Washington D.C., May 2, 2019 - During 1963, President John F. Kennedy was preoccupied with issues such as Vietnam, the nuclear test ban negotiations, civil rights protests, and Cuba. It is less well known, however, that one of his most abiding concerns was whether and how fast Israel was seeking a nuclear weapons capability and what the U.S. should do about it. Beginning in April 1963, Kennedy insisted that the Israeli leadership accept regular bi-annual U.S. inspections, or in diplomatic language, “visits,” of Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev Desert. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, tried to evade and avoid inspections, but Kennedy applied unprecedented pressure, informing them bluntly, in a near ultimatum tone, that Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel “could be “seriously jeopardized” if it was thought that the U.S. government could not obtain “reliable information” on the Dimona reactor and Israel’s nuclear intentions.
The full exchange of letters and related communications between Kennedy, Ben-Gurion, and Eshkol, published for the first time today by the National Security Archive, illustrates both Kennedy’s tenacity and Israeli leaders’ recalcitrance on the matter of Dimona. Surprised by the U.S.’s firm demands, Eshkol took seven weeks, involving tense internal consultations, before he reluctantly assented. Retreating from a near-diplomatic crisis, both sides treated their communications on Dimona with great secrecy.
Today’s posting of declassified documents from the U.S. National Archives system, including presidential libraries, provides a behind-the-scene look at the decision-making and intelligence review process that informed Kennedy’s pressure on Israeli prime ministers during 1963. Among the documents are:
- National Intelligence Estimate 30-63, “The Arab-Israeli Problem,” from January 1963, which estimated that if the Dimona reactor “operated at its maximum capacity … [it] could produce sufficient plutonium for one or two weapons a year.” This NIE was declassified in 2017.
- A letter from a U.S. diplomat in Tel Aviv who concluded that the detection of an Israeli decision to initiate a “crash” emergency nuclear program would require “a fairly careful watch on the activities of the dozen or so top scientists.” This document was declassified in 2018.
- A State Department memorandum supporting bi-annual inspections of the Dimona reactor to monitor the use of nuclear fuel. Without U.S. inspections, Israel could discharge spent fuel at six-month intervals “to produce a maximum of irradiated fuel for separation into weapons grade plutonium.”
- Kennedy’s statement to French Foreign Minister Couve de Murville that Israel’s nuclear program had put that country in a “stupid” position by giving “a pretext to the Russians, who are retreating in the region, to indict us before world opinion, and perhaps not without reason.”
- A memorandum of conversation from August 1963 in which a British diplomat reported on “new disturbing signs” of Israeli official interest in nuclear weapons. Declassified in 2016.
- The detailed report of the January 1964 U.S. inspection of Dimona that resulted from Kennedy’s pressure on Ben-Gurion and Eshkol.
Some of the documents in today’s posting, such as the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion-Eshkol correspondence, were declassified in U.S. or Israeli archives during the 1990s, but have not been widely available. Others, as indicated above, were declassified in recent years. Moreover, the French translation of Kennedy’s statement to Couve de Murville meeting has never been rendered into English before. Other documents relating to the Ben-Gurion/Kennedy confrontation remain classified at the U.S. National Archives. Significant CIA and intelligence community documents are under appeal or are awaiting declassification action.
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Seeing nuclear proliferation as a major challenge to American power, John F. Kennedy firmly believed that the United States should use its influence to prevent Israel from going nuclear. The Dimona reactor had been discovered only two months before he assumed the presidency in January 1961 and Kennedy was already deeply concerned about Israel’s nuclear aspirations (for details see “Kennedy, Dimona and the Nuclear Proliferation Problem: 1961-1962” in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 547). Those early concerns led to the first American inspection visit at Dimona, in mid-May 1961, and a subsequent face-to-face discussion between Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on 30 May. The nuclear issue was also discussed in the meeting between Kennedy and Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in late December 1962. Ben-Gurion explicitly assured Kennedy that Israel’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and Meir insisted that Israel was not on a path to develop nuclear weapons.
In early 1963 American concerns resurfaced. In January, Kennedy received a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that highlighted the weapons potential of Dimona. It pointed out that the Dimona complex was likely to be operational later that year. According to the NIE, once Dimona was operating at full power, Israel might be on its way to produce enough plutonium for one or two weapons a year. Weeks later, in mid-March, Director of the Office of National Estimates Sherman Kent signed an intelligence estimate pointing out the negative consequences for the United States – at the regional and global levels – of Israeli acquisition of nuclear weapons. On 25 March, Kennedy met CIA Director John McCone to discuss the Israeli nuclear program, and soon afterwards asked National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy to beef up U.S. intelligence collection capabilities aimed at both the Israeli nuclear program and Egypt’s “advanced weapons programs.” The next day Bundy issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 231, a formal directive to State, Defense, and CIA to study “Middle Eastern Nuclear Capabilities.”
By early April Kennedy and his advisers translated their concerns about Dimona into a quiet but affirmative policy demand: they insisted that Israel accept regular bi-annual U.S. inspections (or “visits,” as they were referred to in more diplomatic language), of Dimona. Initially, Kennedy applied the pressure through diplomatic messages. On 2 April, Ambassador to Israel Walworth Barbour presented to Ben-Gurion the U.S. request for semi-annual American visits; two days later, Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman was summoned to the State Department for a similar message.
Ben-Gurion was expected to respond to Kennedy’s request on Dimona during his next meeting with Barbour, but he was not ready for a direct showdown with a determined U.S. president. Nor was he ready to accept Kennedy’s goal of semi-annual visits; that would have ended Dimona as the embodiment of Ben-Gurion’s existential insurance policy. Instead, he tried to avoid a confrontation by diverting Kennedy’s attention.
On 17 April 1963, an opportunity arose for doing so: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq signed the Arab Federation Proclamation, calling for a military union to bring about “the liberation of Palestine.” Such rhetoric was not new at the time, but Ben-Gurion used it to start an exchange with President Kennedy about Israel’s overall security predicament, while evading Kennedy’s specific Dimona request. Whether Ben-Gurion genuinely saw the Arab Federation Proclamation as an existential threat to Israel is unclear, but it tacitly justified Israel’s efforts to create a last resort option without the outright rejection of Kennedy’s request.
Ben-Gurion’s focus on a threat posed by the Arab Federation Proclamation vis-a-vis Kennedy’s focus on the danger of the Israeli nuclear project generated a remarkably discordant exchange of letters and personal oral messages between the two leaders throughout the spring of 1963. Ben-Gurion invoked the specter of “another Holocaust,” and insisted on Israel’s need to receive external security guarantees. But such an arrangement was not in the cards because Kennedy believed that so clear a sign of favoritism toward Israel would undermine U.S. relations with the Arab states.
Kennedy did not budge on Dimona and he was determined not to let Ben-Gurion change the conversation. He dismissed the prime minister’s alarm over the Arab Federation Proclamation as both nothing new and practically meaningless, and insisted that the real danger to the region was the introduction of advanced offensive systems, especially nuclear weapons. To address this concern Kennedy was willing to explore an arms control scheme that would cover both Israel and Egypt. It was evident, however, that his prime focus was halting the Israeli nuclear program.
In retrospect, this exchange amounted to a confrontation between the president of the United States and the prime ministers of Israel over the future of the Israeli nuclear program. The peak of that confrontation was Kennedy’s 15 June letter that Ambassador Barbour was supposed to deliver to Ben-Gurion the next day. The letter included detailed technical conditions under which Kennedy insisted that the biannual U.S. visits were to be conducted. The letter was akin to an ultimatum: if the U.S. government could not obtain “reliable information” on the state of the Dimona project, Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel “could be “seriously jeopardized.” But the letter was never delivered to Ben-Gurion because on that day he stunned his country and the world by announcing his resignation.
Ambassador Barbour, who was prepared to deliver the letter, notified the State Department and asked for instructions. He recommended postponing delivery until the “cabinet problem is sorted out” and then addressing the letter to the next prime minister, a recommendation that Kennedy and his advisers followed.
On 5 July, less than ten days after Levi Eshkol became prime minister, Barbour delivered a 3-page letter to him from Kennedy. It was virtually the same as the 15 June letter to Ben-Gurion, accompanied with a few congratulatory lines to the new leader. Not since President Dwight Eisenhower's message to Ben Gurion, during the Suez crisis in November 1956, had an American president been so blunt with an Israeli prime minister. The specific demands that were presented to Ben-Gurion on how the U.S. inspection visits to Dimona should be executed remained word-for-word in the new letter. Many of Eshkol’s advisors saw the letter as a real ultimatum, a crisis in the making.
Surprised by Kennedy’s tough demands on Dimona just days after taking office, Eshkol’s first response was to ask for more time for consultations. Only on 19 August, more than six weeks after he received the letter, did Eshkol come up with a response, which at times was vague. Under Kennedy’s pressure, Eshkol reluctantly assented, in principle, to allow regular visits by U.S. scientists to Dimona. Nevertheless, he did not agree to an early visit and avoided making a commitment to the bi-annual U.S. inspections that Kennedy sought.
The confrontation by letter between President Kennedy and two Israeli prime ministers resulted in a series of six annual U.S. inspections of the Dimona complex (1964-69), until President Richard Nixon ended them. (The first inspection in January 1964 may have been delayed because of Kennedy’s assassination.) While Lyndon Johnson was less eager to take the Israelis to task, he was concerned about nuclear proliferation and supported the inspections. Nevertheless, the Israelis made their nuclear weapons breakthrough during the 1960s regardless of the inspections, which evidently had little prohibitive or deterrent impact.
Part I U.S. Plans to Regularize Inspections of Dimona
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel: Dimona #1
Compiled after the fact, this chronology summarizes key diplomatic developments involving Dimona – mainly the correspondence between President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – covered by State Department telegram traffic and other sources during January-July 1963. One item in the chronology, dated 23 January 1963, is still classified but is likely a paraphrase or quotation from NIE 30-63, “The Arab-Israeli Problem,” which was issued on the same day and has been recently declassified (see Document 4 below).
Record Group 59, Department of State Records, U.S. National Archives (RG 59), Records of Executive Secretariat. Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, box 1, Memoranda, and Statements Concerning US Security Commitments and the State of Israel 1948 through 1967 [2/2]
In this wide-ranging discussion between Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir and President Kennedy, held at the latter’s summer home in Palm Beach, Florida, Kennedy acknowledged a U.S. “special relationship” with Israel, even noting explicitly for the first time an American commitment to come to Israel’s support “in case of an invasion.” Nevertheless, he contended that as a world power the United States could not let a “special relationship” get in the way of good relations with other countries in the Middle East. On the Israeli atomic reactor, Kennedy spoke vaguely about his hope that Israel would keep U.S. nonproliferation interests in mind. Equally vaguely, Meir “reassured the President that there would not be any difficulty between us on the Israeli nuclear reactor.”
RG 59. Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Dimona Reactor, 1962-1967
RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs. Records Relating to Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Dimona Reactor 1962-1967
In this cover note memo discussing attached intelligence products, including a draft NIE with text covering the Israeli nuclear problem, probably 30-63 [See Document 4 below] (originally numbered 30-62), James W. Spain, then with the Policy Planning Staff, highlighted the limits of American knowledge on Israel’s nuclear activities and the tendency to focus exclusively at the Dimona reactor. Spain offered Assistant Secretary Talbot a “disquieting thought,” the possibility there was “nothing at Dimona but that the Israelis will turn up one day with a weapon developed in other places by other means.” Spain may have been speculating about Israel’s wherewithal to reprocess spent fuel (for plutonium) or to develop gas centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment at secret sites outside of the Dimona compound.
CIA Mandatory Declassification Review Release
In this extended estimate reviewing the state of Arab-Israeli relations, intelligence community analysts touched on the military balance, including efforts on both sides to acquire advanced weapons. On Israel’s nuclear objectives, the estimate was that the Dimona reactor would become operational later that year and that by the following year, “if operated at its maximum capacity for the production of weapon-grade plutonium, the reactor could produce sufficient plutonium for one or two weapons a year.” To produce weapons-grade plutonium, Israel would need a reprocessing plant, but at that point U.S. intelligence had “no evidence to confirm or deny the existence of separation facilities.” Compounding matters, the Israelis had made contradictory statements about them, saying in 1961 that they planned to build them, then in 1962 saying they had no plans, and then telling U.S. inspectors in 1964 that they had delayed constructing a pilot plant for reprocessing.
Along with the plutonium problem, the lack of territory to test a weapon would slow down the Israeli nuclear weapons program. According to the estimate, a “very limited nuclear weapons capability” based on aircraft would not be available to Israel “until two or three years (i.e., 1967-68) after weapon-grade plutonium first became available.” President Kennedy was not wholly satisfied with the estimate and soon asked for more information and analysis.
RG 59 Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs. Records Relating to Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Atomic Energy & Dimona Jan-June 1963
The “fiasco” involving the second “improvised” and deficient U.S. inspection to Dimona in late September 1962 prompted fresh thinking within the AEC, State, and probably the White House about how the United States could effectively and systematically monitor the Dimona reactor. One conclusion was that the inspection visits needed to be bi-annual to be credible. While State Department science chief Charles W. Thomas proposed that regular AEC inspectors travel to Dimona in connection with “their normal visit to the U.S. reactor in Israel [the small U.S.-supplied research reactor at Soreq] about every six months,” AEC officials worried about mixing intelligence with normal safeguards activity. That is, the regular inspectors of the Soreq reactor could be suspected of having a “covert mission” if they were also involved in inspecting Dimona. AEC officials did not approve Thomas’s proposal, but they “shared our [State] view that it is urgently important to make some long-term arrangements as soon as possible.”
Lyndon B. Johnson Library (LBJL), National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona # 1
State Department interest in a regularized system of inspections reflected a growing concern and consensus in Washington. Citing NIE 30–63, NSC Middle East expert Robert Komer suggested that Israel “will attempt to produce a weapon sometime in the next several years and could have a very limited capability by 67-68.” That estimate turned out to be quite accurate. Komer informed the President that “we are planning a better look [at Dimona] in the next month or so.” He mistakenly dated the last inspection at November 1962 when it had taken place in late September.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 11-2 ISR
Dr. Robert Webber, a physicist by training and the newly appointed science attaché at the U.S. embassy in Israel, drew up this report on Israeli nuclear activities on the basis of conversations that senior AEC official Abraham Friedman had with members and staff of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, including Chairman Ernest David Bergmann. As the IAEC was largely excluded from the Dimona project and focused on its own long-term interest in developing nuclear power, much of the report was on the Commission’s plans and programs, which may have been inflated with little grounding in reality.
Assuming that Israel was “not making a serious effort to construct nuclear weapons at the present time.” Webber seemed to accept at face value the Israeli official view that “the IDF can cope with any armed attack that may be made on Israel within the next few years.” Hence, the Dimona secrecy “seems unnecessary” and was probably fed by “Israel’s acute sense of national sovereignty” and “a firm decision not to foreclose the possibility of a nuclear weapons program should the course of Middle East events make it necessary.” This reflected Webber’s view that a dedicated weapons program would require a major and explicit national decision. If such a decision was made, the biggest obstacle Israel would face would be its ability to produce “weapon-grade fissionable material.” Israel could, however, produce a detonator mechanism because it has “demonstrated competence in the preparation and handling of conventional explosives.”
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, AE 6 ISR-US
As indicated by a previously declassified document, the U.S. government was beginning to monitor the activities of senior Israeli nuclear scientists in the United States and new information from the U.S. embassy in Israel was prompting the State Department to expand the scope of the surveillance. According to Embassy First Secretary William Bruce Lockling, Israel Dostrovsky, a prominent physical chemist of the Weizman Institute, who was already at Brookhaven, had been joined by his “most valued assistant,” Fritz Klein. Moreover, Michael Anbar, who was chief of chemistry and isotopes at Israel’s AEC, was heading for a year at Stanford University.
Lockling, who had an academic background in the social sciences, interpreted Israel nuclear policy in this way: a “long-term program toward developing nuclear competence which can be applied as needed to supplying energy for industrial or military capability.” To determine when Israel had decided to initiate a “crash,” “emergency” military program, it would be necessary to keep “a fairly careful watch on the activities of the dozen or so top scientists.” Even a “crash” program could not be accomplished overnight: Lockling’s estimated timetable was six-to-eight years to acquire enough experience and fissile material to carry out a test and about 10-to-12 years to produce enough weapons to “constitute an effective ‘force de frappe.’”
LBJL, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona # 1
Komer met with AEC chair Glenn Seaborg to press for “1) early re -inspection of the Dimona reactor; and (2) a systematic on-going inspection scheme.” In light of Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s statement about “no difficulty between us” with Dimona, Komer believed that “we should move ahead with the next inspection while the Israeli assurances that there would be no difficulty were fresh in their minds.” Komer supported separate inspections of Soreq and Dimona, apparently so that intelligence would not be mixed up with the AEC inspection work, but the excised phrase makes it difficult to fathom the full meaning of his proposal. In any event, he expected Israeli opposition but did not want “prolonged negotiations” over U.S. access.
RG 59, 1963 Subject-Numeric Files, AE 11-2 ISR
As noted, AEC officials were worried that if its formal safeguards inspectors visited Dimona, other governments would conclude that the inspectors were doing intelligence work: Therefore, the AEC’s Algie Wells proposed that Dimona inspections be conducted “by suitably qualified technical personnel other than AEC safeguards inspectors,” who should have “full and complete access” to the entire complex. That would be enough for the U.S. to “satisfy itself with respect to the nature of the facilities at the Dimona site but also with respect to the disposition of the materials produced in the Dimona reactor.” Wells acknowledged that the inspectors would not be able “to perform materials accountability functions which are a critical part of the inspections carried out under our Agreements for Cooperation,” which depended on access to the relevant internal records. Thus, the “visits … would not provide assurance that the materials being used or produced [there] were not being employed for military purposes.”
If the Israelis rejected visits by “suitably qualified technical personnel,” the AEC would reconsider its reluctance to use the regular safeguards inspectors.
In a memorandum sent to CIA Director John McCone, Chairman of the Board of National Estimates Sherman Kent outlined the grave consequences that could derive from Israeli nuclearization. “Israel’s policy towards its neighbors would become more rather than less tough … it would … seek to exploit the psychological advantages of its nuclear capability to intimidate the Arabs and to prevent them from making trouble on the frontiers.” Furthermore, in dealing with the United States, Israel “would use all means in its command to persuade [it] to acquiesce in and even to support, its possession of nuclear capability.” The Arab reaction would be “profound dismay and frustration,” and the United States would be among the principal targets of Arab resentment. The Arabs’ recourse would be the Soviet Union which would “win friends and influence” in the Middle East region.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric File 1963, AE 6 ISR
During a recent trip to Tel Aviv, Crawford, in charge of the State Department’s Israel desk, met with science attaché Webber who briefed him on the IAEC’s nuclear reactor plans. On the question of nuclear weapons, Webber believed that it would take a special effort for Israel to work jointly on missiles and warheads: they would need to undertake a “crash program” involving the merger of missile and weapons research to produce “nuclear war-head missiles in less than a decade.” As William Bruce Lockling had advised, Webber would look for signs of such developments by “watching the activities of the Israeli scientists who really count.” Crawford noted that Webber and his embassy colleague Spencer Barnes were doubtful that the Israelis would agree to two inspections a year, but he told them that the “Israelis might be more sensitive than they imagined to the degree of Presidential concern on this subject.” The implication was that the Israelis needed to be ready for considerable U.S. pressure on this point. With his close contact with White House officials and the future drafter of presidential messages to Ben-Gurion, Crawford knew of what he wrote.
RG 59. Policy Planning Council Records, 1963-1964, box 41, NSAM
A day before National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy issued this National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM), President Kennedy met CIA Director McCone. According to McCone’s record of the meeting, he raised the “question of Israel acquiring nuclear capability” and gave Kennedy Sherman Kent’s estimate of the consequences of Israeli nuclearization. Then, according to McCone, Kennedy instructed Bundy to ask Secretary Rusk, in collaboration with the DCI and AEC chairman, to submit a proposal “as to how some form of international or bilateral US safeguards could be instituted to protect against the contingency mentioned.”
It is evident from NSAM 231 that Kennedy thought official knowledge of the Israeli nuclear program was lacking. Whatever triggered this concern (e.g., the gap between his possible recollection of Ben-Gurion’s 1961 statement about a “pilot” reprocessing plant and CIA’s apparent lack of knowledge about reprocessing), NSAM 231 directed the three relevant agency chiefs – State, AEC, CIA – “to undertake every feasible measure to improve our intelligence on the Israeli nuclear program as well as other Israeli or Arab advanced weapons programs” (a reference to chemical, biological, or radiological weapons and missile programs). In this context, Kennedy also indicated the need for the “next informal inspection of the Israeli reactor complex to be undertaken promptly and to be as through as possible.”
NSAM 231 also directed the State Department to “develop proposals for forestalling” nuclear weapons programs in the Middle East partly by “seeking clearer assurances from the governments concerned on this point” and to impress on them “how seriously such a development would be regarded in this country.”
Part II Initial Approach on Regular Bi-Annual Inspections
RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR
A day after NSAM 231 was issued, the State Department began to implement it by asking Ambassador Barbour to inform Prime Minister Ben-Gurion that the U.S. government sought his “assent to semi-annual repeat semi-annua1 visits to Dimona perhaps May and November, with full access to all parts and instruments in the facility, by qualified U.S. scientists.” This message, along with a parallel demarche to the Israeli ambassador, was the first salvo in what would develop into the toughest American-Israeli confrontation over the Israeli nuclear program.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR
On 2 April, at the end of a two-hour discussion with Ben-Gurion on the refugee problem, Barbour raised the matter of Dimona inspections. Ben-Gurion said that he wanted to postpone the discussion until after Passover. When Barbour noted that the last inspection had been limited to 45 minutes, an evidently surprised Foreign Minister Meir replied that the short visit had been the decision of the U.S. inspectors. Barbour disagreed.
To underline the point more sharply, on 4 April, the next day, Assistant Secretary Talbot summoned Israeli Ambassador Harman and presented him with a demarche on the inspections. Documentation on this episode is not available, but it is cited in the “Brief on Developments Re the Dimona Reactor” [See Document 1].
Israel State Archives, Foreign Ministry Record Group, 4326/26
This is the seven-page Israeli record of an unscheduled meeting between Kennedy and Shimon Peres, then Israel's deputy minister of defense and chief of the Israeli nuclear program, at the White House on 2 April 1963. Visiting Washington for talks on the purchase of Hawk missiles, Peres stopped by the White House to meet with presidential adviser Myer Feldman, who was central to policy on Israel, with a say on all decisions involving Arab-Israeli matters that had domestic implications. Accompanying Peres were Ambassador Harman and Deputy Chief of Mission Mordechai Gazit.
From the White House perspective, the timing of Peres’s visit could not have been better. With all of the State Department, AEC, and White House discussion over the previous weeks, Kennedy had an opportunity to meet with Peres – known to the U.S. as the key man on the Israeli nuclear program – in person and directly convey his concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. That is what happened. Apparently by pre-arrangement between Feldman and Kennedy, the president ran into them in the corridor and invited them for a brief introductory meeting at the Oval Office. In the half-hour conversation Kennedy interrogated Peres on Israel’s nuclear activities and intentions. It was in response to Kennedy’s question that Peres invoked – for the first time to the United States – the pledge that would subsequently become Israel's public formula for nuclear opacity (pages 3-4 in the document). Here is a translation of this exchange as recorded on page 3 of the Israeli document:
Kennedy: You know that we follow very closely the discovery of any nuclear development in the region. This could create a very dangerous situation. For this reason, we monitor your nuclear effort. What could you tell me about this?
Peres: I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.
Years later, Peres revealed that his answer was an improvisation in response to an unexpected situation. Not expecting to see the president, and certainly not to be asked that question by him, Peres had to come up with a response that did not involve revealing state secrets or telling an outright lie. What he said, however, was consistent with, and probably influenced by, the approach that Ben-Gurion had already been taking in meetings with Israeli newspaper editors – that Israel would not be the first to “introduce nuclear weapons” in the region.
As significant as Peres’s declaration was, the understanding on the U.S. side was apparently different. According to Feldman, Peres “had given an unequivocal assurance that Israel would not do anything in this field unless it finds that other countries in the area are involved in it.” “Not do anything” has a different meaning than “not introduce.” Thus, President Kennedy continued his effort to prevent Israel from reaching the point where it would have the capability to “introduce” the bomb.
In the spring of 1963 some top officials in Israel, primarily Mossad chief Isser Harel with the support of Foreign Minister Golda Meir, initiated a public campaign (via leaks to the Israeli media) about German scientists in Egypt involved in developing ballistic missiles and radiological weapons, possibly even nuclear weapons. Reinforcing NSAM 231 and raising the urgency, State Department intelligence chief Thomas Hughes asked DCI McCone to issue a special NIE on “advanced weapons programs” in both the UAR and Israel. Hughes asked McCone for a “comprehensive round-up of available intelligence on UAR and Israeli developmental programs and capabilities in the fields of nuclear weapons, missiles, and bacteriological, chemical, and radiological warfare,” as well as the nature of any foreign private or governmental assistance in those areas.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR
Having waited more than two weeks for an answer from Ben-Gurion, Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked Ambassador Barbour to “press” for an “affirmative reply” to the U.S. request for semi-annual inspections of Dimona.
Part III Ben-Gurion's Efforts to Deflect Kennedy's Pressure
RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10 Israel 3 of 3
Not having answered the U.S. request about Dimona, on 26 April 1963, Ben-Gurion tried to change the subject in a long letter to Kennedy. Prompting the letter was the recent Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi Arab Federation Proclamation on 17 April calling for a military union to produce the “liberation of Palestine.” Ignoring Kennedy’s request for bi-annual visits at Dimona, Ben-Gurion elaborated in his letter on regional stability and Israeli security, and in response proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet security guarantee for the territorial integrity of all states of the Middle East
RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965
In reply Ben-Gurion’s 26 April letter, Kennedy assured the Israeli prime minister that he shared his concern but was puzzled by the proposal for a joint declaration with Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Such an action, he believed, would only add to Soviet “prestige” in a region where it had made trouble, for example, as a supplier of arms. Kennedy also tried to direct the exchange to his original concern, telling Ben-Gurion that he was much less worried about an “early Arab attack” than “a successful development of advanced offensive systems which, as you say, could not be dealt with by presently available means.” Indirectly raising his concern about the Israeli nuclear program, Kennedy noted that he had “expressed before [his] deep personal conviction that reciprocal and competitive development of such weapons would dangerously threaten the stability of the area. I believe that we should consider carefully together how such a trend can be forestalled.”
National Archives, RG 59, Consolidated Records of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Lot 81D343, box 36, Israel Atomic 353.42
Citing Embassy reporting, the CIA’s analysts implied that Ben-Gurion was more interested in pursuing a nuclear capability than in receiving security guarantees. The prime minister saw that U.S. proposals for arms control in the Middle East could place Israel at “such a disadvantage” that it could raise the danger of war. Moreover, “Ben-Gurion stated that neither a guarantee nor any alliance is sufficient for Israel's protection without adequate independent strength.” Accordingly, the Knesset “adopted a resolution to increase Israel’s ‘deterrent strength.’”
Responding simultaneously to Kennedy’s request for better intelligence and to INR’s recent request for a “comprehensive round-up” of recent intelligence on the Israeli and UAR advanced weapons programs, the intelligence community presented a Special National Intelligence Estimate in early May focusing exclusively on unconventional weapons in the Middle East. While this revised estimate included much more data on Israeli nuclear activities, some of it excised, it was not enough to change the overall conclusions of the January 1963 NIE. In resemblance to the original one, it concluded that “Israel intends at least to put itself in a position to be able to produce a limited number of weapons relatively quickly after a decision to do so” and that “unless deterred by outside pressure [the Israelis] will attempt to produce a weapon sometime in the next several years.” Unless they had a secret source that shed light on Israeli intentions, the analysts may have made their case by inference.
However, the conclusions of the SNIE were more specific and definitive than the January estimate: “We believe that in the most favorable circumstances Israel could detonate a domestically developed nuclear device by late 1965, but a more likely date would be sometime in 1966. Developing the device into a weapon which could be delivered by aircraft would require a year or two more (1967- 1968), though this period could be virtually eliminated if Israel obtained from another country detailed and tested weapons designs.” Despite these strong conclusions, the analysts admitted that “we have no evidence to confirm the existence of plutonium separation facilities.” Furthermore, the SNIE, like the previous estimate, assumed the production of a “limited number” of weapons would require a “decision.” No such decision, tacit or otherwise, could be taken, in the absence of a plutonium separation plant, although the Dimona facility was large enough to accommodate one. The SNIE’s authors took it for granted that testing would be required, whether underground or atmospheric (the latter was ruled out when Israel signed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty). Both methods had their limitations, for example, the fallout hazards created by atmospheric testing. Moreover, before it could safely test a device, Israel would need enough fissile material for at least one more “so as not to be left without any after the test.” In addition, testing would be delayed because Dimona would produce spent fuel at a relatively slow rate.
By contrast to Israel, the UAR, “alone or in combination with other Arab States, does not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future.” Both sides, however, were interested in surface-to-surface missiles, but if they developed such systems their “purely military significance is likely to be modest for some time.” The UAR would not be able to arm its SSM’s with nuclear warheads, but Israeli missiles could be nuclear-armed in a shorter time period (“several years”), thus increasing Israeli “military superiority.” While Israel’s motive in acquiring a nuclear capability would be “primarily defensive,” once the Israelis had the bomb that could “encourage them to be bolder in the use of their conventional resources both diplomatic and military in their confrontation with the Arabs.”
As this paper was being prepared, the U.S. began to learn about the deal that Israel made with the French company Dassault for the development of a short-range surface-to-surface missile.
RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, POL ARAB-ISR
On 5 May, Ambassador Barbour met and discussed the matter of semi-annual U.S. visits to Dimona with Ben-Gurion. The record of this meeting has not been released, but the State Department reaction was that it “appears here [the Prime Minister] may now be attempting [to] throw question of Dimona inspections into arena of bargaining for things Israel wants from us, such as security guarantee.” Whatever Ben-Gurion had in mind, Kennedy and his advisers objected to making such a linkage and wanted Barbour to remind Ben-Gurion that he and other senior officials had approved the idea of inspections in the past unconditionally. Apparently, Ben-Gurion had argued against inspection on the grounds that the U.S. was “not insisting on inspection in the Arab countries”, to which Rusk advised Barbour to say that Washington had good intelligence on Arab nuclear efforts “and these do not amount to a serious program.”
RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, POL ARAB-ISR
With the White House under greater domestic pressure to fashion a Middle Eastern policy that was more “consonant with Israeli desires,” President Kennedy (no doubt with 1964 presidential election in mind) wanted to reach an “accommodation” to those pressures “without seriously impairing our other interests in the area.” In a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Grant acknowledged that such an accommodation “would be extremely difficult to accomplish,” not least because President Kennedy was concerned about the “arms escalation” in the region, especially the Israeli nuclear program. Consistent with the concern about domestic politics, Grant noted that Deputy Counsel Mayer (Mike) Feldman had a new political role at the White House, as the primary staffer to approve all State Department telegrams concerning Israel and Arab-Israeli issues that had domestic political implications. Grant further mentioned that Kennedy had asked Rusk that the State Department draft a presidential letter to Egypt President, Gamal Abdul Nasser, to initiate dialogue on area security and arms limitations.
RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Pres Kennedy/Johnson Israel Official Correspondence 1963-1964-1965
In a lengthy and highly personal response (9 typed pages) to Kennedy’s 5 May letter, Ben-Gurion continued his earlier effort to change the conversation but also to explain indirectly the purpose of Dimona. On the surface, Ben-Gurion’s letter seems to ignore the issue of Dimona entirely, as if he either overlooked or dismissed Kennedy’s letter and the recent U.S. requests for visits to Dimona. Instead, in the tone of an old statesman who had seen it all, Ben-Gurion wrote about his impressions of Nasser and his Pan-Arabism, and then made an analogy between Nasser and other contemporary Arab leaders with Hitler, writing:
“knowing them I am convinced that they are capable of following the Nazi example. Nasser is in fact adopting the National-Socialist ideology of the Nazis. For many years the civilized world did not take seriously Hitler's statement that one of his aims was the worldwide extermination of the Jewish people. I have no doubt that a similar thing might happen to Jews in Israel if Nasser succeeded in defeating our army.”
Ben-Gurion all but linked the possibility of another Holocaust to his request for security guarantees to Israel, asserting that the best way to avoid a cataclysm was joint action by the two superpowers. Acknowledging Kennedy’s view that such joint action was politically impossible he suggested a U.S-Israel security agreement, U.S. arms supply equal to what the Arabs were receiving, turning Jordan’s West Bank into a demilitarized zone, and “a plan of general disarmament between Israel and the Arab states under a system of mutual and international inspection and control.” Ben-Gurion, however, doubted the practicality of the last idea.
When top Israeli diplomat Ambassador Gideon Rafael (the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general), saw the draft, he advised against sending it. Rafael argued that the letter “looks sick” and that “the Prime Minister must not speak about something that seems sick.” Ben-Gurion usually rejected editorial advice and insisted on the tone and the length. Therefore, why did he send such a strange letter?
Besides failing to address Kennedy’s requests, the letter proposed ideas that looked utterly unrealistic. One way to explain this puzzle was that Ben-Gurion meant to suggest to Kennedy his rationale for the Dimona project, without saying so explicitly. By reminding Kennedy that another Holocaust was possible, he effectively conveyed why Israel needed a nuclear deterrent. Dimona was the ultimate security assurance for Israel, because no external security guarantees were feasible or credible.
National Archives, Record Group 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Records of Office of Country Director for Israeli and Arab-Israeli Affairs, Records Relating to Near Eastern Arms Initiative, box 1, Talbot in Spring 1964 & Exchange of Letters
Almost in parallel to his letter of 12 May, in which he totally ignored Kennedy’s requests on Dimona, Ben-Gurion met Ambassador Barbour to revisit the Dimona problem. In reviewing the request for visits, Ben-Gurion asked if Washington intended semi-annual visits to Egyptian sites. After Barbour observed that there was nothing there to see, Ben-Gurion stated his disagreement with the U.S. “assessment [of] Egyptian nuclear programs.” He concluded that he would consult his cabinet but observed that it was to Israel’s advantage if the Arab governments were “worried rather than reassured on Israeli nuclear program.”
John F. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, box 119
Presenting the President with the State Department scenario for talks with Israel and the UAR on security and disarmament issues, in a response to NSAM 231, Komer argued that Israel would go ahead with a nuclear program unless Washington provided security guarantees. Consistent with this, the State Department suggested that Washington send a special emissary to both Israel and the UAR with an offer that linked security assurances to a nuclear and missile stand-still. The fact that Ben-Gurion had insisted on inspections of both Israel and UAR nuclear facilities, Komer believed, provided the U.S. with an “opening.” Komer further saw the attached State Department proposal as a “good opening bid” for security assurances tied to a nuclear/missile standstill agreement.
RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965, excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963.
Kennedy did not allow Ben-Gurion to change the conversation into a discussion of “another Holocaust.” Kennedy’s new letter to Ben-Gurion, dated 17 May, categorically separated the two issues, i.e., the question of Israel’s existential security, and the matter of Dimona. Kennedy ignored for the time being the existential issues raised in Ben-Gurion’s 12 May letter and focused solely on Ben-Gurion’s oral response about the Dimona visits to Ambassador Barbour on 14 May.
Based on their meeting in May 1961, Kennedy rhetorically suggested that he was sure that both would agree “that there is no more urgent business for the whole world than the control of nuclear weapons.” Both must agree, he wrote, “that the dangers in the proliferation of national nuclear weapons system are so obvious that I am sure I need not repeat them here.” Worried about the impact on both world and regional stability of an Israeli nuclear weapons capability, Kennedy warned Ben-Gurion that such development would make the Soviets more involved in the Middle East and would almost certainly lead other larger countries “to follow suit.”
It was in that letter that Kennedy elevated the request for bi-annual visits at Dimona to a level that was very close to an ultimatum. Kennedy observed that as strong as the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security was, it would “seriously jeopardized in the public opinion of this country” if it was thought that “this Government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field.” This ultimatum-like language remained in all subsequent letters.
RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, Pol FR-US; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada.
In this general discussion of French foreign policy between President Kennedy and Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, the Israeli nuclear program made several appearances. According to the State Department version of the discussion, after Kennedy and de Murville spoke about the German nuclear problem, Kennedy suggested that because the Israelis had acquired uranium the Germans might be able to do the same; de Murville commented that “even if the Israelis get an atomic device they would be able to make trouble but they would not be able to wage nuclear war in the real sense of the word” (although perhaps the people targeted by the attack would have a different perspective).
The French Foreign Ministry’s compilation, Documents Diplomatiques Français. provides a fuller and more interesting account of the meeting, especially of the brief discussion of Israel during two different points. Here follows a rendition into English of the French original, showing how Kennedy shifted the discussion from the German nuclear problem to Israel.
Kennedy: It is the same problem as Israel. I would like you to discuss this very thoroughly with the Secretary of State, because it is at present a grave concern.
Couve de Murville: I totally agree with you on this point, but the Israelis could produce at most one to two bombs that could not be considered as true weapons of war. It would lead to Middle East unrest, but it would not be a real threat to the survival of the human race.
Later in the conversation, according to the U.S. version, de Murville stated that France “had made a mistake in having furnished Israel with plutonium.” The French, however, had provided only a small quantity of plutonium, for lab research only, and that was probably not what de Murville was talking about. It is possible that the U.S. interpreter/notetaker did not fully understand what de Murville had said or that the final U.S. version, especially Kennedy’s frank comments, was edited beyond recognition. Here follows a rendition into English of the French original.
De Murville: As far as we are concerned, we have taken all the necessary precautions. We are committed to supplying [the Israelis] with certain quantities of uranium for their reactor, but they must return it as soon as they have processed it, so that they do not have the possibility of extracting the plutonium. Sadly, the Israelis are likely to find uncontrolled [sources] of uranium alloys. It is a question on which I wish to speak with Mr. Rusk, for we agree with you on the danger of this subject.
Kennedy: I am pleased because if Israel had atomic weapons, we would be blamed equally, you for furnishing uranium, and we for the financial aid given to Israel. The position of that country is stupid because it gives a pretext to the Russians, who are retreating in the region, to indict us before world opinion, and perhaps not without reason,
RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965
Kennedy’s letter of 19 May must have made it clear to Ben-Gurion that he had to respond to Kennedy’s specific request on Dimona. In his reply, dated 27 May, Ben-Gurion started with the same peaceful research narrative that he had used to characterize the Dimona project from the very beginning, including during his meeting with Kennedy in May 1961. In response to the request for bi-annual visits, Ben-Gurion evaded the bi-annual issue and instead simply referred to the past American visits to Dimona, “such as have already taken place,” but asked for a delay, arguing that there would be nothing to see until the early 1964 “start-up” of the reactor. “At present, nothing is going on there except building construction.” According to a report to Bundy from the State Department’s Executive Secretary, that reply was “less than fully satisfactory.” Komer later reported that Assistant Secretary Talbot and his associates saw the letter “as a step backward on terms of access to Dimona. More importantly, by postponing the proposed inspection to at least end-1963, the Israelis kept this bargaining counter in play for forthcoming negotiation.”
LBJL, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel: Dimona #1
Ambassador Barbour interpreted Ben-Gurion’s letter more favorably, arguing, for example, that it “accepted [the] principle of continuing visits,” gave “assurances in writing at highest level as to the peaceful nature of the reactor” and dropped the notion of parallel visits to Israeli and Egyptian sites.
RG 59, Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs. Central Files, 1964-1966, box 4, Israel-Dimona
In a draft of a memorandum to be sent to the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, officials at the State Department’s science bureau explained that Ben-Gurion’s desire for annual visits “would not meet our minimum intelligence requirements to satisfy ourselves … as to Israel’s intentions;” nor was it consistent with IAEA inspection standards, which Washington supported: If the Dimona reactor was for research only, its spent fuel would need to be discharged every two years, “but approximately at six months intervals if the object was to produce a maximum of irradiated fuel for separation into weapons grade plutonium.” Hence, to monitor the use of the reactor fuel, Dimona would require two inspections annually. In addition, a visit would be needed before the reactor went critical because once that happened some sections of the reactor become inaccessible.
As a partial compromise, the State Department proposed a mid-summer 1963 visit, one in June 1964, and then visits every 6 months thereafter, with access to all areas of the site, including related operations that might be somewhere else, such as a reprocessing plant. The memo included the draft text for the Kennedy letter to Ben-Gurion that was sent a few days later.
RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3; 1965, excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963
Replying to Ben-Gurion’s letter of 27 May, Kennedy respectfully but firmly insisted on the need to create a system of regular bi-annual U.S. visits to Dimona. Like the previous letter, this one included the same ultimatum-like warning: Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we are unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital” as Israel’s intentions in the nuclear field. For this reason, the letter insisted on a schedule along the lines suggested by the State Department, that is, the first visit during that summer, before the reactor turned critical, then the next summer (June 1964), and after that at intervals of six months.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, AE 11-2 ISR
As Kennedy’s letter arrived in Tel Aviv, on 16 June, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion resigned; he cited unspecified “personal reasons,” although the CIA believed that his conciliatory policy toward West Germany. was a cause. Ambassador Barbour recommended that once a new Israel government had formed, the U.S. demarche be sent in a redrafted form. He further observed that the Dimona inspection was a controversial issue when Ben-Gurion presented it to the cabinet in late May.
Part IV: Kennedy Confronts Eshkol
John F. Kennedy Library, President's Office Files, box 119, Israel Security, 1961-1963; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963
The State Department drafted a new letter on Dimona to new Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. After congratulating him for assuming office and mentioning his earlier exchanges with Ben-Gurion on Dimona, Kennedy used virtually the same text of his undelivered 16 June letter to Ben-Gurion in the letter to Eshkol. It included the same warning that the “American commitment to and support of Israel” could be “seriously jeopardized” if Israel did not let the United States obtain “reliable information” about Israel's effort in the nuclear field. Kennedy suggested the same schedule of visits to Dimona that he conveyed to Ben Gurion: the first one in the summer of 1963, then a year later, and then at intervals of six months.
RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3
In his interim reply to the communication of 4 July, Eshkol told Kennedy that he needed time to review the entire issue involving the Dimona project before giving a substantive response, which some in the White House saw as an attempt to treat inspections as a “bargaining card” for security guarantees. In his conversation with Barbour, Eshkol mentioned his great “surprise” (“searching for the right word,” he added) over Kennedy’s near-ultimatum statement that the U.S. commitment to and support of Israel could be “seriously jeopardized.” While he hoped that U.S-Israeli friendship would grow, “Israel would do what it had to do for its national security and to safeguard its sovereign rights.” Barbour assured him that Kennedy’s statement was “factual” because critics of strong U.S.-Israel relations could complicate the diplomatic relationship.
Later in the discussion, Eshkol asked a question that Ben-Gurion had never openly raised: how would Washington react to an Israeli proposal to “consult in advance” with the United States “in the event that, sometime in the distant future,” Middle Eastern developments made it necessary for Israel to “embark on a nuclear weapons program.”
Notwithstanding the hypothetical language, this was the first time an Israeli prime minister had treated Dimona as a security asset. Barbour replied that he could not answer such a question and had no idea what the United States reaction might be. Noting that “it should be sufficient for word of sovereign state to be acceptable,” Eshkol asked whether the United States expected to inspect India’s nuclear developments. Barbour did not directly answer the question but assured the prime minister that the U.S. concern about nonproliferation was broader than the problem of Israel, although the “introduction” of nuclear weapons into the Middle East would be “especially grave.”
RG 59, Executive Secretariat Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, box 3, Chron Summary of the Arms Probe with Nasser and Related Events, 1963-1964; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963
This memo records a meeting with John J. McCloy, the President’s envoy on Middle East arms limitations upon his return from Cairo earlier that month, in which Kennedy and his Middle East advisers reviewed the possibilities for developing inspection arrangements for nuclear facilities in the UAR and Israel. So far President Nasser had resisted inspections, in part because, as he argued [in his conversation with McCloy on 27 June], Egypt had nothing to show, which meant that McCloy had to call off his planned visit to Israel. After Kennedy asked about Nasser’s statements about pre-emptive attacks on Dimona, Ambassador John Badeau observed that “our past assurances to the Arabs, that the reactor is not producing such weapons have helped” to calm the situation.
On Israel, Kennedy suggested he needed to apply more pressure on Eshkol (“keep up with the correspondence” on Dimona) but “wondered how one could prevent Israel from manufacturing nuclear weapons.” CIA Director McCone observed that the “first inspection should reveal much about Israeli intentions.” If the inspection showed that Israel was building a “chemical separation plant, this suggests they may have in mind making nuclear weapons.” This statement from the CIA director manifested the genuine uncertainty, even ignorance, about Israel’s secret plans for a separation plant. Later, McCone said that he was “satisfied that there is no other nuclear complex in Israel at the present time.”
McCone also briefed the group on the French-Israeli nuclear agreement, which specified that “plutonium” or spent fuel from the Dimona plant was to be “retained by the French.” McCone said senior French diplomat Charles Lucet had “expressed concern” because the Israelis were acquiring unsafeguarded fuel (possibly referring to purchases from Argentina According to Lucet, these actions had “require[ed] the French to do some preemptive buying.” This could be a reference to French efforts to prevent the Israelis from buying uranium from Gabon.
RG 59, Subject Numeric Files, 1963, Def 12 ISR
Harrison Symmes, one of the department’s top Middle East specialists, informed Deputy Assistant Secretary Grant that the British were strongly interested in keeping “in close touch” with Washington on the Israeli nuclear problem especially because they were “disturbed by the recent conjunction of high-level U.S. and French expressions of concern” emanating from both Rusk and Couve de Murville. While no new information was available on Israeli intentions or the specific direction of Israeli technological development, “we remain glad to share our thoughts fully with the U.K.” Washington was also seeking information from the French on their safeguards arrangements, but it was not clear how “forthcoming” they would be because of their own internal divisions.
RG 59, Subject Numeric Files, 1963, Def 12 ISR
To plumb U.S. thinking and to share British intelligence, Embassy Counselor John Killick met with State Department officials with whom he discussed a recent series of “disturbing signs,” including explicit statements on nuclear capabilities by the Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. General Zvi Tzur, Prime Minister Eshkol, and the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom. For example, the latter had told British Foreign Secretary Lord Home that without security guarantees Israel would have to resort to “new deterrent weapons." In light of such statements, Killick observed that the “fundamental question” was “how Israel is to be deterred from nuclear weapons development.”
Acting Assistant Secretary Grant assured Killick that Washington and London were operating on the “same factual and intelligence basis.” Neither country had “conclusive proof” that Israel had nuclear weapons plans, but Washington believed that it was developing a “technological capacity which could be devoted to weapons production on short notice.” To prevent the situation from getting out of hand, the administration was taking various steps, such as discussing procedures to “regularize” inspections of Dimona and supporting the goal of placing UAR and Israeli nuclear activities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
For Grant, it was important to make sure that the Israelis “see clearly that were they to go the weapons path the Arabs would have to follow and this would open the door for the Soviets, perhaps on the Cuba pattern.” He further believed that the Israelis were using “talk of a nuclear deterrent” as part of a calculated effort to induce Washington to offer a security guarantee. “On this point, we would agree with the UK that a unilateral security guarantee to Israel should not be considered.”
RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3
After about seven weeks of highly intense consultations, Eshkol finally handed to Ambassador Barbour his reply letter to Kennedy’s letter of early July, Eshkol agreed to a Dimona visit in late 1963, before the reactor reached criticality, and suggested that a follow-up visit in mid-1964 could be discussed. Eshkol acknowledge Kennedy’s request for bi-annual visits to Dimona, but without making any commitment apart from a general expression of confidence that agreement on a future schedule could be reached. Noting Kennedy’s concern about the reactor’s fuel cycle, Eshkol stated that the reactor fuel was French “and is fully controlled by the French government, to whom it has to be returned after irradiation.” Barbour later commented that Eshkol “has not had an easy time in obtaining agreement of his colleagues to the line taken in this letter, a line which represents a major effort on his part … to meet U.S. anxieties on this important problem.”
Discussing the issue further, Eshkol said that his mind was not yet made up, but for the time being he asked that Nasser not be told about future U.S. visits to Dimona: it was better that he “not be completely assured that Israel is not working toward nuclear weapons production.” Ambassador Barbour cautioned the prime minister of the danger that Nasser might conclude that Israel was getting the bomb and that it was necessary for the UAR to make a “preventive attack” lest Israel strike first.”
In a memo to Kennedy, Under Secretary of State George Ball observed that Eshkol had not agreed to the summer 1963 visit that Kennedy had requested and did not consent to semi-annual visits beginning in 1964. In effect, Ball suggested that Kennedy reply as if Eshkol had made those concessions, a suggestion that Komer endorsed. That Eshkol objected to U.S. briefings to the UAR about the inspections was a serious problem because of the “deterrent effect” that the information would have, for example, by assuring Nasser about Israeli capabilities.
RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965
Kennedy’s appreciative reply (which he personally approved) to Eshkol did not mention the divergences over the timing and frequency of the Dimona visits, but assumed there was basic agreement on “regular visits.” In the instructions, Barbour was asked to tell Eshkol that, seeing as he had not made up his mind over whether Nasser should be informed of the U.S. visits, that Kennedy believed that “there are real advantages for security in setting to rest any fears which might otherwise lead to nuclear weapons acquisitions efforts by others in the area.” The ambassador was asked to assure Eshkol that a reply to Ben-Gurion’s letter of 12 May on security guarantees to Israel was forthcoming, but Kennedy would remain unwilling to make “explicit” guarantees.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 6 ISR
The British provided more intelligence on the Israeli nuclear program, this time from a source at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to the source, the French government had toughened its inspection/safeguard procedures, although the Embassy did not know the details, having been “cut out” of the process. The Embassy source did know, however, that the numbers of French workers at Dimona had been exaggerated (not “200 families,” but 60 workers). While the Israelis were “miffed” that the French were “suspicious” of their nuclear plans, the latter took a position comparable to Washington’s: recognizing that Israel was then “in no position to manufacture nuclear weapons,” but that the program had to be watched. Nevertheless, the French believed that the Israelis were “exploiting doubt regarding [their] intentions as a factor in the political game.”
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, Def 12 Isr
In a conversation with Embassy Counselor Nathan Barnes, Teddy Kollek, director-general of the prime minister’s office (and subsequently the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem), noted that before Eskhol made his decision on the U.S. Dimona inspections, he had spent “hours with scientists” and made trips to the reactor site. Kollek told Barnes that Eshkol consulted on the text with former Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who remained unenthusiastic about it. Kollek acknowledged that there was a “spectrum of opinions” about the U.S. visits, with Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres representing one “extreme” because he believed that as a “sovereign nation” Israel did not have to accede to inspections by a country that had played no role in the construction of Dimona. The other extreme was exemplified by Ambassador Harman, who believed that the requests should be met because the United States was a “real and valuable friend.”
In comments on the U.S.-Israel defense relationship generally, Kollek discussed the nuclear weapons option. His perception was that as a “friend” of the United States, Washington would be sympathetic if Israel faced an “emergency” but would not “necessarily … go to war” on its behalf. Nevertheless, Kollek believed that a “closer … relationship would tend to undercut still widely held view that, even though no plans now for manufacturing nuclear weapons, would be short-sighted for Israel not to move toward position where it could exercise option quickly if later circumstances required.” According to Barnes, “it seems clear that [Kollek] did not consider abandonment of [that] option to be irrevocable decision.”
Part V: The U.S. Inspection of Dimona, January 1964
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 6 Isr
This record of a meeting with John Killick is somewhat ambiguous but it confirms that the Israelis had agreed to a “third visit prior to the activation of the reactor” (That did not happen; see Document 46) U.S. diplomat Rodger Davies correctly observed that agreement on semi-annual visits had not been reached. The goal was a “thorough” inspection of the site, including the “plutonium separation plant,” which may have been a reference to the pilot plant that Ben-Gurion had told Kennedy about in their 1961 Waldorf-Astoria meeting. Davies cited Israeli assurances about Dimona’s “peaceful purposes,” which he said, “we are inclined to believe,” although that was not entirely consistent with the more nuanced view that James Grant had offered to John Killick a few weeks earlier.
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security Files. Robert W. Komer, box 30, Israel-Dimona, 1964 #1 [2 of 2]
This report, produced and kept within intelligence channels, provided highlights of the U.S. inspection visit that took place on 18 January 1964. The first such visit since the fall of 1962, it was a consequence of the pressure Kennedy had applied. And as the AEC had preferred, the inspectors did not have AEC safeguards backgrounds (instead, experience in reactor development and arms control. Both the U.S. and the Israelis kept the fact of the visit highly secret and no leaks to the press appeared. The findings raised no suspicions of weapons work, but it was “the impression of the team that the Dimona site and the equipment located there represented an ambitious project for a country of Israel's capabilities.” A key development, according to the Israelis, was that the reactor had gone critical on 26 December 1963, only a few weeks earlier. Notably, however, the Hebrew website of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission marks July 1963 – six months earlier – as the date when the Dimona reactor started its operations. Another noticeable Israeli disclosure to the visitors was that work on the pilot reprocessing plant had been delayed, indicating that the intelligence community was aware of it if it had not been earlier.
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security Files. Robert W. Komer, box 30, Israel-Dimona, 1964 #1 [2 of 2]
The full report by the inspectors was quite detailed and technical, covering every phase of the visit to Dimona on 18 January and the discussion with Israeli officials and reactor staff. For example, the report cited a discussion of Dimona’s total cost, in the range of $60 million. When managing director Mannes Pratt discussed stocks of uranium concentrate, he acknowledged that 20 tons came from a foreign source but would not disclose the source because it was classified. That was probably a reference to the supply from Argentina.
The status of the pilot reprocessing plant was the subject of some discussion. Apparently higher than estimated costs had led to some delay, but Eshkol’s science adviser, Professor Ephraim Katchaslski [Katzir] told the U.S. team that he “hopes that the plant will be built in a year or two” because of its value for training purposes. During the inspection the U.S. team saw the space that had been slated for the pilot plant, about 50 by 50 feet with a 20-foot ceiling.
Whether talk about the plans for a pilot plant was a deliberate diversion from ongoing secret reprocessing activities at Dimona remains to be learned.
The report concluded with an absorbing discussion of recommendations on procedures for future visits, including what methods could work best to prevent subterfuge on the Israeli side. For example, a two-day visit, separated by one week, would be best for a three-person team because during the intervening time they could discuss observations and make plans for the return visit. If only one day was available, then two teams of two or three each would be preferable for covering the site “effectively.” While the Israelis would find that approach “intrusive and offensive” it would be difficult to conceal from the staff that this was an “inspection” and not a “visit.” In any event, “even such an intrusive technique would not prove that the facility was being used only for peaceful purposes.”
After the visit to the reactor had been completed, the U.S. team met briefly with science attaché Robert Webber in the corner of a room and whispered their findings to him so he could report them to Washington.
 . For the first full coverage of the issues and the Kennedy/Ben-Gurion/Eshkol correspondence, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 115-174.
 . The late Professor Yuval Ne’eman (1925-2006), who served as the scientific director of the Soreq Nuclear Center, and advised Prime Minister Eshkol on nuclear matters, referred to the demands of Kennedy’s letter as an ultimatum and described the exchange over Dimona as a crisis point. See Israel and the Bomb, 135.
 . Avner Cohen notes in Israel and the Bomb, at page 404, note 51, that according to late journalist Moshe Zak (1918-2001), Ben-Gurion had already used similarly general language to describe his nuclear policy in various closed fora, for example in meeting with the chief editors of Israeli newspapers.
 . Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 122.
 . Maurice Vaïsse, ed., Documents Diplomatiques Français 1963, Tome 1 (1er Janvier-30 Juin) (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 2000), 540-542.
 . The French original:
Kennedy: C'est le même problème que Israël dont je voudrais que vous discutiez à fond avec le secretaire d’Ếtat, car c’est à l’heure actuelle un grave souci.
De Murville: Je suis entièrement d'accord avec vous sur ce point, mais les Israéliens pourraient tout au plus produire, un au deux détonateurs qui ne pourraient être considérés comme une véritable arme de guerre. Ceci entrainerant des troubles au Moyen-Onent, mais il n’y aurait pas là une veritable menace à la survie de l’espèce humaine
 . The French original:
De Murville: Pour ce qui nous concerne, nous avons pris toutes les précautions nécessaires. Nous sommes engagés à leur fournir certaines quantités d'uranium pour leur réacteur, mais ils doivent nous le rendre dès qu'ils l’ont traité, de façon à ce qu'ils n'aient pas la possibilité d'en extraire Ie plutonium. Malheureusement. les Israéliens risquent de trouver ailleurs de l’uranium sans côntrole. C'est une question don’t je veux m'entretenir avec M. Rusk, car nous sommes d'accord avec vous sur le danger qui existe à ce sujet.
Kennedy: J'en suis heureux car, si Israël avait l'arme atomique, nous serions blames les uns comme les autres, vour pour avoir fourni de l'uranium, nous pour I'aide financière que nous donons à Israël. La position de ce pays est stupide, car ils donnent un prétexte aux Russes, qui sont en recul dans la région de nous mettre en accusation devant l'opinion publique, et peut- être pas sans raison.
 . Ben-Gurion never explained in public what those “personal reasons” were. To this day there is an aura of mystery around Ben-Gurion’s final resignation. It is unknown what exactly pushed him to resign, whether it was one prime issue or a cluster of issues and to what extent it was a personal problem involving his state of mind. Some senior political leaders (e.g., Pinhas Sapir, Israel Galili) believed that Kennedy’s pressure on Dimona might have played a major role in his resignation decision, possibly because he realized that he had been trapped by his strategy toward Kennedy. Others, including Yitzhak Navon, his senior aide (and later the president of Israel), dismissed the importance of the nuclear issue and referred to a cluster of personal and political problems that led to his resignation. See Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 134-36. Tom Segev, State at Any Price: The Story of Ben-Gurion’s Life [in Hebrew, Keter, 2017], 622-27.
 . As the AEC had preferred, the inspectors were not connected with the official safeguards program: two of them, Richard W. Cook and Ulysses M. Staebler, had been involved in reactor development, while the third, C. L. McClelland, was on the staff of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
 . Professor Ephraim Katchaslski Katzir was subsequently elected the fourth president of Israel (1973-1978.