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President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, meeting in the Oval Office (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Israel Crosses the Threshold

Senior Nixon Administration Officials Considered Confronting Israel over Nuclear Weapons in 1969 but President Nixon Declined, Deciding that Washington Could Live with an Undeclared Israeli Bomb, According to Newly Declassified Documents and a Study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Posted Today

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 189

For more information contact:
Avner Cohen, 202/489-6282 or
National Security Archive, 202/994-7000

Posted - April 28, 2006

Links

"Israel crosses the threshold"
By Avner Cohen and William Burr
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
May/June 2006

Related Postings

Israel and the Bomb
By Avner Cohen

The October War
and U.S. Policy

Kissinger Gave Green Light for Israeli Offensive Violating 1973 Cease-Fire

Washington, DC, April 28, 2006 - Today the National Security Archive publishes for the first time 30 recently declassified U.S. government documents disclosing the existence of a highly secret policy debate, during the first year of the Nixon administration, over the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Broadly speaking, the debate was over whether it was feasible--either politically or technically--for the Nixon administration to try to prevent Israel from crossing the nuclear threshold, or whether the U.S. should find some "ground rules" which would allow it to live with a nuclear Israel. The documents published by the Archive are the primary sources for an article by Avner Cohen and William Burr, "Israel crosses the threshold," that appears in the May-June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article is now available on-line at the Bulletin's Web site. An edited version of the article will also appear in The Washington Post's Sunday "Outlook" section on April 30, 2006.

National security adviser Henry Kissinger forwarded responses from Israel's ambassador to three specific questions about Israeli intentions with respect to the development of nuclear weapons. (Document 22)

 

Among the key findings in the article:

  • 1969 was a turning point in the U.S.-Israeli nuclear relationship. Israel already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded that an Israeli bomb was about to become a physical and political reality. U.S. government officials believed that Israel was reaching a state "whereby all the components for a weapon are at hand, awaiting only final assembly and testing."
  • In the first months of the Nixon administration, senior officials such as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird believed it was important that Washington try to check Israeli nuclear progress for the sake of stability in the Middle East.
  • In April 1969 national security adviser Henry Kissinger issued National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 40 requesting the national security bureaucracy to develop options for dealing with the Israeli nuclear problem. A Senior Review Group (SRG), chaired by Henry Kissinger, was formed to deliberate and propose avenues for action to the President.
  • The SRG outlined policy objectives to President Nixon and proposed initiating a probe with Israeli Ambassador Rabin designed to achieve those objectives. Nixon approved the SRG's proposal for action but declined to use deliveries of advanced F-4 Phantom jets as leverage for the probe. This decision was fateful for the entire exercise.
  • On July 29, 1969 Ambassador Rabin was summoned by Acting Secretary of State Elliott Richardson and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard as the first step in the probe. The two officials pressed Rabin on three issues: (1) the meaning of Israel's "non-introduction" pledge; (2) Israel's signature on the NPT; (3) Israel's intentions on the missile issue. Rabin provided no replies and subsequently proposed to leave the whole issue for the meeting between President Nixon and Prime Minister Meir in late September.
  • On the eve of Meir's visit the State Department prepared a background paper for the President concluding that "Israel might very well now have a nuclear bomb" and certainly "had the technical ability and material resources to produce weapons grade uranium for a number of weapons."
  • No written record of the meeting between President Nixon and Prime Minister Meir on September 26 is available, but it was a key event in the emergence of the 1969 US-Israeli nuclear understanding. Subsequent documents suggest that Meir pledged to maintain nuclear restraint-no test, no declaration, no visibility-and after the meeting the Nixon White House decided to "stand down" on pressure on Israel.
  • On October 7, 1969 Ambassador Rabin formally provided his belated answers to the US questions: Israel will not become a nuclear power; Israel will decide on the NPT after its election in November; Israel will not deploy strategic missiles until 1972.
  • On February 23, 1970 Ambassador Rabin informed Kissinger that, in light of President Nixon's conversation with Meir in September 1969, Israel "has no intention to sign the NPT."
  • Subsequently, the White House decided to end the secret annual U.S. visits to the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona. Lower-level officials were not told of the decision and as late as May 1970 they were under the impression that the visits could be revived.
  • By 1975, in keeping with the understanding with Israel, the State Department refused to tell Congress that it was certain that Israel had the bomb, even though U.S. intelligence was convinced that it did.

The newly declassified documents are from State Department records and Nixon Presidential Materials at the National Archives, College Park. They represent, however, only a small fraction of a large body of documents on NSSM 40 that remain classified. To elucidate the U.S. government debate over the issue of the Israeli bomb the National Security Archive has filed declassification requests for those key documents.


Documents
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Document 1: State Department Briefing Paper for Eshkol-Johnson talks, "Israel: The Nuclear Issue and Sophisticated Weapons," December 31, 1967, Secret/Exdis (Note 1)
Source: Department of State Records, Record Group 59 [RG 59], Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-1969 [SN 67-69], DEF 12

Prepared for meetings at the LBJ ranch between President Johnson and Prime Minister Eshkol, this paper presented the assessment of the Department of State's Near East bureau that Israel had not started a dedicated nuclear weapons program.

Document 2: Parker T. Hart to Secretary Dean Rusk, "Issues to be Considered in Connection With Negotiations With Israel for F-4 Phantom Aircraft," October 15, 1968, Top Secret/Nodis (Note 2)/Sensitive
Source: SN 67-69, Def 12-5 Isr

A year later, the Near East Bureau in concert with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency held a more decided view that Israel had started a nuclear weapons program to the extent that it had taken a "number of steps which … would reduce substantially the time needed to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon."

Documents 3a through 3d: Rabin-Warnke Conversations, November 1968
Source: LBJ Library, National Security Files

Document 3a: Memorandum of Conversation, "Negotiations with Israel - F4 and Advanced Weapons," November 4, 1968. Top Secret/Sensitive

Document 3b: Memcon, "Negotiations with Israel - 4F and Advanced Weapons," November 8, 1968. Top Secret

Document 3c: Memcon, "Negotiations with Israel - F4 and Advanced Weapons," November 12, 1968. Top Secret

Document 3d: Paul C. Warnke to Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, November 27, 1968. Secret

These records of the discussion between Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Warnke and Israeli ambassador Rabin record one of the last U.S. efforts to check Israel's nuclear progress by using the delivery of advanced Phantom jets as leverage. (Note 3)

Document 4: National Security Decision Memorandum 6, "Presidential Decision to Ratify Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," February 5, 1969. Secret
Source: Declassification release by NSC

The Nixon White House informed the State Department and other agencies of its limited commitment to the nuclear proliferation Treaty by forbidding any "plan to bring pressure on … countries to sign or ratify."

Document 5: Henry Owen to the Secretary, "Impact on U.S. Policies of an Israeli Nuclear Weapons Capability," February 7, 1969. Secret/Nodis/Noforn
Source: SN 67-69, DEF 12 Isr

A paper prepared by a Democratic holdover from the Johnson administration suggests the growing apprehension within the State Department over Israel's nuclear progress.

Document 6: Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to Secretary of State et al., "Stopping the Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into the Middle East," March 17, 1969. Top Secret, excised copy
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NPMP), National Security Council Files (NSCF), box 604, Israel Vol. I

As one of the new men in charge of a major component of the national security bureaucracy, Laird's worries about Israel's nuclear progress carried far more weight than Owen's and probably contributed to the White House decisions that led to NSSM 40.

Document 7: Joseph J. Sisco to the Secretary, "Israel's Nuclear Policy and Implications for the United States," April 3, 1969. Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, DEF 12 Isr

The concerns about the Israeli nuclear program expressed by an important player in Middle East policy, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia Joseph Sisco, reflect the growing apprehension over the Israeli nuclear program within the State Department and may likely have contributed to the decision to promulgate NSSM 40. Sisco's document shows the extraordinary sensitivity of the subject and the recognition by key State Department officials that the U.S. could do very little to address the situation, short of a showdown with Israel.

Document 8: Harold Saunders to Kissinger, April 4, 1969
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol. I

The text of NSSM 40 remains classified but this document suggests Harold Saunders and Morton Halperin prepared a draft of the document.

Document 9: Rodger Davies to Mr. Austin et al., "Review Group Consideration of Response to NSSM-40 June 26, 1969," June 30, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
Source: RG 59, Top Secret Subject-Numeric Files 1970-73, box 11, Pol Isr

The Senior Review Group (SRG), chaired by national security adviser Kissinger, oversaw the preparation of responses to NSSMs. Given NSSM's 40 highly secret status, only a small group of officials at the White House, State Department, CIA, and Defense Department were cognizant of the discussions of U.S. policy toward the sensitive Israel nuclear program. This account of the meeting shows the strong interest that key players such as Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard and Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson had in finding ways to check the Israeli nuclear program. It also suggests that at that stage members of the SRG, except perhaps Kissinger, did not know President Nixon's views on these matters.

Document 10: "The Issues for Decision," n.d. [Early July 1969]. Top Secret/Nodis/Sensitive
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II

Henry Kissinger may have had a major role in the drafting of this strategy document, but its exact status is uncertain; it accurately depicted the major views within the SRG on the possible uses of pressure to curb the Israeli nuclear program.

Document 11: ELR and Packard, July 16, 1969
Source: Elliott Richardson Papers, Library of Congress, box 104, Telcons-July-Aug 1969

A supporter of the use of diplomatic pressure against the Israeli nuclear program, Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson told Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard that he was unwilling to deploy it at the initial meeting with Rabin.

Document 12: Telcon, Elliott Richardson with Mr. Kissinger, July 16, 1969, 5:55 PM
Source: NPMP, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, box 2

A telephone conversation that Richardson had later that day with Kissinger showed that if Richardson thought that Phantom jets could provide useful leverage during a probing operation of Israeli nuclear intentions, such a possibility had become out of the question. Kissinger told him that Nixon was "leery" of using the F-4 to exert pressure.

Document 13: Joseph J. Sisco to the Acting Secretary, "Talking Points for Initial Meeting with Israelis on Nuclear and SSM Issue July 29," July 28, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, Def 12-1 Isr

A critical part of the NSSM 40 exercise was to send a message to the Israelis about the U.S. government's concern with them over the state of their nuclear program; with this memo Sisco provided Richardson with the "talking point" to be used in conveying to Rabin "how troubled" the administration was.

Document 14: State Department cable 127273 to Tel Aviv, July 31, 1969. Secret
Source: SN 67-69, Def 12-5 Isr

Part of the conversation with Rabin touched upon his request to accelerate the delivery date of Phantom jets to Israel; this cable to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv showed that Richardson and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard had rebuffed Rabin's request for advance delivery of the F-4s.

Document 15: Richardson to President, "Israel's Nuclear Program," with memorandum of conversation attached, August 1, 1969, Top Secret/Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II

Richardson sent Nixon an overview of the talks with Rabin along with a detailed memorandum of conversation. As the latter shows, Richardson read Rabin a tough statement, then left him three questions to consider, but insofar as Nixon had ruled out any use of pressure on the Israeli government the State Department had no leverage to induce Prime Minister Meir and her cabinet to change course.

Documents 16a and b: The Last Dimona Inspection

Document 16a: U.S. Embassy Israel cable 2941 to State Department, "Dimona Visit," July 31, 1969. Secret, Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 604, Israel Vol II

Document 16b: Memorandum of conversation, "1969 Dimona Visit," August 13, 1969. Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, AE 11-2 Isr

The U.S. team that visited the Dimona facility in July 1961 found that it could not make a "full examination"; the Israelis had "restricted" the visit to such an extent that U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour vainly asked Prime Minister Meir for an additional visit. Part of the problem, the AEC participants believed, was that the U.S. government "is not prepared to support a real 'inspection' effort in which the team members can feel authorized to ask directly pertinent questions."

Document 17: Rodger P. Davies to Under Secretary Richardson, "Call on You by Israeli Ambassador Rabin, Thursday, August 28, at 11 a.m.," August 27, 1969. Top Secret
Source: SN 67-69, DEF 12-1 Isr

In light of Rabin's non-answer to the questions on Israeli nuclear policy that Richardson had raised in late July, Rodger Davies, an important player in NSSM 40 activities at the State Department, advised Richardson to remind the ambassador that he was still interested in the answers.

Document 18: Richardson to the President, "Israel's Nuclear Program," August 28, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69. DEF 12-1 Isr

The next day, Rabin explained the delays to Richardson by observing that "it was a difficult subject for his government to deal with a month before the election."

Document 19: Envelope for President Nixon with writing by Richard Helms, September 8, 1969

Source: NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, Box H-146, NSSM-40

Whatever information Richard Helms had delivered to President Nixon on September 8, 1969 has since vanished from the file, but the writing-"to be opened only by: The President"-shows the extreme sensitivity associated with information on the Israeli nuclear weapons program.

Document 20: Secretary of State William Rogers to President Nixon, "Suggested Position for You to Take with Israeli Prime Minister Meir during Her Forthcoming Visit," September 18, 1969, with excerpt from briefing paper attached. Top Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, Pol 7 Isr

To help Nixon prepare for his meeting with Prime Minister Meir, the State Department prepared a detailed briefing paper with talking points on key issues, including the nuclear program. The State Department authors of the talking points suggested that Nixon use language critical of Israel's nuclear program: "Israel's possession of nuclear weapons … would [not] provide Israel with the security it is intended to serve." State Department briefing materials, however, may not have been a significant input into Nixon's thinking about the meeting, because he routinely depended on briefing information provided by Kissinger and the NSC staff.

Document 21: Theodore L. Eliot, State Department Executive Secretary, to Henry Kissinger, "Briefing Book - Visit of Mrs. Golda Meir," September 19, 1969, enclosing "Background - Israel's Nuclear Weapon and Missile Programs." Top Secret/Nodis
Source: SN 67-69, Pol 7 Isr

This paper, drafted by the Israeli desk at the State Department with the concurrence of the CIA and other agencies, provided an up-to-date intelligence assessment of the Israeli nuclear weapons program: "Some have reservations about whether or not Israel has produced and assembled a complete nuclear weapon, but do not dispute the likelihood that she could and soon might."

Document 22: Kissinger to the President, "Discussions with the Israelis on Nuclear Matters," October 7, 1969. Top Secret/Sensitive/Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III

In the wake of the Nixon-Meir meeting, Kissinger obtained from Rabin answers to the three questions asked by Richardson. Kissinger forwarded the questions and answers to Nixon.

Document 23: Kissinger to the President, October 8, 1969, enclosing "Rabin's Proposed Assurances on Israel Nuclear Policy," October 8, 1969. Top Secret/Nodis/Sensitive
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III

The next day, Kissinger provided Nixon with a detailed analysis of Rabin's answers and the extent to which they were acceptable. A key issue was the question of "possessing" nuclear weapons; while Richardson (following Warnke's line in November 1968) had sought assurances that Israel would not possess them, Kissinger was content to accept a private assurance that Israel was a "non-nuclear weapons State" because it "would in effect ask the Israelis to accept privately the key obligation of the NPT."

Document 24: Alexander Haig to Harold Saunders, October 19, 1969. Top Secret/Sensitive/Eyes Only
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III

In mid-October, Rabin met with Richardson to answer the questions he had raised in late July (for the State Department account of the meeting see the next document). Around the same time, Rabin provided the answers directly to Kissinger.

Document 25: Kissinger to Nixon, "Israel's Nuclear Program," November 6, 1969, with memorandum from Richardson and memorandum of conversation attached. Top Secret/Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III

Commenting on recent exchanges with Rabin, including Richardson's, Kissinger argued that the "advantage of their new formulation is that it should put us in a position for the record of being able to say … we have Israel's assurance that it will remain a non-nuclear state as defined in the NPT." Ultimately that would provide the administration with a "rationale for standing down"-relaxing pressure on the Israeli nuclear question.

Document 26: Saunders to Kissinger, December 8, 1969, with Barbour letter to Sisco, November 19, 1969. Secret/Nodis
Source: NPMP, NSCF, box 605, Israel Vol III

During the months after the Meir-Nixon meeting, Ambassador Barbour and Joseph Sisco vainly sought access to any record that Nixon had kept of his meetings with the Prime Minister and that Nixon had promised to make available to them. NSC staffer Harold Saunders observed that "there is something to be said for providing the three or four people most responsible for carrying out the President's wishes with an accurate reading … of what that policy is." Kissinger, however, could or would not help because, as he scrawled on the top of Saunder's memo: "have never seen." It is not clear where or whether those minutes still exist today.

Document 27: Minutes, "Meeting of Special NSC Review Group on Israeli Assistance Requests," January 26, 1970. Top Secret
Source: NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, Box H-111, SRG Minutes Originals 1970 [5 of 5]

Rabin had said that Israel's position on the NPT would not be forthcoming until after the elections. For major players in the U.S. national security bureaucracy, such as Sisco and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, Israel's signature on the Treaty remained a desideratum and the U.S. "ought to push the NPT urgently."

Document 28: Memorandum of Conversation, Kissinger and Rabin, February 23, 1970. Top Secret/Sensitive
Source: NPMP, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 134, Rabin/Kissinger 1969-1970 Vol. I

When Ambassador Rabin told Kissinger that the Israeli government had made up its mind that it was not going to sign the NPT it meant that earlier U.S. pleas on behalf of the treaty had proved useless. The Nixon-Meir understanding meant that there would be no more pressure; as long as the Israelis kept their program restrained and invisible, Washington would "stand down" from attempts to check their nuclear ambitions.

Document 29: Robert Munn to Mr. Sisco, "Scheduling of Visit to Dimona Reactor," June 12, 1970. Secret/Exdis
Source: RG 59, Records Relating to Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs, 1951-1976, box 26, NSSM-40

The word that there would be no more pressure on Israel reached the middle levels of the bureaucracy slowly, if at all, or they were not willing to take no for an answer. Thus, in mid-1970, Robert Munn at the Israeli desk vainly tried to raise the question of another intelligence visit to the Dimona facility. According to the recollections of former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Kissinger, fearing being "outvoted," made it impossible for the State Department's proposal to be brought up at the SRG level.

Document 30: Memorandum from Atherton and Kratzer to Mr. Sisco, "Response to Congressional Questions on Israel's Nuclear Capabilities," October 15, 1975. Secret (Note 4)
Source: RG 59, Records of Joseph Sisco, box 40, Israeli Nuclear Capability 1975

A request from a U.S. congressman for information on the State Department's "knowledge" of the Israeli nuclear program led to a debate within the Department over whether it should go as far as the CIA in acknowledging its belief that "Israel has already produced nuclear weapons." State Department officials wanted to make a far more equivocal statement not least because, if leaked, it "would have the effect of fact and thus inspire profoundly negative political repercussions in the Middle East and among our allies." Attached to the memorandum is what is probably the first page of a National Intelligence Estimate on nuclear proliferation issues.

Document 31: List of National Security Study Memoranda, n.d., excerpt
Source: Nixon NPMP, NSC Institutional Files, box H-297, Admin File [sub-folder "NSSM"]

This list of NSSMs was discovered just before this briefing book went on-line. It shows that the title of NSSM 40 was "Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program" and that the title was classified at the time owing to its sensitivity.


Notes

1. "Exdis" or exclusive distribution.

2. "Nodis" or no distribution without permission.

3. These and related documents are also on-line in a briefing book prepared by Avner Cohen for the National Security Archive, to announce the publication of his 1999 book, Israel and the Bomb.

4. For more information on the efforts of U.S. intelligence to monitor the Israeli nuclear weapons program, see Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: Norton, 2006).

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