There is something fascinating about decades-old, secret government documents. Sometimes the big secrets become unimportant, almost trivial, over time, because the lifespan of state secrets is usually short and time sensitive. But that’s not the case when the government decides that certain subjects have an unlimited lifespan. This is true of the dark history of Israel’s nuclear program.
Almost the only way in which historians can learn about Israel’s nuclear history is from official documents belonging to other countries, and the United States in particular. In recent years the U.S. National Security Archive made available several formerly classified documents regarding the subject of Dimona, at least one of which not only sheds new light on the old secret and its guardians, but also leaves us today with a bit of cynicism and irony.
Last month my colleague William Burr and I published that document as part of an overall collection of 32 documents dealing with the Israeli nuclear program during 1964 and 1965, which was posted on the website of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
In the first week of February 1965, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv produced an extraordinary document concerning the status of Israel's nuclear program. It was the record of a briefing to the senior political staff of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv by a young but already famous American professor from Harvard University, at the end of his visit to Israel. It was the second visit to Israel in three years by this international expert on politics and nuclear strategy: Henry Kissinger.
Although the document does not mention who invited him to Israel, it is clear that a very senior official in the Israeli defense establishment decided that Israel’s top security leadership – among them Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol, his deputy in the Defense Ministry Shimon Peres, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, some other prominent army generals and senior scientists – should talk to the professor.
The paper put out by the embassy clearly shows that the American visitor’s interlocutors spoke very openly, shared their strategic thinking with him, and in so doing revealed Israel’s secret intentions regarding its nuclear program – issues that Israeli officials meticulously refrained from sharing with official U.S. representatives. Kissinger’s interlocutors spoke freely, perhaps on the presumption that he himself would understand the need for full discretion.
That’s not what happened. With his assessment and advice, Kissinger may have contributed some strategic insight to his listeners – but he also shared what he heard from them with the embassy staff. It is likely that the document classified “secret” that was issued by the embassy is somewhat partial. It does not cover everything Kissinger had learned during that visit to Israel, and also not everything he said. The general overview of Israeli strategy that he gave to the embassy staff remains fascinating, even from a distance of 55 years.
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Kissinger began his briefing by pointing out the difference he sensed between his two visits to Israel. While in 1962 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion questioned him at length regarding U.S. security guarantees, and showed an interest in them, this time the visiting expert had an “outstanding impression that nobody takes U.S. guarantees seriously.” Kissinger "detected cynicism and disbelief" on the part of the Israelis regarding the ability and willingness of the United States to fulfill its security commitments to its allies worldwide, not only in Israel.
Regarding the nuclear issue, Kissinger said that Shimon Peres is “far and away the strongest champion of nuclear weapons development as an absolute deterrence.” Here too he noted a striking difference in tone and attitude between the two visits he paid to Israel. In 1962 Kissinger's interlocutors were “puzzled and indefinite” as to whether nuclear weapons were really essential, and whether Israel had the ability to develop them. Now they were "very certain" about this.
Kissinger was surprised that the scientists he met at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and in Be’er Sheva – the latter were apparently affiliated with the Negev Nuclear Research Center (which means that the organizer of the meeting with the scientists must have been Peres, whose approval was required in order to conduct such an event) – openly favored the development of nuclear weapons, although they stressed the importance of Israel not appearing to be the one introducing such weapons into the region.
Kissinger said that the scientists gave two reasons in favor of developing nuclear weapons: the fear that Egypt would develop such weapons first, and pessimism regarding Israel’s ability to maintain its conventional military advantage over the long term. As has been noted in the past, those were precisely the arguments used by Shimon Peres at the time to advance the nuclear initiative.
According to the document, Kissinger "felt that it was considered important that Israel not appear to introduce such weapons to the area,” but also said that “even this was not a controlling factor.” He ended his briefing by noting that he was convinced that at this point in time (1965) nothing, “with the exception of ironclad American security guarantees,” could dissuade the Israelis from developing nuclear weapons. And the minutes continue: “When asked directly, Kissinger said he had a strong belief that Israel is already embarked on a nuclear weapons construction program.”
In retrospect, it was then that Kissinger first seem to conceive of the Israeli philosophy of nuclear opacity. It is hard to read the briefing record without noticing that he demonstrated great understanding, if not sympathy, for the careful but determined way in which Israel was paving its way to nuclear capability. These ideas would bear real diplomatic fruit in 1969, when Kissinger, this time as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, would navigate the administration’s acceptance of the unique way in which Israel allegedly became a nuclear state.
This policy would turn into a tacit agreement during a face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Nixon in September of that year, during which in effect the policy of nuclear opacity as a binational policy was born.
Prof. Avner Cohen teaches nuclear history at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.