The State Department’s publication of documents on Tuesday detailing US-Israel discussions on the Jewish state’s nuclear program comes amid public disagreement between the allies over the Iran nuclear deal.
Jerusalem and Washington worked together to formulate Israel’s nuclear doctrine, the newly released archival documents reveal.
The documents detail the classified discussions that took place on the 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 said.
The documents reveal that Israel planned to produce 10 Jericho surface-to-surface missiles (based on a French model) equipped with nuclear warheads.
The publication of the documents comes as part of a routine release of historical information by the State Department. However, the timing of the revelations against the background of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the nuclear deal with Iran, lends them extra meaning.
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, and embarrass Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues his efforts to challenge the Obama administration and influence Congress to reject the deal.
According to the documents, which cover events from 1969 to 1972, Israel was asked to provide a written obligation neither to arm its Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads nor to deploy them.
Until that point, Israel’s official policy, formulated and presented 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 Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity.”
As a result of this statement, defined by Peres, it was agreed during the Kennedy administration that American inspectors would once or twice a year visit the nuclear reactor in Dimona, where, according to US suspicions, fissile material for a nuclear bomb was being produced.
However, in 1969, as a result of the Six Day War and with 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 states, the Nixon administration looked to formulate a new approach centered on preventing, or at least limiting, the further development of Israel’s nuclear program, asking Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was signed in 1968 and went into effect in 1970.
Israel had agreed several years beforehand to join the treaty, but employed stalling tactics in order to get out of the obligation.
In secret meetings attended by officials of the Pentagon, State Department, the CIA and then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger, the US reaction to an attack on Israel by the Soviet Union, which was arming the Arab states, was also discussed.
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.”
In another document, American concern is expressed that even if Israel were to join the NPT, it was 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, 10 of which are programmed for nuclear warheads.”
He also pointed out that “when the Israelis signed the contract buying the Phantom aircraft 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.”
Commenting on the Israeli statement that it would not be the first state to bring nuclear weapons into the Middle East, Kissinger claimed that this vow was not enough, because it was clear from the discussions that they took this to mean they could have nuclear weapons as long as they didn’t carry out tests, deploy or make the issue public.
Thus the US demanded: “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.]” It is not clear from the documents whether Israel indeed made the commitment the US asked it to make. But the fact is, as a result of the visit by then-prime minister Golda Meir in the US and her meeting with president Richard Nixon, the US stopped its inspections of the Dimona reactor in 1969. In later foreign reports, it was claimed that 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 hold nuclear tests.
To this day, Israel has yet to join the NPT and is believed to be, according to multiple foreign reports, the sixth biggest nuclear power in the world, with a stockpile numbering up to 100 nuclear warheads.