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Israel and the bomb: don’t ask, don’t tell

Ehsan Masood
12 June 2006

A country in the southern hemisphere is secretly engaged in research development with the construction of nuclear weapons in mind. The White House knows, perhaps more than it wants to, and is debating at the highest levels what it should do. Should it talk tough, pick up the megaphone and insist that the country falls into line? Should it adopt softer methods, but with this same objective in mind? Or should it just stay silent?

The United States administration has, for the most part, adopted a public silence over the nuclear-weapons programmes of India, Israel and Pakistan. But now, thanks to newly–declassified documents, the thinking behind Richard M Nixon's official White House silence over Israel's bomb-making has finally come to light. The illuminating source is the research of scholars Avner Cohen & William Burr, who report their findings in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (see "Israel crosses the threshold", May-June 2006).

The year is 1969. The CIA is convinced beyond any doubt that Israel is on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons. The newly–elected President Nixon knows that he cannot lose time on making a decision about Israel's bomb. The sensible thing might be to tell the still youthful state to limit its atomic research to the field of nuclear power (not weapons); and if it refuses, to then consider imposing sanctions (such as an embargo on US arms sales to Israel).

The administration decides, however, that this approach would cause it too much domestic political turmoil. Instead, it chooses to strike a bargain with Israel's prime minister Golda Meir. The White House will look away; it will publicly and officially affect no knowledge of Israeli weapons research, but on the strict understanding that in return Israel will never declare itself to be a nuclear-weapons state, and will never test a nuclear device. These are the elements of a bargain that, argue Cohen & Burr, has now held more or less firm for twenty-seven years.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books published in 2006: Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press, 2006). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Ziauddin Sardar: paradise lost, a future found" (May 2006)

"A post-imperial diplomat" (May 2006)

Secrets and promises

Israel's nuclear research began in 1958 when (with French assistance) construction started at its Dimona research site. Israel's quest for a nuclear weapon is understandable given that memories of the Nazi holocaust were still fresh and that the country was surrounded by neighbours who would prefer that it did not exist.

The United States understood this Israeli perception. As Dimona became operational in the early 1960s, two successive US administrations – those of John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson – organised regular inspections of the plant, to make sure that the research was for peaceful applications such as nuclear power, or food irradiation, and not for weapons. But (as with Iran today) Israel was good at hiding what it did not want to show, and by 1966 it was clear that the country could cross the weapons threshold if it wanted to.

The issue of Israel's nuclear capability was raised at a meeting in 1968 between Paul Warnke, assistant secretary for defence, and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's ambassador to Washington. Israel had previously pledged not to be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the middle east, and Warnke was keen to have this reaffirmed. But Rabin had a different take on the meaning of the word "introduce". For Israel, it meant neither making a public declaration that the country was a nuclear power, nor testing a weapon. It was at this point, Warnke told Cohen & Burr, that he realised that Israel probably already possessed nuclear weapons.

Israel's luck changed three months later with the election of the Republican administration of Richard M Nixon in November 1968. True, it was not immediately obvious that White House policy was about to change. The incoming defence secretary Melvin R Laird, for example, wanted Israel to stop developing weapons as he believed a nuclear Israel would imperil Arab-Israeli relations, and also create the prospect of increased US–Soviet tensions. But Joseph Sisco, assistant secretary of state for near eastern and south Asian affairs, opposed open pressure on Israel on the grounds that it would ignite domestic political turmoil.

It is in the context of this dispute that Cohen & Burr identify the entry of Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, as a critical factor. Kissinger asked his staff to brief him on available policy options on Israel and the bomb. He then established a senior team, chaired by himself and comprising officials from the departments of state, defence, and including General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The team was charged with writing a memo to help Nixon decide what to do next.

Cohen & Burr painstakingly read through minutes of meetings that show how both Kissinger and Nixon were opposed to direct confrontation with Israel, and how a consensus began to emerge. Its core was simple: if Israel promises to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (the NPT was agreed and opened for signature in July 1968) and gave appropriate assurances on not deploying nuclear weapons, America could live with such a secret research and development programme.

A Manichean vision

In a memo dated 7 October 1969, the Nixon administration put three questions to Yitzhak Rabin. They were:

  • would Israel assure us that it would not "possess" nuclear weapons?
  • would it be willing to affirm that it would not deploy strategic missiles?
  • would it be willing to sign the NPT?

In his reply, Yitzhak Rabin said that Israel would not deploy missiles for at least three years; but also made it clear that Israel had no intention of signing the NPT. On the question of whether Israel promises not to possess nuclear weapons, Rabin's reply was guarded, but the meaning was clear: "Israel will not become a nuclear power". Kissinger understood this to mean: we have the bomb, we won't test it, and we promise to keep it a secret.

The corollary to Cohen & Burr's account will not in the least surprise any long-term America–watcher (or, in particular, readers of Sidney Blumenthal's openDemocracy column); if anything, it reveals how little has changed in the Republican party's approach to international affairs.

It also confirms that the White House (then, as now) kept a tight grip on key foreign–policy decisions, choosing to use its leading departments more as providers of technical advice than as shapers of policy. It shows how little respect the Nixon-Kissinger administration had for multilateralism – more remarkable in a period when the US was in the midst of a global confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies. Moreover, it demonstrates the Manichean vision of hardline US conservatives, for whom the world is divided into friends (those you can trust, under all circumstances) and enemies (those you cannot trust – regardless of the number of international treaties they may have signed).

Cohen & Burr believe that the Nixon–Meir deal must be consigned to history. It is time that Israel acknowledges its nuclear status, and for the United States to remove an anomaly that provokes claims of double standards in its non-proliferation policy: "Not only is Israel's nuclear posture of taboo and total secrecy totally anachronistic, it is inconsistent with, and costly to, the tenets of modern liberal democracy. Israel needs a better way to handle its nuclear affairs."

The Nixon-Meir deal represents a triumph of unabashed self–interest over other values that are sorely needed in the global political arena: fairness, honesty, consistency and ethics. Avner Cohen & William Burr are right to call for it to end. The world's people deserve better from its sole superpower.

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