel all-out, while the Arabs turned to Moscow, was in its overall security interest, but we most emphatically did not.”

[21] One can only speculate as to why Kennedy seemed more concerned in March 1963 than he did since the beginning of his administration in January 1961. At that time  Kennedy understood  and indeed was sympathetic toward Israel’s development of the Dimona reactor for the purposes of peaceful nuclear energy. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place only five months earlier. We know now how close the superpowers came to a nuclear confrontation and maybe the Kennedy administration wanted to make doubly and triple sure that the same thing did not happen in the Near East. Two rather detailed assessments over a period of one month  of the nuclear development capabilities in the Near East and its consequences, March 6, and May 8, 1963,  point to the sudden change in interest of the issue from the Kennedy administration.

[22] FRUS,  Entry 179. Memorandum From the Board of National Estimates, Central Intelligence Agency, to Director of’ Central Intelligence McCone, Washington, March 6, 1963.

[23] FRUS, Entry 179. Memorandum, March 6, 1963. “ Among the principal targets of Arab resentment would be the US. At present many Arab governments consider the US as the one power which could, if it chose, prevent the development of an Israeli nuclear capability; this consideration probably plays some part in forming Arab attitudes and policies toward the US. Once the Israeli nuclear capability became a fact, a few Arab leaders might still argue that since the US could restrain Israel from using the weapons it therefore ought not to be antagonized. But we think that this counsel would be far outweighed by feelings of resentment and betrayal. In view of past US statements and positions, charges of US complicity in the Israeli achievement would be widely made and widely believed in the Arab world. The anti-US sentiments implicit in certain Arab nationalist doctrines would be strengthened. US influence with the Arabs, limited at best, would be drastically reduced.” This quote comes from the “Arab reaction” section of the assessment. The question of American complicity in Israeli growth and strength goes far beyond Israel’s development of nuclear weapons, however, American assessments at this time were correct in developing this accusation coming from the Arab world.

[24] From this assessment it cannot be overlooked that only a few years after this was written Israel indeed went to war against the Arabs. Their bold preemptive strike in June of 1967 against Egyptian military installations went totally against American warnings not to preempt. So, the question has to be asked, would Israel have gone against American wishes if it did not have the confidence of  nuclear protection? Israeli assessments after the fact detailed a more protracted and drawn out war if it had not preempted during June 1967. It is possible that without Israel’s nuclear capability the 1967 war might have been fought very differently. Probably with the same ultimate results but certainly with many more casualties for both sides.

[25] FRUS, Memorandum, March 6, 1963. I find the use of this word “frustrated” a curious description of Arab reaction. The word was used several times during the assessment. Anger, resentment, and betrayal are also used to describe possible reaction but these assessments are accurate descriptions of what might prevail. Frustration implies reaction to a deterrence to perform a needed act. In other words,  the Kennedy administration probably believed the Arab world to be the aggressor in this conflict and therefore, justified any kind of alliance that would form between Israel and the United States.  But, how to do that without upsetting the Arab world and its needed resources was the question. This might be one of the reasons why a “special relationship” was needed.  In other words, did the Arabs really believe that Israel posed a threat to them or was the threat only built around the UAR’s blustering how it needed to destroy Israel?

[26]Nasser was a colonel in the Egyptian army in 1948 and was surrounded with his brigade along with the rest of the Egyptian third army by the Zionists at the Faluja crossroads in the Negev Desert. The Egyptians were forced to leave their weapons behind before the Zionists let them go. Nasser’s experience left him disgraced and humiliated. In 1956, as President of Egypt the Israelis invaded and took the Sinai in three days, without French and British help who only entered the conflict after the Israelis were in a mop-up situation. Once again Nasser learned some hard lessons. It is quite probable that during the decade of the 60s he wanted to be certain he could destroy the Zionist state the next time he tried. With Israel obtaining nuclear weapons would indeed “frustrate” his plans. Whether the Kennedy  administration was aware of Nasser’s history with wars against Israel is unknown. Source for this explanation can be found in any number of history’s between Israel and Egypt, Nasser: The Rise to Power, Joachim Joesten, Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1960. Nasser, Anthony Nutting, New York:E.P. Dutton & Company, 1972.

[27] FRUS, Entry 179, Memorandum, March 6, 1963. It is natural to assume an American position at this time that the Soviets might install nuclear weapons on Arab soil. That is exactly what they did in Cuba only a year earlier.  However, the diplomatic record does not give any evidence for that fear.

[28] FRUS, Entry 199. National Security Action Memorandum No. 231,Washington, March 26, 1963.Source: Department of State, S/S – NSC Files: Lot 72 D 316, NSAM 231. This letter defined for the first time a mistrust of Israel’s intentions. It directs the Secretary of State Rusk to demand semi annual visits to the Dimona reactor and to institute a policy which describes American uneasiness with the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation in the Middle East, especially that of Israel. The UAR is mentioned in the letter but clearly this is call to bear down on the Israeli government not to escalate the arms race in the area.

[29] FRUS Entry 207. Memorandum of Telephone Conversation Between the Assistant Secretary State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Talbot) and the President’s Deputy Special Counsel (Feldman), Washington, April 5, 1963. This marks a change in both the policy of the United States and the government of Israel concerning development of nuclear weapons. Two years earlier, when Ben Gurion met with the president, Israel had no intention of using the Dimona reactor for anything other than peaceful nuclear energy. Kennedy was satisfied with Ben Gurion’s answers and no discussion insued diplomatically about Israel’s nuclear power for almost two years. Now, there seems to be a change in the policies of both countries concerning this issue. Peres’ remarks to the president that Israel would not develop nuclear weapons only so long as their enemies didn’t either. This does not rule out the possibilities as Ben Gurion’s statements did in 1961. The president does not raise an objection to Peres’s answer which suggests American realization that the area might be changing to a more military equipped region, and is powerless to stop it, in view of the Arab Israeli conflict.

[30] Of course this is assuming that Israel indeed went ahead and developed the capability. Most of the world believes that Israel possesses a substantial nuclear arsenal today, but then as now the Israeli government has never acquiesced to the rest of the world’s penetrating inquiries about its capability. The Israeli government only will say that “it will never be the first country in the Middle East to use nuclear weapons.”

[31] FRUS vol. XVII, entry 57, p. 135. There are three possible reasons for this assessment.  Prime Minister Ben Gurion told Kennedy during their first visit in May of 1961 that “ we do not know what will happen in the future; in three or four years we might have need for a plant to process plutonium.” This indicates that the Ben Gurion government had considered the Dimona reactor their ace in the hole. Anecdotally as I cannot site the source but I remember a Ben Gurion quote from the early 1950s  that went something like this; “Israel might not have enough bread to feed all its people but it will have nuclear energy,” further indicating nuclear power a necessity. The pragmatic Ben Gurion might have been thinking that what good is bread if the country of Israel is destroyed. His first aim was always the defense of the homeland.

FRUS, vol.XVII, entry 227, March 29, 1962, p. 554. Israel also opposed submission to the International Atomic Energy Agency controls “until these are generally accepted by other nations, and…under IAEA procedures, both parties to any agreement would probably have to agree to IAEA supervision.” Obviously Israel is concerned with its enemies here. Israel knowing it probably could not stop nuclear development in the UAR and other places at least wanted some assurance from the West that their enemies were not developing weapons. Where as if they submitted to IAEA controls without demanding parity from their enemies it could work against them. In other words, it would only develop nuclear weapons if it new for sure that its enemies were developing them also. Another reason Israel would demand parity could be because knowing that Nasser would never submit to Western controls gave Israel the opportunity to develop if it felt it needed to without oversight.

As discussed in note 19, the Israelis failure of persuading the US to back them as the Soviets had backed the UAR, might have motivated them to enrich uranium and move to become a nuclear power albeit in top secret.

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