Israel and the Nuclear Weapons Issue
Invariably delicate and volatile, the Arab-Israeli peace process reached a critical juncture at the beginning of Nixon’s presidency as violence in the region escalated. At his first press conference on January 27, 1969, President Nixon summed up his assessment of the Middle East:
“I believe we need new initiatives and new leadership on the part of the United States in order to cool off the situation in the Mideast. I consider it a powder keg, very explosive. It needs to be defused. I am open to any suggestions that may cool if off and reduce the possibility of another explosion, because the next explosion in the Mideast, I think, could involve very well a confrontation between the nuclear powers, which we want to avoid.”
The most immediate concern in the Arab-Israeli peace process in 1969, certainly one capable of explosive ramifications, was Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Though no consensus established that Israel had procured a fully functional weapon, many reports pointed towards Israel’s rapid and near development. Indeed, a nuclear armed Israel would have profound political and psychological effects throughout the Middle East.
On April 11, 1969, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger issued National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 40 by order of President Nixon, which directed government agencies to analyze Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program and courses of actions necessary to preserve the strategic balance of armed forces in the Middle East. Maintaining this strategic balance was important because a public revelation of Israel’s nuclear goals would almost certainly draw Soviet assurances of Arab nuclear capability. Such a situation would increase the potential danger of triggering a wider global conflict.
As a follow-up to NSSM 40, Kissinger penned a detailed memorandum to President Nixon outlining an assessment on the Israeli nuclear program based on a consensus of department reports and deliberations with top levels of State, Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Read the full report below:
Kissinger interestingly noted that a more viable concern moving forward would be to keep Israeli possession of nuclear weapons from becoming an established international fact, as opposed to an outright effort to dismantle Israel’s presumed intentions by halting all missile production. Kissinger, State, Defense, and JCS agreed generally that Israel should sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in so far that it would open the discussion on its nuclear program and publicly commit Israel not to acquire nuclear weapons. It was not right, Kissinger wrote, to ask Israel to cease production of missiles, for that was their sovereign right. Also agreed upon was that the United States should try to get a bilateral understanding on Israel’s nuclear intentions, particularly in its interpretation of what “introduction” meant.
The course of action recommended by Kissinger were as follows:
- Secure an Israeli NPT signature at the earliest date possible.
- Reaffirm assurance that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East, with a specific emphasis that “introduction” shall mean possession of nuclear explosive devices.
- Have the Israelis agree that it will not deploy “Jericho” missiles or any other nuclear -capable strategic missile.
The caveat in this course of action, Kissinger acknowledged, was that Israel would not take the United States seriously on the nuclear issue unless the U.S. was prepared to withhold something it needed — i.e. the Phantoms or the military supply relationship.
Political pressure also presented a significant obstacle should Israel make public any part of the U.S. to withhold weapons. The U.S. would be in an untenable position if it could not state why it was withholding planes or weapons. The U.S. would either need to rescind their withholdings or make public Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons — a situation that Kissinger and President Nixon preferred to avoid.
Kissinger thought it important to play the withholding card at the right time, which is why he recommended that the U.S. first gauge the Israelis on how amenable they would be to a discussion on their nuclear program. It was up to President Nixon to make the final decision with regards to the Phantoms and weapons deliveries, all the while keeping in mind the balance of power, and more importantly, peace in the Middle East.