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Last update - 02:04 14/01/2005

History of a hot potato

Here is innovative research into the major changes in the U.S. administration's thinking on Israel's "nuclear option" in the 1960s

By Yehiam Weitz

"Bain dimona lewashington: Hama'avak al pituah haoptzia hagarinit shel yisrael, 1960-1968" ("Between Dimona and Washington: The Development of Israel's Nuclear Option, 1960-1968") by Zaki Shalom, Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University Press, 327 pages, NIS 96

"Between Dimona and Washington: The Development of Israel's Nuclear Option, 1960-1968" focuses on an important, fascinating subject that is essential for an understanding of Israeli history: Israel's nuclear policy. A major book recently published on this topic was Avner Cohen's pioneering "Israel and the Bomb." The main subject in Shalom's book, published in Hebrew, is the dialogue between the Israeli government and the American administration over the development of Israel's nuclear option, especially America's monitoring of the Dimona nuclear reactor.

The principal protagonists are two American presidents, John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), and two Israeli prime ministers, David Ben-Gurion, who resigned in June 1963, and Levi Eshkol, who served as prime minister until his death in February 1969.

Ben-Gurion's role in establishing Israel's nuclear policy was decisive, historic and well known. Cohen writes that Ben-Gurion's Weltanschauung and authoritarian political leadership style molded his crucial role as initiator of the country's nuclear program. According to Shalom, Ben-Gurion's prime motive (but not his only one) for initiating Israel's nuclear option was that he "was convinced that Israel could fend off Arab aggression and even be victorious on the battlefield. However, in his assessment, against the entire Arab world, Israel would never be able to attain a final, crushing victory that would dissuade it from trying its luck again .... >From David Ben-Gurion's standpoint, Israel would have to live with the fact that every one of its victories could never be more than a temporary triumph and, in any event, only a tactical one at that."

In contrast with the mountains of words written about Ben-Gurion, his motives, role and aides, very little has been written about his successor's role in molding nuclear policy. As prime minister, Levi Eshkol is identified with many subjects, such as the strengthening of Israeli-American relations or the decision to have Zionist Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky's coffin be transferred here for reburial - a decision that helped to thaw internal relations in the local political arena. After publication of Yossi Goldstein's biography of Eshkol, Ami Gluska's book "Eshkol, Give the Order!" published last year, the documents issued by the national archives in 2002, and the translation into Hebrew of Michael Oren's "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East," new emphasis has been placed on Eshkol's position as defense minister: Namely, his effort to strengthen Israel's military might was an essential, central condition for the country's victory in the Six-Day War. Shalom devotes most of his book to Eshkol's nuclear policy as prime minister, shedding light on this role, particularly on his contribution to the resolution of the acute crisis that developed in Israeli-American relations over Israel's nuclear policy.

Serious confrontation
In the first part of his book, Shalom discusses the nuclear issue that arose during the last phase in Ben-Gurion's tenure as prime minister, which led to a serious confrontation with the Kennedy administration and JFK personally. "The issue of Israel's nuclear activity," writes Shalom, "naturally headed the president's agenda" when he met with Ben-Gurion in May 1961. The tone of their conversation was relaxed, following the administration's decision "to avoid an open dispute (with Israel) over the `Project.'" The reason for that decision was apparently the administration's assessment "that Israelis, especially David Ben-Gurion, perceived the `Dimona Project' as a matter of supreme national importance and that Israel considered any concessions on that question unthinkable." Under such circumstances, it would be pointless to pressure the Israeli government, because it had no intention of budging from its resolute position on this issue. Another contributing factor was personal: Kennedy, then 44, feared a harsh confrontation with Ben-Gurion, a veteran political leader admired by many people around the world.

From Ben-Gurion's perspective, the conversation was the last pleasant event in his relationship with the Kennedy administration. On May 19, 1963, Kennedy stated in a "tough, extremely threatening" letter that Israel's capacity for developing nuclear arms could undermine world stability. The president demanded that Israel agree to periodic visits at the Dimona reactor by administration representatives. Israel was given no leeway. Acceptance of this demand would mean exposing the "Dimona Project" to possible liquidation, while non-acceptance would mean confrontation, and possibly a severe crisis, with the American administration.

A month later, on Saturday, June 15, 1963, Kennedy sent another letter to Ben-Gurion, in which he demanded vigorously and unequivocally that administration representatives be allowed to visit the sites in Dimona and that no time limits be placed on their stay there. The letter concluded with an unmistakable warning to Israel should it refuse to meet the president's demand. The next day, Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister.

Was there any connection between the resignation and Kennedy's threats? In Shalom's view, "it is difficult to determine unequivocally to what extent the `Dimona Project' issue was a factor in Ben-Gurion's decision to resign from the government .... We believe that, in any event, what led Ben-Gurion to decide to resign from his post was not President Kennedy's pressure tactics, but rather Ben-Gurion's assessment that he had no troops to back him up in the leadership of his party or in the political arena as a whole. Judging from the sources in our possession, Ben-Gurion took an impressively strong stand in the face of the Kennedy administration and its demands."

Eshkol's achievement
Ben-Gurion passed on the political hot potato to his successor, Levi Eshkol. From his first day as prime minister and almost to the time of his death, he energetically tackled this issue. The first step he handled was the dispatch of John J. McCloy, the U.S. special presidential envoy charged with the task of monitoring the arms race in the Middle East, for the express purpose of forcing the Eshkol government to agree to American inspection of Israel's "nonconventional activities." McCloy proposed establishing a link between the demand for monitoring Israel and a similar demand with respect to Egypt.

Nasser's reaction was negative. From Israel's standpoint, the proposal was a very positive one. Shalom even claims that the idea can be considered a notable achievement on the part of Eshkol's government. For the first time in many years, the American government accepted the principle for which Ben-Gurion had vainly fought: linkage between the American administration's demands regarding the monitoring of the "Dimona Project" and various Israeli demands of the administration - including the application of the same criteria to Egypt that the Americans sought to apply to Israel. Although the administration chose to ignore Israel's other demands concerning Dimona, the acceptance of the principle symbolized a crack, albeit a tiny one, in Kennedy's tough positions vis-a-vis Israel.

This was Israel's first, and last, step in the dispute with the Kennedy administration. In November 1963, after Kennedy's assassination, his vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, replaced him and served until January 20, 1969, a month before Eshkol's death. In the early days of his presidency, Johnson spent little time on the Israeli nuclear question. The chief items on his new administration's agenda were the war in Vietnam and the struggle for equal rights for all Americans.

Israel's nuclear option returned to the American agenda in the talks Eshkol had with Johnson during a state visit to the U.S. in June 1964. Even before the first conversation, Johnson decided to maintain a low profile on the issue, notifying his advisers that he intended to adopt a restrained approach.

Shalom argues that the president's restrained position stemmed largely from domestic political considerations - for both Johnson and Eshkol. Johnson wanted to run for president in the November 1964 elections, and "Eshkol's support for him, so he very likely believed, would bring about a huge mobilization of Jewish voters to support him." Johnson feared that a head-on collision with Eshkol over such a sensitive, emotionally charged issue could undermine his political standing and strengthen Ben-Gurion's status in the major political battle between Ben-Gurion and Eshkol.

Leading Washington administration officials were aware of the political significance of the issue for Eshkol. Before the visit, Ephraim Evron, a top Foreign Ministry official who was on very friendly terms with Israel's senior political leaders, met with high-ranking members of the American administration and "made it clear to them that Eshkol faced heavy pressure at home and that the visit to the U.S. could be crucial for the continuation of his regime." Furthermore, he stressed, although he was aware of the administration's opposition to nuclear arms proliferation, Eshkol asked that no pressure be exerted on him on the issue of American monitoring of the Dimona reactor. Henry Kissinger's famous saying that Israel's foreign policy is always its domestic policy as well was valid then not just for Israel, but also for the U.S.

A personal request
In late October 1964, Eshkol sent Johnson an "unofficial and very personal request" - for postponement of the next visit by administration representatives to the Dimona reactor until after the Knesset elections, scheduled for November 1965. Eshkol astutely chose this timetable: The U.S. presidential elections were to be held shortly thereafter, and the president would have to consider that "his failure to accept such an unusual request from Eshkol would be leaked to the press and would hurt his chances for support from the `Jewish vote.'"

In 1965, Eshkol repeated his request. In February, two presidential envoys offered the Israeli government a deal: In return for an official Israeli pledge not to develop nuclear arms, the administration would seriously consider the prime minister's political situation. The deal was presented as an "offer you can't refuse." The two officials informed the Israeli government that continued development of the nuclear option would lead to a serious showdown with the Washington administration. Shalom states that, facing massive pressure from the administration, "Eshkol displayed an impressive degree of resistance." He resolutely and categorically turned down the "offer" and even managed to drive a wedge between the two envoys: He met with one of them, William Averell Harriman, a close associate of Johnson, clarifying to him the nature of his domestic difficulties. He stressed that, although he understood the administration's firm position against nuclear weapons proliferation, "Israel could never agree to an international inspection protocol unless it received clear confirmation that Nasser also agreed to this protocol."

A memo Harriman sent to the administration indicates that he accepted most of Eshkol's demands, and his remarks led the administration to adopt a position whose significance should never be underestimated. The administration's highest echelon, the president, now understood that Israel would never agree to any unequivocal formulations concerning the "Dimona Project." From Israel's standpoint, such formulations would undermine its sovereignty. Against the background of this awareness, a secret set of understandings regarding Israel's nuclear activity was drafted in March 1965.

A central clause in the understandings cited Israel's pledge that it would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. The administration also received an Israeli "agreement paper" dealing with the country's nuclear development and containing "vague formulations that could be given various interpretations and were not binding." Shalom emphasizes that the formulations in the understandings and the paper imposed only minimal restrictions on Israel's activities. After the agreement had been reached, Eshkol felt considerably relieved, and rightly so: He had managed to have his cake and eat it, too. His prevention of American inspection of the Dimona reactor ended the embargo on American arms sales to Israel.

The climax of the process occurred three years later, in late 1968, when a deal for the purchase of Phantom jet fighters was concluded without Israel being asked to provide any new commitment beyond what it had already promised. This, notes Shalom, was the "expression of a strategic accomplishment attained by Israel, especially its prime minister, Levi Eshkol."

Regrettably, Shalom does not allow himself to abandon his cautious, restrained style and to describe and amplify the dramatic elements that repeatedly emerge in "Between Dimona and Washington." This solidly researched work is based on an impressive range of documents. Shalom provides a broad, fascinating picture that reflects innovative research findings on the major changes in the administration's thinking on Israel's "nuclear option" and on Eshkol's ability to navigate Israel's nuclear policy wisely, cautiously and cleverly.

Prof. Yehiam Weitz's book "From Militant Underground to Political Party: The Founding of the Herut Movement, 1947-1949" has been published by the Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.