Israel's Nuclear Weapons: Widely Suspected Unmentionables

September 3, 2014 Topic: Israel Nuclear Weapons Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Israel's Nuclear Weapons: Widely Suspected Unmentionables

"No Israeli government, however, has ever said publicly that Israel has such weapons, and neither has the U.S. government, under any administration, said so either."

Within the past couple of weeks the U.S. government has publicly released another pertinent set of previously classified material: about 100 pages of documents from internal U.S. government deliberations about the kumquat problem in 1968 and 1969, spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The documents make interesting reading, although so far the the press has given almost no attention to them apart from an article in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A strong refrain, spanning both U.S. administrations, running through these deliberations was that any Israeli development of nuclear weapons would be a major negative for U.S. interests. As one interagency assessment put it, “The disadvantages to U.S. global interests are such that a major U.S. effort to induce Israel not to produce nuclear weapons is justified.” U.S. policy-makers faced several complications in trying to achieve this objective, however, including the already-emerging problem of Israeli colonization of territory conquered in the Six Day War less than two years earlier. An interagency study group described this part of the quandary this way:

"Use of leverage on the NPT/nuclear issue may seriously detract from our capability to influence Israel on the settlement issue. On the other hand, if we decide to defer using pressure on the nuclear question so as to preserve leverage on a possible peace settlement, we must ask how long we are prepared to do this in the face of Israel's rapidly advancing program, and the knowledge that, the longer we put off making Israel feel the seriousness of our purpose, the harder it will be to arrest Israel's program."

Another complication was the fear that using the most obvious source of U.S. leverage over Israel—arms supplies, with shipment of F-4 Phantom jets being the top Israeli interest at the time—would only make the Israelis more determined than ever to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The State Department in particular argued this point, and was generally in favor of relying only on persuasion rather than leverage to try to slow down the Israeli program. The Department of Defense favored taking a harder line and using the arms spigot as a tool of leverage without fear of endangering Israel's conventional advantage over its neighbors, noting that “for the present Israel's military superiority is complete.” The documents do not take us to the end of this interagency debate or to whatever Nixon and Meir said to each other in private. But in effect the outcome was a passive don't ask, don't tell approach.

Even at that early stage the kumquat program, like the colonization program, involved a lack of Israeli cooperation with the United States. Israel already was playing the verbal game of saying it would not be the first state to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The declassified documents record repeated U.S. efforts to get Israel to state that not “introducing” weapons meant not producing or stockpiling them. The Israelis refused to do so and instead suggested that as long as weapons were neither tested or announced they would not have been “introduced.”

The timing of declassification of government documents can reflect many different and mostly mundane factors, such as when someone happened to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and how fast the wheels of the bureaucratic review process turn. It would be nice to think or at least to hope, however, that this latest release of documents signals a willingness by the current U.S. administration to take a step away from shielding Israeli activities that, even more now than when the policy-makers of 1969 were deliberating, involve significant “disadvantages to U.S. global interests.”