From National Security Archive
Washington D.C., November 10, 2020 — After Harvard professor Henry Kissinger met with top Israeli officials in January 1965, he told U.S. diplomats at the Embassy in Tel Aviv of his near certainty that Israel had begun a nuclear weapons project, according to a record of the meeting, which has recently been declassified and is published here for the first time by the National Security Archive. Kissinger added that Israeli scientists were “very certain that such weapons were necessary and that they knew how to make them.”
With rare exceptions, such as the astute Embassy Tel Aviv science attaché, Robert Webber, officials in the Lyndon Johnson administration believed incorrectly that the Israelis did not have plans underway to produce plutonium for weapons. Johnson, like his predecessor John F. Kennedy, insisted on inspections of the Dimona complex to verify Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s pledge that Dimona was for peaceful purposes only. Indeed, U.S. inspectors uncovered no evidence of weapons work in 1964 and 1965 but believed that future regular inspections were essential.
Today’s publication, edited by Avner Cohen and Willam Burr, the latest by the Nuclear Vault project focusing on Israel’s nuclear program, consists of 32 documents about the Dimona inspections. One section of the posting covers the Johnson administration’s efforts to convince Eshkol to let Washington assure Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser of the results of the inspections: that Dimona was a peaceful project. Eshkol strongly objected because he wanted to keep Nasser guessing, but Johnson believed that assurances were necessary to keep the peace.
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In January 1965, Harvard professor Henry Kissinger visited Israel where he met top government officials and nuclear scientists. He briefed U.S. embassy officials on the talks, noting that Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres was “the strongest champion of nuclear weapons development as an absolute deterrent.” On Israel’s nuclear ambitions, according to the report, published today for the first time by the National Security Archive, Kissinger made the telling point that “he had a strong belief that Israel is already embarked on a nuclear program.”
In contrast to Kissinger’s near certainty, other declassified documents published today reveal that by early 1965 most senior U.S. officials were uncertain, indeed puzzled, about the state and future direction of the Israeli nuclear complex at Dimona. Not only did the most recent U.S. inspection at Dimona on January 30, 1965, fail to uncover any “weapons-related activities” at the site, but in fact it revealed that the new Israeli nuclear complex was in a state of organizational confusion, even disarray, while senior staff morale was low.
Nevertheless, U.S. government officials had reason to be deeply suspicious of Israeli intentions: Israel had secretly bought some 80-100 tons of “yellow cake” from Argentina; it had secretly contracted with a French aviation company for development and production of a two-stage nuclear capable short-range ballistic missile; Prime Minister Eshkol opposed assurance to UAR President Gamal Abdel Nasser about the results of the Dimona inspections, that the U.S. inspectors believed that it was for peaceful uses. Most significantly, some senior Israelis talked openly with U.S. officials about having a “deterrent,” as if nuclear proliferation in the region was likely, perhaps inevitable.
The documents presented in this collection indicate that various theories were floating about within the U.S. government to explain the odd status of the Israeli nuclear program in 1965. Some officials suggested that the program might be largely a “bluff,” a strategic effort to scare the Arabs off. Others suggested that it might have turned into a “blunder,” possibly due to U.S. pressure – the inspections themselves – that made the original weapons pursuit impossible. Others even dared to speculate, with no evidentiary support, that perhaps – given U.S. political pressure – Israel had outsourced its nuclear weapons ambition, possibly to France.
Others, such as Embassy Science Attaché Dr. Robert Webber, were absolutely convinced that the Israelis had nuclear weapons in mind (see sidebar). He even implied that the Israelis were conducting a deception operation to conceal weapons-related activities. Indeed, more than two decades later, in 1986, in the wake of the Mordechai Vanunu revelations (see footnote 1 below), French officials acknowledged for the first time in public that France had helped to build the secret jewel of Dimona, a deep underground large-scale reprocessing plant. In retrospect, Dr. Webber may have been the only U.S. official who understood the purpose and meaning of Dimona.
This posting includes 32 documents, all from the period 1964-65. Some of them have been declassified for some time and were cited in Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb (1998); others became declassified in recent years and have not been cited before. Besides the intriguing Kissinger debriefing, the collection includes documents on the background to the January 1965 inspection, disclosing Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s efforts to delay the inspection until after the November 1965 national elections. The U.S. Government resisted because that could have left Dimona uninspected for nearly two years, giving Israel a chance to produce plutonium for weapons. While the U.S. persuaded Eshkol to accept an inspection in January 1965, he rejected U.S. proposed guidelines for the inspection, allowing the inspectors only a day for the visit instead of the two days requested.
Other documents published today disclose a prolonged controversy between Eshkol and President Lyndon Johnson during the first half of 1964. Johnson and his advisers were committed to reprise what President John F. Kennedy had previously done: share with Egyptian President Nasser the American conclusion about the peaceful status of the Dimona complex as an assurance that the Israelis were not pursuing nuclear weapons and thereby curb a regional arms race. While Johnson saw reassurance as way to discourage regional conflict, Eshkol insisted that it was far better to keep Nasser guessing about Dimona’s ultimate purpose. It was not until Eshkol’s state visit to Washington, D.C. in June 1964 that he relented, no doubt after full exposure to the “Johnson treatment,” and accepted the idea of assurances to Egypt.
Introduction: Israeli Nuclear Resolve and Dimona’s Big Secret
Any consideration of the complex U.S-Israel interactions during the 1960s concerning the Dimona nuclear reactor must be made in light of the October 1986 revelations by former nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu that were further confirmed by French sources in statements to the London Sunday Times. In the wake of those revelations, Francis Perrin, the French high-commissioner for atomic energy from 1951 to 1970, confirmed that the Dimona nuclear complex had been conceived from start as a complete and dedicated nuclear weapons infrastructure. This meant that in addition to a large plutonium-producing reactor and related fuel cycle facilities, the Dimona master plan included a large underground chemical reprocessing plant to extract weapons-grade plutonium from the reactor irradiated rods. The reprocessing plant was provided not as part of the official nuclear deal with the French government, but rather as a separate transaction between Israel and the French company, Saint Gobain, which continued its contractual obligations even after 1960, when President Charles De Gaulle officially ended French government involvement in the Dimona project.
According to French sources, the construction of the chemical plant was completed, with some delays, as the last item of the Dimona complex, around 1965, and shortly after that it was handed to the Israelis. Israel reportedly started sometime in 1966 with plutonium production. That plant was the crown jewel of the entire Dimona complex and concealing it from the American visitors – its construction and then its operation – was the Government of Israel’s top secrecy challenge. We also know from Israeli official documents – which became available inadvertently – that Prime Minister Eshkol shared with his colleagues how fearful he was that the reprocessing plant under construction might be discovered by the American inspecting scientists, which would not only disclose Israel’s military intentions, but would expose Eshkol as a liar to Kennedy or Johnson. That did not happen. Israel’s deception efforts were fully successful. None of the nine AEC teams that visited the Dimona site from 1961 until 1969 were ever aware of the super-secret underground facility.
The United States intelligence community believed – since the first U.S visit in Dimona in May 1961 – what their Israeli interlocutors told them, i.e., that no major reprocessing plant existed or was about to be built in the Dimona site. Ever since that first American visit, all teams reported that they found “no direct weapons-related activities.” All currently declassified National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) on Dimona from the early-mid 1960s indicate clearly that the CIA’s – and the rest of the intelligence community – believed that the Dimona complex, so far, lacked a reprocessing plant, which meant that Dimona was not engaged in weapons production activities.
To summarize this American conventional wisdom (which is embedded in all the cited NIE/SNIE and in other documents): if Israel decided to change course and to embark on nuclear weapons production, such a move must entail a political decision to build a chemical plant to extract plutonium. It appears that the United States intelligence community was reasonably confident that it could detect such a decision, even if made in secrecy. From the available documents it appears that the American working presumption was that Dimona had been conceived and built as a broad-based nuclear research center, with interests in most areas of the nuclear fuel cycle, but it was not built as a dedicated weapons program. This working assumption is fundamental to understanding the documents – and the thinking behind them – in this publication.
Why did the American intelligence community misjudge so badly Israeli nuclear resolve? Specifically, why was the American intelligence community misled so fundamentally on the key issue of the reprocessing plant? Moreover, when did the United States finally learn Dimona’s secret? These sensitive questions are hardly ever raised in public, and, as long as only threads of evidence are available and only educated guesses possible, the answers are still elusive.
Background: Kennedy’s Pressure and the 1964 Dimona Inspection
In previous postings we have discussed the U.S. suspicions about the Dimona nuclear complex ever since it was discovered in the last months of 1960. Suspicions were rife in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that Dimona was a military project for developing a capability to produce nuclear weapons, but there was no evidence to prove it. Since he took office, Kennedy was determined that U.S. scientists visit the Dimona complex to probe those suspicions, but the limited visits that occurred in 1961 and 1962 hardly settled matters, not least because the reactor was still under construction. And when Kennedy sought the permission of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to have U.S. scientists visit the Dimona site bi-annually, starting in the summer of 1963, a veritable battle of letters ensued, with Ben-Gurion and his successor Levi Eshkol determined to prevent such an inspection system. By later in the summer, however, Israeli resistance flagged, and Prime Minister Eshkol agreed in principle that U.S. scientists could have “periodic visits” to the Dimona plant.
It was only after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 that Israel finally made good on Eshkol’s pledge. On 5 December 1963, Israel invited “U.S. representatives” to visit the Dimona reactor sometime between 10 and 15 January 1964. The invitation letter explained that “by that time the French group will have turned over the reactor to us.” Still, the letter ignored Kennedy’s request for bi-annual visits. Nor did the U.S reply, prepared two days later, go beyond basic visit administration — naming the three American scientists and proposing 14-15 January as the dates – leaving the issue of the visit’s ground rules unaddressed.
When the U.S. team made its visit in January 1964, most of the Dimona complex was either complete or near complete. That made the visit important as constituting a base line for the future. The one-day visit was a long one, about eleven hours. At the end, as an AEC memo to the U.S. Intelligence Board noted, the “team believes that all significant facilities at this site were inspected.”
The team’s overall assessment was what the Israelis wanted it to believe, i.e., the team’s findings and judgements were consistent with the way the Israelis characterized the site. Simply put, the 1964 team – like its predecessors in 1961 and 1962 – believed that Israel was truthful in presenting the Dimona complex as an advanced national research and training center, peaceful and civilian in nature, whose purpose was to acquire expertise (and train young Israelis) on all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. The rationale: Israel was preparing itself for the age of nuclear power and Dimona was that preparation.
By now we know that this narrative was misleading, due to an Israeli cover up, but the AEC team (unlike some officials in Washington and Dr. Robert Webber, the science attaché in the Tel Aviv embassy) believed in that peaceful characterization of Dimona, although emphatically qualifying it to the present time. The AEC memo to the Intelligence Board highlights this assessment: “It was the impression of the inspection team that research was the present intention of the Israelis with the Dimona reactor.” This conclusion was driven by the team’s judgements on the reactor as well as on Dimona’s lack of reprocessing activities
Given those determinations, the team’s bottom line was that the Dimona site, in its present state, lacked the necessary facilities — plutonium recovery and reprocessing facilities – which were required for a weapons program. “Israel without outside assistance, would not be able to produce its first nuclear device until two or three years after a decision to do so, that is, the time required to construct plutonium separation facilities and fabricate device.” 
While the team determined that Dimona was currently peaceful, “[I]t was also the impression of the team that the Dimona site and its equipment located there represented an ambitious project for a country with Israel’s capabilities.” The reference to “ambitions” reflected the Israeli desire to gain self-sufficiency in virtually all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Negotiations with the Israelis on Assurances to Nasser
The “assuring Nasser” theme was central to the U.S.-Israeli nuclear dialogue during 1963-64, especially in the bilateral discussion at the head of state level, Johnson and Eshkol. Their differences were fundamental, with each arguing that their perspective on assurances to Nasser involved matters of war and peace in the region. In a basic sense, however, the sparring was over a U.S. illusion: that the U.S. inspection of Dimona confirmed, so far, that the reactor was being used peacefully. Indeed, Eshkol’s desire to keep Nasser worried about Dimona represented more of a window on actual Israeli objectives.
As a matter of background, ever since the first U.S. Dimona visit in May 1961, the American side held the view that it was not enough merely for Washington to be credibly convinced that Dimona was a peaceful project, as Israel claimed, but that others in the region, especially President Nasser of Egypt, had to be convinced as well. Kennedy raised the issue again in his 1963 letters, first to Ben Gurion and later to Eshkol. but they both opposed any disclosure of the Dimona visits. The subject resurfaced in the wake of the 1964 Dimona inspection as U.S. policymakers wanted to use the findings to reassure Nasser that, once again, they remained confident that Dimona was peaceful. Assuring Nasser emerged as a key element of the inspection arrangement; without it the arrangement made less sense. In early 1964, with a tank deal in the works and an invitation to Eshkol to make a state visit to Washington, the hope was that the circumstances would generate an Israeli concession on “reassuring Naser.” That would enable Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Philipps Talbot to convey an assurance to Nasser during his forthcoming visit in Egypt in March.
With instructions expressing Johnson’s personal interest in the problem of assurances, on 28 February, U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour raised the issue with Eshkol, arguing that the matter was critical for stability in the Middle East. On 3 March, Barbour received Eshkol’s reply from Arieh Levavi, the director general of the Foreign Ministry. Levavi told him that after much “soul searching” Eshkol concluded that “our (Israel and the US) objectives [are] not now best served by reassurance to Nasser about Dimona.”
After informing Barbour of Eshkol’s negative reply, Levavi handed him an aide memoir in which Eshkol noted that his objection was consistent with Ben Gurion’s (14 May 1963) and his own (19 August 1963) messages to Kennedy on this matter. The Israeli opposition to “reassuring Nasser” relied on two arguments: strategic and political. First, removing Nasser’s uncertainty about Israeli deterrence capabilities would be contrary to the best interests of both the U.S and Israel. Second, it would be “highly imprudent” to provide Nasser sensitive information about Dimona. Based on the past, Nasser could not be trusted with it because he would either make it public or use it diplomatically to raise his prestige. Furthermore, if such information became known, “harmful consequences and repercussions would ensue.” Ambassador Barbour met Eshkol in person that evening, but he did not budge.
But this “no” was not the end of it. The discussion continued through the spring of 1964, though neither side budged from its position. It was not until Eshkol’s important state visit in late May-early June 1964 that the issue could be discussed at the highest levels. On the eve of the visit, Robert Komer, a Middle East expert on the National Security Council staff, wrote to President Johnson urging him to be firm. “Israel’s desire to keep the Arabs guessing is highly dangerous. To appear to be going nuclear without really doing so is to invite trouble.”
In a state visit that was designed to demonstrate friendship between the two leaders, the reassurance issue was probably the most uncomfortable matter. Johnson raised the problem of assurances at the first meeting, while reminding Eshkol that he was “violently against nuclear proliferation.” Eshkol continued to argue that he “cannot agree that Nasser should be told the real situation in Dimona because Nasser is an enemy … who remains committed to the destruction of Israel … Why tell Nasser? Why should we tell Nasser when we do not know from him what he doing about missiles?”
The issue was a sour point in the talks. Nevertheless, Robert Komer urged Johnson to push Eshkol. On that second day, before the meeting between the two delegations, Johnson met Eshkol alone for ten minutes. When they emerged, Komer asked Johnson, in front of the two delegations, whether he and Eshkol had settled the issue of reassuring Nasser, to which Johnson answered, “No, there is no agreement on that.”
Ultimately, on the third day, following another private meeting with LBJ, Eshkol conceded. We do not know exactly what triggered him to change his mind – how LBJ persuaded him – but in the end Eshkol dropped his opposition. Evidently, after a very successful state visit, and as personal relations were formed between the two leaders, and perhaps after some unknown offer by Johnson, Eshkol decided it would be unwise to turn LBJ down for the third time. Shimon Peres, Eshkol’s deputy in the Ministry of Defense, was now the problem. The idea of deterrence by uncertainty was his, and he totally objected to “reassuring Nasser.” Nevertheless, Johnson’s “soft sell” (as Komer called it) paid off.
If there was a final payoff for Israel it is, so far, obscure. If Johnson actually wrote to Nasser about the 1964 Dimona inspection or passed along a confidential message about it sent through the embassy or a personal envoy (such as John McCloy) has not yet surfaced in the declassified record. If such a message was ever sent, a trace of it is likely to appear because information on its delivery and reception would have been necessary for briefing Johnson. For now, the matter is a mystery.
Negotiations over the 1965 Visit
When Kennedy pushed in the spring of 1963 for bi-annual American visits to Dimona he explicitly asked for the first visit to be in the summer of 1963 and the second in June 1964. That did not happen. As noted, the first visit under that new framework was in mid-January 1964, with no agreement about the schedule for the next inspection. During Eshkol’s visit to Washington in June 1964 the question was never even mentioned.
In late September 1964, Deputy Chief of Mission Spencer Barnes was instructed to raise the next visit to Dimona with Prime Minister Eshkol. He was authorized to propose to Eshkol two sets of alternative dates during October. For various reasons, however, Eshkol kept postponing the meeting. When Barbour raised the possibility of a Dimona visit during a mid-October meeting with Eshkol, the latter replied “somewhat wearily that there were too many troubles these days,” but he hoped that a reply on the date would be given by the end of October.
That did not happen. Instead, a day or two later, around 19-20 October, Eshkol bypassed the embassy and dispatched a personal message to LBJ – via a U.S. go-between, presidential adviser Myer [Mike] Feldman – requesting a delay of the next Dimona visit until after the Israeli November 1965 elections, citing concerns that a leak of the inspection would undermine his political standing. Eshkol reportedly reassured Feldman, probably jokingly, in support of his request, that “there is no possibility that the Dimona reactor could be converted to military purposes in so short of period of time.”
A stunning departure from the 1963 Dimona agreement, Eshkol’s request meant postponing the next visit for more than a year, which also meant that the Dimona site would be free from U.S. scrutiny for two years. (It was evident that postponement until the November 1965 election would practically mean postponing the visit until January 1966, at best).
Eshkol’s request stirred suspicions in Washington. On 23 October, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy directed State, CIA, and AEC to explore both the political and technical aspects of the request. In a joint report by those agencies, they did not accept Eshkol’s reasoning as genuine; they called it a “pretext” that looked “flimsy.” The agencies were more interested in the request’s technical implications. A key question was whether the Israelis could use the time lag to build the “missing link” to weapons, i.e., the chemical separation plant. The analysts believed so, noting that the Israelis had enough uranium at hand that if, during the period from January 1964 to January 1966, they operated the reactor at a “power level designed to maximize plutonium production, it could produce 6 to 12 KGs of plutonium.” That would be enough to produce material for up to “two test devices.”
Shaping the technical assessment was the explicit – but erroneous – assumption that Israel had no chemical separation plant onsite. To create such a facility, the assumption went, would require a top-level political decision. Once such a decision had been taken it could take about two years to build the plant. Thus, hypothetically, if Israel started with such steps soon after the last inspection in January 1964, a plant could be operational by January 1966 or so. The only way to determine whether the Israelis had taken any steps toward reprocessing plutonium would be through an onsite inspection.
The AEC-CIA-State report informed Undersecretary for Political Affairs Averell Harriman’s view that postponing the inspection would be “dangerous.” In a memo to Bundy, he dismissed the credibility of Eshkol’s political argument, noting that Ben Gurion had accepted a U.S. visit in 1961 and Peres was part of Eshkol’s 1963 decision to allow visits. It is “our inability to fathom the argument for delay” that “heightens our security fears.” In contrast to Eshkol who denied that Israel could “convert Dimona to military purposes in such a short time,” U.S. experts worried about exactly such a possibility, and considered a two-year period without inspections as “highly dangerous.”
Rather than reject Eshkol’s proposal outright, Harriman supported Ambassador Barbour’s three-point proposal as a compromise: 1) to have the second American visit in the next month or two, 2) “a waiver on the Israeli commitment [that the U.S. had assumed] or subsequent six-monthly visits until after the 1965 elections,” and 3) “an offer not to reassure Nasser until after the elections.”
Due to the U.S. elections, Johnson postponed his response to Eshkol’s request. On 24 November, a presidential “oral message” based on Barbour’s three-point compromise was transmitted to the Embassy to deliver to Eshkol. While politely acknowledging Eshkol’s domestic problem, LBJ reiterated the importance of “semi-annual visits” as a matter that had been agreed to by Eshkol. He further suggested that the next visit should be held very soon – “in late November or early December” – but agreed to waive the next visit until after the November 1965 Israeli elections. Similarly, LBJ offered to delay informing Nasser of the results of the visit until after the Israeli elections.
On or around 6 December, Eshkol informed Barbour that he had set the weekend of 30 January 1965 for the date of the next visit. By way of explanation Eshkol referred to his current domestic difficulties – his rift with Ben Gurion — as a reason for the delay, and then added, “we cannot build a nuclear weapon in two months.”
The U.S. responded on 14 December, during the height of the crisis between Eshkol and Ben Gurion. The Department instructed Barbour to press for a better-defined protocol for the January visit. Besides a minimum of two days onsite, the U.S. team should have “full access” to the reactor and other facilities and all of their operating records. In addition, the team had to be able to “make independent measurements as may be necessary to verify production of reactor since previous visit.” Finally, the team should be able to “verify location and use [of] any plutonium or other fissionable material produced in reactor.” Such strict terms were close to what International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would eventually require during their inspections of nuclear sites.
After Eshkol re-formed his new government on 4 January, Barbour presented the U.S. terms to Eshkol, who rejected them outright, arguing that they would put the visit on a new basis, making it look like an “inspection” and raise issues “of prejudice to Israeli sovereignty.” Refusing to agree to a full two days; the visit would have to begin on Friday the 29th at noon and end on Saturday evening. Eshkol emphasized that the “visit must be fundamentally on same basis as previous ones, that is, team must be invited guests of Israel and not ‘inspectors.”
Some Americans, both in Washington and Tel Aviv, including Rodger P. Davies and Science Attaché Webber, had their own suspicions that Dimona was about military security, not about scientific research, and that Israel may have made decisions long before then to develop a weapons capability. They had abundant circumstantial evidence to support those suspicions, but none of them seemed to have a clue about the missing link to weapons, the hidden chemical separation plant.
In retrospect, Washington underestimated, indeed, erroneously dismissed, the way that the nuclear issue was embedded in the political difficulties – and ultimately the full rift – between Eshkol and Ben Gurion and his associates. Eshkol’s request to postpone the visits was truly motivated by political concerns about Ben Gurion and Peres, not by operational considerations about Dimona. Dimona was on its way to producing plutonium – with or without the visit’s postponement – as the deception scheme had been working well.
The January 1965 Dimona Visit
As in the 1964 visit, the U.S. team comprised three senior government nuclear scientists: Ulysses M. Staebler, senior associate director of the Division of Reactor Development at AEC (who served as the team leader and participated in the 1961 and 1964 visits); Floyd L. Culler, assistant director of reactor technology at Oak Ridge National Lab; and Clyde L. McClelland, nuclear physicist at ACDA (who had participated in one of the past inspections). In the briefing that they received on 15 January, they were told that the purpose of their mission was both technical and political, to place the U.S. in a position to “reassure the Arabs that Israel’s nuclear activities are strictly peaceful.” The team was briefed about recent suspicious developments, including that the Dimona complex had been “secretly expanded” since the 1964 inspection. They also learned about the drama that had made the inspection possible, including the U.S. insistence on enough time for the inspection.
The Israelis prevailed on the ground rules for the visit; they accepted none of the U.S. proposals. Thus, the 1965 inspection was conducted under significant restrictions, even more severe than the year before. The Israeli officials cut short the available time to just one day, not allowing the inspectors to visit on Friday because of the problem of warning staff working there. Moreover, unlike the year before, the inspectors could not continue the visit into Saturday evening.
The restrictions notwithstanding, as with the previous visits, the 1965 team believed that it could make a reasonable judgement about the nature of activity at Dimona. “Although the pace was fast and the visit was not as detailed as could be desired, it is the consensus of the team that the visit provided a satisfactory basis for determining the state of activity at the Dimona Site.” On that basis, the team members quickly reached a set of conclusions. Their fundamental findings, presented to Bundy on 5 February, were twofold and unanimous. First, the Dimona Nuclear Center appeared to be in a state of organizational and directional slowdown and uncertainty, if not a real institutional crisis, as Israel had not yet made its decisions on the future of nuclear power. Much of the planning of the complex was placed on hold until those national decisions were made. Second, “nothing [at the site] suggests an early development of weapons program,” the team concluded.
While the team believed – like its predecessors – that the Dimona complex lacked key technical components for a weapons program, most notably a reprocessing plant, it determined that the U.S. needed to keep an eye on developments there. Despite the appearance of institutional slowdown, even crisis, the team, just as it had in 1964, remained impressed that the Dimona site “has excellent development and production capability and potential that warrants continued surveillance at intervals not to exceed one year.”
Notwithstanding the assessment of Dimona’s potential, some paragraphs of the AEC report left the impression that the nuclear complex was practically a white elephant. For example, the team was told that major components of the Dimona complex had been placed in standby mode or were about to be placed in such mode. While Israel in 1964 presented itself as having interest in most elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, a year later that appeared to be much less so. Complementing the picture of technical paralysis was a narrative of policy and budgetary stasis. The Israelis told the team that “there is no approval of a research and development program or of a budget for the fiscal year starting in April 1965.” It may well be that this picture of technical paralysis and budgetary stasis was part of the Israeli deception plan.
In Retrospect: The State of American Knowledge in 1965
As noted earlier, the U.S. 1965 inspection failed to pierce the Israeli deception: neither the inspectors nor U.S. intelligence comprehended – much less even considered as a serious possibility – that the Israeli nuclear project was solely a weapons production program or that a plutonium reprocessing plant was built into the original masterplan of the complex. The site was designed from the very start to have a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium concealed deeply underground. As former French officials acknowledged for the first time in 1986, at the time of the Vanunu revelations, Israel did not have to make any additional political decision to construct a reprocessing plant; such a plant was indeed the key feature of the Dimona original plan.
This is not to say that U.S. government officials were wholly trusting; they remained wary of Israeli intentions. The State Department’s cover memo to Bundy that enclosed the draft inspectors’ report pointed out several suspicious matters: Israel’s initial concealment of the Dimona project; the restrictions on inspections; the total refusal to discuss the issue of uranium procurement; the nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missile that Israel was secretly developing with France; and the private and public statements of Israeli officials that indicated an interest in nuclear weapons. And yet, the U.S. intelligence community grossly underestimated the vigor and determination of the Israeli nuclear resolve. As we shall demonstrate further in subsequent postings, the suspicions endured, but the U.S. intelligence community remained misled about what was actually happening at Dimona.
Read the documents
U.S. Embassy Israel Telegram 919 to State Department, 4 March 1964, attached to memorandum from William J. Handley to the Secretary, “Eshkol Statement on Nuclear Disarmament and the U.A.R.’s Reaction,” 25 April 1966, Secret
Source: National Archives, Records of the State Department, Record Group 59 (RG 59), Subject-Numeric Files (SN 64-66), DEF 18.
Ever since the May 1961 meeting between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Ben Gurion, the United States had maintained that basic information about the peaceful nature of the Dimona reactor should be shared with President Nasser of Egypt, as an assurance that Israel was not building the bomb. On March 3, 1964, Ambassador Barbour met Foreign Ministry Director General Arieh Levavi who informed him that Prime Minister Eshkol had concluded, after much “heart-searching,” that U.S. and Israeli “objectives [were] not best served by reassurances to Nasser about Dimona.” According to an aide memoire that Levavi read to Barbour, it was not “advisable to release Nasser from any apprehension he may have as to Israel’s military capacities since he loses no opportunity public to emphasize war with Israel inevitable as soon as his military preparations [had] sufficiently advanced.”
When Barbour later spoke with Eshkol, the prime minister showed the same reluctance that he had expressed in his letter to Kennedy in August 1963. Barbour recounted that Eshkol displayed “genuine conviction … that Nasser [was] determined to acquire maximum arsenal regardless Israeli development and that consequently it [was] desirable, as deterrent, that he be allowed [to] worry about [an] Israeli nuclear equation.” Suggesting that one of Eshkol’s principal concerns was the “threat of Nasser’s exploitation of any assurances passed to him,” Barbour observed that the current political situation made that “understandable.” The “public revelation [of] US visits [to] Dimona, especially any idea of US ‘inspection’ [of] that installation would subject Prime Minister to wide criticism not only from right wing HERUT adherents but in broader circles,” including members of his own party.
State Department Executive Secretary Benjamin Read to McGeorge Bundy, “Reassurances for Nasser on Israeli Nuclear Activities,” 12 March 1964, with telegram and draft letter attached, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
State Department Executive Secretary Benjamin Read informed Bundy of Ambassador Barbour’s failed attempt to convince Eshkol to approve the U.S. request to inform Nasser of the “peaceful nature of Israel’s nuclear development activities.” In contrast to Eshkol, who believed that uncertainty about Dimona would deter Nasser from military “adventures,” the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had opined that “lack of reasonable assurances” would encourage Nasser to develop “matching sophisticated weapons,” possibly even launch a “pre-emptive strikes on Israel.” Recommending a presidential message to persuade Eshkol to reconsider, Read enclosed a draft letter that was incorporated into a telegram sent to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
State Department telegram 810 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 19 March 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
In a message to Eshkol that was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, President Johnson informed the Israeli leader that he “was distressed to learn from Ambassador Barbour that you feel unable to approve of our reassuring President Nasser about the peaceful character of the Dimona reactor.” Questioning Eshkol’s argument that Egyptian “apprehension [about] Israel’s atomic potential will … help deter Nasser from attacking Israel,” Johnson suggested that Nasser’s fears could “drive him to a choice between accelerating the UAR military build-up or a desperate pre-emptive attack.” Arguing that any value from Dimona as a deterrent was “trivial” compared to those risks, Johnson urged Eshkol to reconsider. Johnson had no concern that Nasser “could adversely exploit” any reassurances because the United States would not provide him any details about the reactor.
The Department also reported about possible leaks concerning the January 1964 inspection of Dimona, noting that the Jewish Observer had published a story about a top secret report by U.S. experts “who had studied the potentialities” of the Dimona reactor and a specific inquiry by an “Israeli newsman … about US interest in Dimona and rumored visit by US scientific team.”
U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 976 to State Department, 23 March 1964, Secret
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library (LBJL), Declassified Documents Reference Service (DDRS)
Ambassador Barbour met Prime Minister Eshkol to discuss President Johnson’s letter. Again, Eshkol questioned the whole idea of assurances to Nasser, wondering if they “had really relieved tensions.” During the conversation, Eshkol asked several times whether anyone could be sure that Nasser was really “concerned” about Dimona. Moreover, Eshkol had made a “public declaration” that Dimona was for peaceful use only; thus, the “other side” should make a reciprocal statement. Moreover, if the U.S. thought it was important to reassure Nasser, what did it expect to get from him in return?
Observing that Nasser knew about previous U.S. visits to Dimona. Barbour argued that if Nasser was told nothing about the recent [January] visit, it would deepen his suspicions about Israel’s nuclear intentions. As for Eshkol’s argument that “uncertainty on this matter will deter Nasser,” Barbour reminded him that the “President believes that uncertainty very much intensifies danger of a desperate miscalculation,” and preemptive war.
Eshkol responded that neither the U.S. nor Israel can be sure that Israel is not “now under an Egyptian nuclear threat” and that the Egyptians are “working in atomic installations in India” and elsewhere. Barbour replied that the “UAR does not have nuclear weapons potential nor will it have it for very long time if ever.” Near the close of the discussion, Eshkol promised that he would give “further consideration” to President Johnson’s request.
U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 1054 to State Department, 15 April 1964, Secret
Source: LBJL, DDRS
Replying to President Johnson, Eshkol wrote that he had not changed his objections to providing Nasser with assurances about Dimona. Insisting that Nasser would not hesitate to attack Israel if he found a “suitable opportunity,” Eshkol argued that allaying his apprehensions about “Israel’s deterrent capacity” would make the danger “more acute.” According to Eshkol, “no government in circumstances similar to those in which we find ourselves would permit itself to forego even a psychological advantage.” He concluded by noting that President Johnson’s interest in Israeli security should help him understand “the motives for the position I feel obliged to take.”
U.S. Embassy in Israel Airgram A-818 to State Department, “Peres, Eshkol, and Meir on Nuclear Weapons in the Near East,” 21 April 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, DEF 12-2 UAR
A visit by a delegation from the National War College prompted informal discussions with senior Israelis on the subject of nuclear weapons. The discussions provide a window to understand differences within the Israeli leadership on the nuclear issue.
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Foreign Minister Golda Meir presented a cautious position on nuclear weapons. Eshkol affirmed that the Dimona complex was peaceful and Meir somewhat vaguely noted that it would be “awful” if Israel was pressed to seek nuclear weapons – but it was Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres, the man in charge of the nuclear project, who left the impression to his audience that nuclear proliferation in the region was likely. Peres clearly implied that if the UAR obtained nuclear weapons Israel would too, but he emphasized Israel would not be the first to introduce such weapons into the Near East.” The latter was a formulation that Peres had stated before and that other Israeli policymakers would also use.
On the statements by Peres, the report’s author, First Secretary Stephen Palmer, commented that Israel would “no doubt …. seek to keep its option for nuclear weapons fabrication more on the ready than Israeli intelligence estimates the UAR’s option to be.”
Robert Komer to President Johnson, 28 May 1964, Secret
Source: LBJL, DDRS
On the eve of Levi Eshkol’s visit to Washington, NSC staffer Robert Komer briefed President Johnson on the visit’s key issues, of which two related to the nuclear problem. Komer urged Johnson to tell Eshkol “right off the bat that the US stands foursquare behind Israel’s security and well-being.” On Egyptian missiles, he advised trying again to argue that the Israelis “hadn’t really evaluated” whether they posed a threat.
On Dimona, Komer thought that it was important to keep pressing the Israelis to assure Nasser that Israel was not building nuclear weapons, even though the Israelis were building a “functioning secret breeder reactor plus an oncoming missile delivery system [that] add up to an inescapable conclusion that Israel is at least putting itself in a position to go nuclear.” For this reason, it was important to press the missile issue even if not successfully because it “will at least put Israel firmly on notice that we may be back at it again.”
On IAEA controls, Komer advised Johnson to press the issue; Israeli opposition added to “suspicions” even though the safeguards were only for a “piddling 1-MW research reactor.” Komer hoped that Johnson would “personally tell Eshkol they should bite the bullet now.”
Memorandum of Conversation, “Johnson/Eshko1 Exchange of Views,” 1 June 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Conference Files, box 352, CF 2407 Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol–Washington 6/1-3/64 Vol. I
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s visit to the White House was the first state visit byan Israeli head of government. Both sides were cognizant of this “first time ever” symbolism and wanted to make a good show of U.S.-Israeli friendship. President Johnson started the meeting by stating that “he was foursquare behind Israel on all matters that affected their national security interests.” Johnson also noted that his Deputy Special Counsel, Myer “Mike” Feldman, whom President Kennedy had informally nominated as his liaison with the American Jewish community in Israel, continues to serve him as his “Prime Minister” on Israel policy.
The two leaders discussed a variety of issues, including American M-48 tanks, water projects, overall security, the UAR’s missile capabilities, and, very carefully, the nuclear problem. On tanks, water desalinization, and other matters there was agreement, but less so on missiles and the nuclear issue. Yet those disagreements were largely matters of nuance.
Repeating the well-known Israeli narrative of itself as a small country surrounded by enemies avowed to destroy it, and stressing Israel’s refusal to gamble on its security, Eshkol expressed alarm about a prospective UAR large missile capability and dismissed American assurances that the missiles were “primitive.” Eshkol asked what could he say to his countrymen or the Knesset when asked “what … is he doing to face the missile threat;” he could not simply reply, ”[t]he Americans told me that the Egyptian missiles are no good.” Eshkol did not openly acknowledge that Israel had launched a secret missile project of its own in cooperation with France – something that the U.S. had known almost since the contract had been signed – but he assured Johnson obliquely that Israel would not have missiles for a year or two.
The most sensitive topic was the nuclear problem and both leaders touched it with caution. Initially, Johnson asked if Israel “is not going to get into nuclear production, why not accept IAEA control and let U.S. reassure Nasser about Dimona?” But Eshkol declined: he could not “agree that Nasser should be told the real situation in Dimona because Nasser is.an enemy.” “Why tell Nasser,” he asked, that Israel “was not engaged in nuclear weapons production?” “Why should we tell Nasser when we don’t know from his [sic] what he is doing about missiles.” It should be noted that former Prime Minister Ben Gurion had been somewhat more agreeable to a similar request from President Kennedy made in their meeting on May 30, 1961. But then Dimona was still under construction.
Robert Komer to President Johnson, 3 June 1964, Secret
Source: LBJL, DDRS
Evaluating the final talks with Eshkol on June 2, Komer congratulated Johnson that his “soft sell” had worked because Eshkol finally had made two major concessions. First, Eshkol was willing to “let us reassure Nasser on Dimona.” Second, Eshkol assented to a U.S. proposal to seek IAEA safeguards for the small nuclear research reactor at Soreq once the U.S. bilateral agreement covering it had expired.
[Robert W. Komer] RWK to Mac [McGeorge Bundy], 20 October 1964, Secret
Source: LBJL, National Security File, Robert W. Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona 1964 #1 [1 of 2]
In September 1964, the State Department tried to begin a dialogue with Eshkol about the timing of the next Dimona inspection. Not responding, the prime minister kept the U.S. embassy and the State Department out of the picture by sending a personal message to President Johnson through White House official Meyer “Mike” Feldman. Requesting a delay until after the Israeli November 1965 elections, Eshkol was worried that word of a U.S. inspection of the Dimona reactor could be leaked and would damage his political prospects. Moreover, Eshkol noted that his request should not cause real difficulty because Dimona could not turn into a military project in such a short time period.
Apparently, Feldman incorporated the prime minister’s communication in a memorandum to Johnson, which is not available to the authors. Komer made it evident that he was critical of Feldman for serving as a sympathetic messenger for Eshkol while bypassing diplomatic channels. His disparaging tone is evident as he begins the memo by noting “Mike’s facts are off” and places the quotation marks around “message.”
Komer’s memo is factually rich and it includes a reminder to Bundy of what a “pain in the neck” the Dimona inspection issue had been for President Kennedy, and how difficult it had been to get the Israelis to allow annual inspections, much less semi-annual visits, the way Kennedy (and the AEC) had been insisting all along. He noted that “Eshkol carefully avoided a firm commitment [on the question of sequence and timing of the inspections] but we decided to act as if he had agreed” to semiannual visits.
Komer warned that “even accepting that only annual visits were agreed” – noting in parentheses that “Mike sounds more categorical than Israelis on this matter” – Eshkol’s new request “could leave Dimona uninspected for up to two years since it has gone critical.” At a minimum, the White House needed a CIA-AEC judgement “as to what that could entail, i.e., could Israelis siphon off much [plutonium] in that period.” Komer also wanted “a better fix on Israeli domestic political angle,” noting that neither the Embassy nor the State Department seemed to share Feldman’s perspective on Eshkol’s domestic political situation.
As the State Department was in the dark about Eshkol’s request, Komer recommended that State be told; it was necessary for the president to have “both sides of the story” before making any decision.
McGeorge Bundy to the Secretary of State, 23 October 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
Three days after Komer’s message (Document 10), Bundy informed Secretary of State Rusk about Eshkol’s personal request for a delay on Dimona inspections, on which President Johnson sought the Secretary’s recommendations. Recognizing that Rusk would have disapproved of Feldman’s evasion of diplomatic protocol, Bundy did not mention how the Eshkol message was conveyed. Bundy recommended that a decision not be made about this “sensitive matter” until after the U.S. elections “which gives time for us to investigate the full implications of a delay en route.” In the meantime, “any further diplomatic approaches” to Israel should be postponed. In addition, CIA director McCone should be asked to evaluate the risks of a possible two-year “inspection gap.”
Memorandum from Director, Office of Near Eastern Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Rodger P. Davies to [Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs Phillips] Talbot, “Israel’s Request to Defer Inspection of the Dimona Reactor (Your Meeting with Governor Harriman Today at 12:15 p.m.),” 28 October 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, Israel 64-66, box 8, Atomic Energy Israel AE 7 Visits Missions
In a detailed memo on Eshkol’s request to postpone the next American inspection at Dimona, Near Eastern Affairs director Rodger Davies argued that an early inspection was essential, otherwise Dimona would remain uninspected for two years. CIA, AEC, and State had concluded that “Israel in the period between the last inspection of Dimona in January 1964 and January 1, 1966 [the earliest estimated time of next inspection, had Eshkol’s request been accepted] could produce 6 to 12 kgs of plutonium, …enough for one or two test devices.” Moreover, in light of Israel’s 1963 contract with France for surface-to-surface missiles, Davies suggests, Eshkol’s request “may be related to a decision to develop in secret a nuclear weapons capability.” Citing various suspicious developments, such as the secret expansion of Dimona and the acquisition of Argentine yellowcake, Davies insisted that it was “imperative to press Mr. Eshkol … to set a date for inspection in the near future.” Failure to do so may encourage him “to use his own domestic political problems as justification for resisting pressures” from the United States. Davies believed it was essential to send a reply to Eshkol by 3 November (i.e., before the U.S. presidential election).
Memorandum from Rodger P. Davies to [Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs Phillips] Talbot, “Dangers of Delaying Israel’s Request to Defer Dimona Inspection,” 29 October 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, DEF 18-7 ISR
Hoping to persuade top policymakers to reject Eshkol’s request, Davies prepared arguments for Talbot to use when meeting Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and former New York Governor, Averell Harriman. One argument concerned the political impact of a delayed response to Eshkol’s request. Failure to lodge a “swift, unambiguous [negative] reaction” to Eshkol’s proposal could lead him to concludet domestic Israeli politics can leverage American pressure. Even worse, “our failure to react promptly will provide the proponents of security through development of an independent deterrent with an opportunity to bring strong pressure on the Prime Minister.”
Davies implied that immediate pressure was essential because the U.S. did not have real leverage on Israel. Even denial of economic and military aid would provide little means for “coercion” because the Israelis could “survive and flourish” without it. “The only effective way to prevent Israel from embarking on a nuclear weapons course is not to permit an opportunity for such a decision to be implemented covertly.” The U.S. could try to buy out a nuclear program by offering high-performance jets or Pershing missiles but that would only “postpone the ultimate Israeli decision.”
Handwritten comments on the document, probably by Harriman, rejected 3 November as a “magic” date, although he found the argument for an early reply to be “sound.” In any event, a few weeks delay would not hurt the case. Moreover, Robert Komer had told him that President Johnson, then in the midst of his election campaign, would not be “willing and able to focus on this for a while.”
State Department telegram 357 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 30 October 1964, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
More than a week after Eshkol made his private channel plea to President Johnson, Talbot informed Ambassador Barbour about it. “Initial response here is negative.” But until President Johnson made a final decision, Ambassador Barbour was not to raise the matter of inspections.
U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 492 to State Department, 2 November 1964, Top Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
In responding to Talbot’s telegram, Ambassador Barbour, who saw Eshkol’s message as an “unfortunate development,” recommended compromise rather than prompt rejection. He believed that Eshkol had made his request “not lightly” and noted that his “political situation is extremely delicate.” Recommending that Washington be as “forthcoming” as possible to the Israeli request, Barbour suggested a “counter proposal,” with three elements: 1) that the next inspection occur within one to two months, 2) “ waive Prime Minister’s commitment for subsequent six months visit until after his November 1965 elections,” a commitment that Eshkol had never made in writing, and 3) not sharing with Nasser the results of the next visit until after the November 1965 elections. “This scenario would avoid long, almost two [year] gap in visits entailed in Prime Minister’s present request” and avoid that danger that Nasser could embarrass Eshkol by leaking results of the visit during the Israel political campaign the following year.
W. Averell Harriman to McGeorge Bundy, the White House, “Israe1’s Request to Defer Inspection of the Dimona Reactor,” 5 November 1964, with ‘‘Technical Assessment” attached, Secret, Excised copy’
Source: LBJL, National Security File, Robert W. Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona 1964 #1
In an important memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, Harriman drew on the arguments mustered in Davies memoranda of 28 and 29 October to argue in favor of pressing Eshkol on an early Dimona inspection (in a month or two). Harriman doubted Eshkol’s political justification and was concerned that the delay might provide Israel a time window to turn Dimona into a weapons program. He further noted that with the recent Chinese nuclear explosion, “failure to press Israel to meet its commitment for an inspection every six months could vitiate our policy of opposition to nuclear proliferation” and further “jeopardize our efforts to persuade Nasser to slow down the U.A.R. sophisticated weapons buildup and could drive him to greater dependence on the Soviet Union.” Moreover, Israel could not be allowed “to renege on an inspection commitment which was secured by us only as the result of long and painful pressure” without undermining the U.S. “position that we must have access to Dimona to assure ourselves against nuclear proliferation.”
Harriman enclosed a draft telegram to the Embassy in Tel Aviv, with the ideas suggested by Ambassador Barbour. It included a message to Eshkol calling for a U.S. inspection visit at “a very early date.” It mentioned the earlier understanding on bi-annual inspections but that could be waived until after November 1965. In addition, the U.S. would agree not to communicate the results of the inspection to Nasser until after the November 1965 election.
With his memorandum, Harriman included an important State-CIA-AEC report entitled “Technical Assessment” on the state of Israeli nuclear program, and in particular on Israel’s capability to produce plutonium during 1964-1965 if there were no inspections. According to the report, the Israelis had enough uranium at hand that if, during the period from January 1964 (the date of the last inspection) to January 1966, they operated the reactor at a “power level designed to maximize plutonium production, it could produce 6 to 12 KGs of plutonium.” That would be enough to produce material for up to “two test devices.”
Executive Secretary Benjamin Read, Memorandum for Secretary of State, “Items to Take up with the President November 19,” 19 November 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat, Agenda for the Secretary’s Luncheon Meetings with the President, 1964-1968, box 1, President’s Luncheon Memoranda 1964-1968
In advance of a meeting with President Johnson, State Department officials briefed Secretary of State Dean Rusk on several issues, including the president’s reply to Eshkol on the Dimona inspections. “We need Presidential approval for the Department’s proposal to go back to Eshkol and reiterate our request for an early inspection but advise him we will not ask [for] another inspection before the ’65 election.”
State Department telegram 434 to U.S. Embassy in Israel, 24 November 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State
Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3
President Johnson and National Security Advisor Bundy approved the proposal to send a personal message to Prime Minister Eshkol about an early inspection visit, which was transmitted to Ambassador Barbour in a telegram on 24 November. While acknowledging Eshkol’s political difficulties, Johnson asserted “the importance of the semi-annual visits on which we have previously agreed” because of the importance of “prevent[ing] proliferation of sophisticated weapons in the world and especially in the Near East.” Johnson expressed his hope that the next visit would be held very soon – “in late November or early December,” but he agreed to waive the following visit until after the November 1965 Israeli elections. Similarly, he was willing to delay informing Nasser of the results of the visit until after the Israeli elections.
In the instructions for Ambassador Barbour, following the text of the formal presidential message, Barbour was asked to convey to Eshkol that a “Dimona inspection within 1-2 months [was] imperative.” It is worth noting that in the formal text of the letter the subject was “visit” but in the oral discussion points, the reference was to “inspection.”
State Department telegram 441 to U.S. Embassy in Israel, 25 November 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
The next day, the State Department superseded telegram 434 (Document 18) with talking points to be used in discussions with Eshkol. Barbour was to tell Eshkol that President Johnson felt “bound to urge the importance of the semi-annual visits on which we have previously agreed.” ] This was bound up with the U.S’s ” continuing effort to prevent proliferation of sophisticated weapons, not least in the Near East.” The U.S. believed that “Eshkol fully agrees that this effort is in the interests of Israel” and that he will be able to “see his way clear to arrange for a visit by our people to Dimona in late November or early December.”
The administration was, however, willing to make concessions, such as waiving Israel’s commitment to “another six-monthly inspection until after November 1965 elections, contingent upon satisfactory findings next inspection and without prejudice to resumption schedule of six-monthly visits thereafter.” The U.S. was also willing to “postpone passing results inspection to Nasser” until after the 1965 elections. If Eshkol claims that Cabinet “hard-liners” are the problem, Barbour should mention “our difficulty in understanding this argument, since BG personally agreed to periodic inspections in May 1963, presumably with concurrence of Cabinet.”
State Department telegram 493 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 14 December 1964, with drafts and distribution sheet attached, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE I1-2 ISR
Responding to Barbour’s report on Eshkol’s agreement to U.S. inspection on the weekend of 30 January 1965, the State Department was “naturally unhappy” that an earlier date was not set. Moreover, Eshkol’s argument for delay “heightens our security fears” and his statement that “we cannot build nuclear weapon in two months” was not comforting. “We hope … he will not invoke domestic political problems as pretext for further delays.” To do so “would bring into question Israel’s good faith.” Setting forth U.S. desiderata for a productive inspection, the team would need a minimum of “two full days,” “with full access to reactor and all other facilities in order verify nature all such facilities, their production capacity and their present utilization.” Moreover, operating records and facilities “at which irradiated or unirradiated reactor fuel is stored, fabricated or processed” should be available for inspection. The team should be able to “make independent measurements as may be necessary to verify production of reactor since previous visit.” Moreover, the team should be able to “verify location and use [of] any plutonium or other fissionable material produced in reactor.”
Rodger P. Davies to Mr. Talbot, “Israel’s Cabinet Crisis and the Dimona Inspection,” 15 December 1964, Secret
Source: RG 59, Israel 64-66, box 8, Atomic Energy Israel AE 7 Visits Missions
Eshkol’s sudden resignation on December 15 “for no sound reason” made State Department officials wonder whether he was trying to position himself to back out, once again, of the earlier agreement to the 30 January inspection. They especially worried that if Eshkol set up a caretaker government “to plead more effectively that he was in no position to entertain distasteful foreign proposals.” In that context, Davies argued that it was important to “press for the Dimona inspection as scheduled on January 30” on the terms laid out in the 9 December draft telegram. He also suggested that “we request the President’s permission to exert the graduated pressures set forth in our memorandum on extension of IAEA safeguards to nuclear facilities in the Near East.”
Notably, Davies’ memo to Talbot included a one-page list of “graduated scale of pressures” the United States could use against Israel in case it canceled the scheduled January visit. It appears that the list was prepared earlier by State Department officials, when the US was considering pressure on Israel to accept IAEA safeguards on Dimona.
Within a week a new Israeli government was formed and received a vote of confidence by the Knesset, which solidified Eshkol’s leadership position. That enabled Barbour, on 4 January, to present the latest U.S. terms to Eshkol, who argued that they would put the visit on a new basis, making it look like an “inspection” and raise issues “of prejudice to Israeli sovereignty.” Refusing to agree to two full days, the visit would have to begin on Friday the 29th at noon and end Saturday evening. Eshkol emphasized that the “visit must be fundamentally on same basis as previous ones, that is, team must be invited guests of Israel and not ‘inspectors.”
The U.S. accepted Eshkol’s schedule, noting that it did not matter whether the U.S. team was called “inspectors” or “invited guests,” as long as they had complete access to the site and all relevant reports.
Rodger Davies to Mr. Talbot, “Briefing of Dimona Inspection Team, January 15, 3:30 p.m.” 14 January 1965, Secret
Source: RG 59, Israel 64-66, box 8, Arms Control. Nuclear weapons 65,66,67
The inspection team was scheduled to meet Talbot and others for a background briefing. The team consisted of three members: Ulysses M. Staebler, (Senior Associate Director, AEC Division of Reactor Development); Floyd Culler, Jr. (Assistant Director of Reactor Technology of Oak Ridge National Laboratory); and Clyde L. McClelland (nuclear physicist, ACDA). Culler, McClelland, and Staebler had participated in previous inspection visits.
Davies recommended emphasizing the importance of the inspections to “assure the Arabs that Israel’s nuclear activities are strictly peaceful,” thus avoiding “stimulating an Arab pre-emptive attack.” At the same time, the State Department was “increasingly concerned” that Israel might develop atomic weapons because of a variety of warning signs, including a secret expansion of Dimona, the departure of French technicians, the purchase of 80 tons of yellow cake from Argentina, and “unknown activities in a crater named “Hamakhtesh Haqatan” [“the small crater” in Hebrew] southeast of Dimona reportedly related to work at the reactor.”
When the inspection was arranged, the U.S. insisted, and Israel agreed, that the U.S. team would be “allowed whatever time was necessary to permit complete observations at the reactor site.” If the time allocated, from noon on 29 January to late evening on the 30th, proved to be “insufficient, the team should stay on to arrange additional visits to appropriate facilities.”
Of great importance was that the inspection was to receive no public mention and “even discussion within the U.S. Government and Embassy Tel Aviv [is] strictly limited.” A leak would give the Israelis a “pretext for terminating future visits.”
Memorandum of Conversation with Henry Kissinger, 1 February 1965, Secret
Source: Records of Foreign Service Posts, Record Group 84 (RG 84), U.S Embassy Tel Aviv Classified Central Subject Files, 1962-1968 (TA 62-68), box 4, AE 11-2 Dimona Exdis 1965
In January 1965, the 42-year-old Harvard professor Henry Kissinger visited Israel and met the Israeli leadership. On 1 February he briefed the political team of the American embassy in Tel Aviv on his informal exchanges with Eshkol, Peres, and others on a full array of strategic issues, including nuclear weapons. Kissinger started by observing some significant differences in Israeli attitudes and thinking since his previous visit in 1962. Then, Ben Gurion had questioned Kissinger at length about U.S. security guarantees, making it obvious that Israel was seriously interested in them. Now, in 1965, Kissinger observed, “nobody takes U.S. guarantees seriously.” He discerned a sense of cynicism and skepticism among Israeli leaders towards the U.S.’s ability and readiness to follow up its security commitments around the world, not only to Israel.
Kissinger ranked Peres “as the strongest champion of nuclear weapons development as an absolute deterrent.” While with American officials the Israelis tended to be quite circumspect in talking about the nuclear issue, Kissinger was able to make his Israeli interlocutors more comfortable in speaking openly on the subject. On this issue, too, Kissinger noticed a “striking difference in the tone” between 1962 and 1965. In 1962 they were “puzzled and indefinite” about whether nuclear weapons were necessary and they had the ability to develop them, but now they were “very certain that such weapons were necessary and that they knew how to make them.”
Having met Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute and in Beer Sheba [probably Dimona senior scientists, something that only Peres could approve, probably selecting them one by one], Kissinger was surprised to discover that they were openly pro-nuclear. While the scientists thought it important that Israel “not appear to introduce such weapons to the area,” they cited two reasons for developing nuclear weapons: “(a) that the Egyptians might also develop them, and (b) on Israel’s inability to depend indefinitely on a superiority in conventional methods of warfare.” That led Kissinger to conclude that “nothing short of an ironclad US security guarantee would dissuade Israel from developing nuclear weapons.” One wonders whether Peres wanted Kissinger to form that impression.
Kissinger observed that the argument that Israel could not “survive an Arab occupation … would provide credibility for Israel’s use of any nuclear deterrent it possessed.” “When asked directly, Kissinger said he had a strong belief that Israel is already embarked on a nuclear weapons construction program.”
Memorandum, Executive Secretary Benjamin H. Read to McGeorge Bundy, The White House, “Dimona Inspection and Need to Implement Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation in the Near East,” Secret, 5 February 1965, with “Preliminary Draft Report of Dimona Inspection Team” attached, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR-
Only days after the 1965 inspection, a draft preliminary report was submitted to Bundy. It revealed that notwithstanding previous U.S. requests, the 1965 visit was conducted under significant Israeli restrictions. Israeli officials cut short the available time at Dimona, not allowing the inspectors to visit on Friday afternoon because of the problem of warning staff working there. Moreover, the inspectors could not continue the visit into Saturday evening.
The U.S. team believed that despite those restrictions they could form an overall determination on the very purpose of its mission, i.e., the weapons status of Dimona. “Although the pace was fast and the visit was not as detailed as could be desired, it is the consensus of the team that the visit provided a satisfactory basis for determining the state of activity at the Dimona Site.” That conclusion was drawn based on two major findings: (1) the overall slowdown state of the Dimona facility as a national nuclear center; and (2) the absence of key technical components required for a weapons program. For all intents and purposes the team’s Israeli interlocutors told them that they had effectively abandoned the original nuclear program and the Dimona complex was left with no approved research plans, nor with a budget to support research. The reason for all that, the team was told, was hesitation and lack of decision as to how Israel would continue with its nuclear power program.
On the matter of the components for a weapons program, the team’s determination was that it found “no near-term possibility of a weapons development program at the Dimona Site.” According to the team’s findings, Israel did not have facilities to produce more than three tons annually of natural uranium and had “no capability …. to produce and recover [plutonium].” Nevertheless, “the potential to enter into these companion efforts is there.” The report described the potential to produce natural uranium, uranium concentrate, uranium metal, and plutonium.
According to the cover note attached to the report, considering the findings that Dimona showed little near-term possibility of nuclear weapons work, the U.S. could accede to Eshkol’s request that the next inspection be postponed until after the November 1965 elections. Nevertheless, the Department remained somewhat concerned that Israel had concealed a decision to produce nuclear weapons. According to Read’s cover memo, “Israeli officials did not allow adequate time for thorough inspection of the … site and arranged no visits to sites of projected related facilities.’’ Moreover, “Public and private statements by Israeli officials suggest military planning that includes the use of nuclear weapons.” Considering these factors, “we urge prompt approval of the request” made in the 18 December memorandum to the president “for authority to initiate negotiations with Israel to extend IAEA safeguards to all Israeli nuclear facilities.”
Robert Komer to McGeorge Bundy, 6 February 1965, Secret
Source: LBJL, National Security File, Robert W. Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona 1964 #1
In a note to Bundy, Komer acknowledged that the latest inspection of Dimona was “reassuring. Nothing new, although the weapons potential is still there.” However, he added, “We remain suspicious. Knowing we’re zeroed in on Dimona Israel could be planning weapons fabrication somewhere else.”
Department of State telegram 922 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 11 March 1965, Secret
Source: LBJL, DDRS
Assistant Secretary Philips Talbot alerted Ambassador Barbour that New York Times editor John Finney had written a story on the Dimona inspection. Finney had spoken with Ulysses Staebler of the AEC but had been tipped off by a statement made by Abba Eban to “Meet the Press.” State Department officials had told him that the story would have adverse implications for relations with Israel, but Finney believed that it would help make the case for international regulations of such nuclear facilities. Talbot further reported that Israeli Counselor Gazit had suggested that the government “delete” the reference to the visit from the article but a U.S. official told him that it was “most unlikely [that] any U.S. newspaper would respond to such a request.”
State Department telegram 941 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 16 March 1965, Confidential
Source: RG 84, box 4, AE 11-2 Dimona (EXDIS) 1965
During a conversation with Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot, Israeli Ambassador Harman stated that both Prime Minister Eshkol and Foreign Minister Meir “took very serious view of New York Times disclosures.” The impact of the leak was “unpredictable” because the political situation in Israel was already “delicate,” with recent criticisms by Ben-Gurion for the government’s cancellation of the Independence Day parade in Jerusalem owing to U.S. pressure.
While Talbot assured Harman that Washington also regretted the leaks, he observed that it was “unfortunate that Finney was able to follow up remarks of Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban on ‘Meet the Press.’” Noting that the State Department was limiting comment to broad remarks designed to fuzz details, “Talbot anticipated no further stories.”
U.S Embassy Israel telegram 1205 to State Department, “Dimona Visits,” 22 March 1965, Secret
Source: RG 84, box 4, AE 11-2 Dimona (EXDIS) 1965
The Embassy reported and commented on press coverage of the inspection leak, breaking it down by political trend. An article by Ben-Porat, a “stalwart Ben-Gurionist,” in Yediot Aharonot (“Latest News”) discussed the Kennedy-Ben Gurion exchanges, Ben-Gurion’s resistance to Kennedy’s requests for regular U.S. inspections, with the support of Charles de Gaulle, and Eshkol’s decision to “give in to visits,” with French consent. The article also covered the 1964 and 1965 inspections and instances of U.S. “nuclear espionage” such as the alleged discovery of Dimona through “aerial photography.” According to Ben-Porat, public opinion and important officials were “upset at learning of visits through foreign sources after own Government kept it secret from them.”
An unidentified writer for Yediot Aharonot, believed to be pro-Eshkol, noted that of the four U.S. visits to Dimona, two occurred under Ben-Gurion’s watch. Uri Dan, the Paris correspondent for Ma’ariv (“Evening”) reported that the French opposed the U.S. visits. Dan speculated that the “leak from USG sources appeared to be accidental.”
The Embassy commented that the Israeli Government was “still attempting limit public disclosure, while trying to check any Ben-Gurion political offensive through leak of key argument that Ben-Gurion started whole business.”
State Department telegram 972 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 23 March 1965, Confidential
Source: RG 84, box 4, AE 11-2 Dimona (EXDIS) 1965
For Harriman’s upcoming meeting with Eshkol, Talbot provided talking points on the leak of the inspection. While the U.S. government had no objection to the disclosure of the visits as such, it did “deplore” the “rash Israeli press stories divulging details” of the U.S. visits to Dimona, including the fact that U.S. presidents had requested bi-annual visits to the site. Harriman was to observe that the U.S. press had dropped the issue after the New York Times ran a story based on the “leads given by Deputy PriMin Abba Eban.” “Additional details on visits published by Israeli press indicated official Israeli sources behind leaks.”
U.S. Embassy Israel Airgram A-742 to State Department, “Current Status of the Dimona Reactor,” 9 April 1965, Secret
Source: RG 59, SN 64-66, AE 11-2 ISR
In a mini analytical study of the Dimona complex, Tel Aviv embassy science attaché, Dr. Robert T. Webber, explored – and then firmly rejected — the possibility that Dimona might be
a partial “ bluff,” not genuine weapons infrastructure but rather a fake nuclear project aimed to create a certain image for the purposes of deterrence. It is apparent – albeit not explicitly noted — that Webber offered his insight on Dimona as a counter reading and criticism of the 1965 findings of the AEC inspection team which allowed the bluff conjecture. Webber wanted to refute such interpretation, to demonstrate that it made no sense.
Webber’s starting points were two fundamental features of the Dimona project that Americans observers had to grapple with. First, “there is ample independent evidence that Israel has not assembled nuclear weapons and is not now in the process of doing so.” That is, the Dimona complex was not operating as a weapons program, indeed, it could not produce weapons because it lacked the key technical component – a chemical plant to extract plutonium – which is required for a weapons program. Second, there was the fact that Israeli political and military leaders insisted on “keep[ing]t Nasser worried” ], i.e., that it would be strategically unwise to reassure Nasser that Dimona is peaceful. “This element of psychological warfare is stated by Israeli officials to be the reason for the extraordinary security precautions that have surrounded Dimona from its inception.” Those two “factual” features of Dimona, in conjunction with the findings of the 1965 team that Dimona was in a slowdown mode, generated the “bluff” hypothesis.
Determining that Dimona had little to do with pure research needs, the complex allowed Israel to “overcome most of the hurdles lying in the path of achieving a production capacity for plutonium, the basic material of nuclear weapons.” Although Dimona did not operate as a weapons production facility, the Dimona facilities were at “a high plateau of scientific techniques” that could enable the Israelis to “move to the making of weapons in a relatively short time if the international situation should appear to require it.”
Webber further argued that it “is remarkable how much progress Israel has made [through Dimona] along the path to a nuclear weapon.” To assemble and test a nuclear weapon “from scratch” there are nine facilities that must be completed. Webber described all nine and how far Israel had progressed in developing them. After listing the facilities that Israel had to complete, Webber concluded that the “Israelis have now created a flexible basis of choice regarding the possibility of producing nuclear weapons.”
Letter from James W. Spain, Director, Office of Research and Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, to Stephen E. Palmer, First Secretary, U.S. Embassy Israel, 2 June 1965, enclosing INR Research Memorandum “Implications of the 1965 Dimona Inspection Findings.” 10 May 1965, Secret
Source: RG 84, U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, Classified Central Subject Files, 1962-1966, box 4, AE 11-2 Dimona Exdis 1965
The anodyne findings of the U.S. 1965 inspection visit at Dimona led to odd theories within the US intelligence community. For some it was difficult to believe that the Dimona project was indeed in such a general state of slowdown, even disarray in some areas. Acknowledging that the attached report was “highly speculative,” INR staffer James Spain noted that such thoughts “lie behind some of the things that worry us.” In light of Dimona’s current slowdown status, the INR analysts struggled to offer an explanation of the puzzling situation, namely, that Dimona is “not now being used to support a weapons program.” For example, it did not appear “that the Israelis are attempting to maximize plutonium production at the present time.”
One possible explanation for the situation “merits close examination – that the Israelis recognize that Dimona cannot, in fact, support a weapons program of any practical benefit and that some solution to Israel’ s security problem other than native weapon development will have to be found.” The one avenue – totally speculative but conceivable – for a weapons program that was available was “third-party assistance – in this case from France.” While there was no evidence whatsoever of French support – in fact, France’s declaratory position was against providing weapons assistance to any state – its past role in Dimona and the MD-620 missile deal suggested a more nuanced position towards nonproliferation.
INR experts could not say whether France and Israel had a nuclear weapons arrangement or even whether the two countries had ever considered one. Nevertheless, it was “not inconceivable that the French might consider an arrangement whereby French nuclear-warheads for the MD-620 would be supplied in the event that any Arab country obtained nuclear weapons.” For the Israelis such a “contingency agreement …. would appear to be equally advantageous” by insuring Israel against “the worst eventuality, i.e., Arab acquisition of’ nuclear weapons.”
That the INR analysts suggested the possibility of French secret assistance is noteworthy, but they did not know how it actually occurred – through Israeli contact with the French company Saint-Gobain Techniques Nouvelles (SGN) that constructed the secret reprocessing facility.
William D. Wolle, Office of Near East Economic Affairs, “Debriefing of Dr. R. T. Webber, Science Attaché, American Embassy, Tel Aviv,” 18 November 1965, Secret
Source: RG 59, Israel 64-66, box 7, Arms Control and Disarmament October-December 1965
Briefing a group of State Department officials during a visit to Washington, Embassy science attaché Robert Webber argued that the Dimona project made “no sense except as the basis for a [future] weapons project.” Work is continuing there, he told the group, but not on a “crash basis” because of the reduction of the number of scientists there. At Dimona, Israel had a “semi-pilot [reprocessing] plant installation” and facilities to “handle plutonium and irradiated rods.” A 26-megawatt reactor could produce two bombs a year.
Accepting American conventional wisdom – which turned out to be quite mistaken – Webber did not believe that Israel was producing weapons at the time but rather “was building up its basis for future weapons production.” As for a plutonium separation plant, there was “no sign” of one [at Dimona], but nevertheless he believed that “Israel is currently active somewhere and somehow on this missing link.” In retrospect, now we know that while Webber was wrong on the former, he was correct on the latter. That is not to be discounted.
Noting that the U.S. inspectors had been “satisfied” with what they saw, Webber said that he was not because Dimona was “more of a military project than Mr. Stabler of the AEC is willing to accept.” While the inspections are informative and give the U.S. a “psychological advantage” they could be improved if they were more frequent and if the inspectors had better access to records on such matters as the flow of uranium, something the Israelis disallowed.
Webber acknowledged that inspections were a “sensitive matter” politically and that the Eshkol government could be overthrown by the issue. The information leak that produced the John Finney article in the New York Times “hurt the USG position … because the GOI has decided it cannot trust the secrecy of future U.S. inspections.” In any event, while the inspection problem would be handled bilaterally, Israel was not going to accept an IAEA role “no matter what we threaten” but nevertheless it was still worth making the effort to persuade them.
Webber believed that if Israel tested the bomb it would be underground, “perhaps at the 1arge natural depression southeast of Dimona (HaMaktesh Haqatan).” While testing might not be necessary, Israel could not test “without our knowing it.” Israel probably had the “requisite test equipment, high-speed cameras, etc.”
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