Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Nuclear: Conclusion

Despite all that we know, what is surprising is the Washington Times
sudden revelation of facts which were publicized years ago. The Nixon document was declassified in 1997. And ten years ago, Avner Cohen, in his book Israel and the Bomb wrote:
"A new set of American-Israeli understandings on the nuclear issue came into being in 1970 through meetings between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir. The United States no longer pressed Israel to sign the NPT; it also ended the visits at Dimona. In return, Israel is committed to maintaining a low profile nuclear posture: no testing, no declaration, no acknowledgment. With these "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" understandings nuclear opacity was born. Those understandings persist today."
But Cohen was incorrect. Recently unclassified documents confirm an agreement regarding Dimona visits (but not other sites) but within months of Nixon's downfall, American inquiries resumed.

In January 1975,  US senator Charles Mathias raised the issue with foreign minister Yigal Allon:
“Allon replied that Israel had the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, he said that [the government of Israel] did not currently possess nuclear weapons, nor did it intend to manufacture them.”
In May 1975, Senator Howard Baker asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister (now President) Shimon Peres about nuclear weapons. Israel again denied having nuclear weapons.
“Rabin told Senator Baker that GOI [the government of Israel] had made a commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. Israel had kept its word [not wanting] the Soviet Union to give similar devices to the Arab nations in the region.” 
Dimona inspections were also back on the table. In November 1976 a group of visiting American Senators requested a visit to the Dimona reactor. The request was turned down, and the US chose not to press the issue. It would be reasonable to assume, then, that this was the real understanding: the US would continue to ask, Israel would continue to deny; and nuclear ambiguity would be maintained.

If the US is now willing to force Israel's hand, one must wonder why. Assuming Israel does possess assembled nuclear devices, there's really next to no possibility that she would voluntarily destroy her best deterrent against Arab weapons of mass destruction. Only a complete US arms embargo might compel a policy change, but this is unlikely. Denied American weapons, Israel would quickly turn to others for military hardware. Germany is already selling Israel Dolphin class submarines and would be eager to add fighter jets to the account. In fact, Israel had been developing a new model of the Swedish-made Gripen fighter jet, in conjunction with Saab, for India until forced out of the competition by the US. In 2008, Israel was compelled not to submit a bid in a 500 million dollar deal to develop a new tank for Turkey, ostensibly by the Americans. An end to decades of cooperation between the US and Israel would open the door to direct competition, a scenario the US defense industry would surely not welcome in the middle of an economic downturn.

Perhaps this US administration simply believes the relationship has outlived its usefulness, Israel no longer providing a front-line defense against Soviet expansionism. Or more likely, we can add this story to a long list of would-be scandals involving Israel, precipitated by the State Department, in defiance of the White House and the American people who have been resolute in their support of the Jewish state. The State Department - and its friends in the CIA and Justice Department - has always argued against overt support for Israel, which it has felt threatens America's relationship with Arab oil providers. Some of the battles between various State Department heads and Presidents are legendary. President Truman, for example, once complained that, "those State Department fellows were always trying to put it over on me about Palestine, telling me that I really didn't understand what was going on there, that I ought to leave it to experts."

For years, various State Department officials and sympathizers have maintained a war of words against the Jewish State. ‘Realists’ Mersheimer and Walt’s Lobby screed was just one round in this old conflict. In 2005, the Justice Department indicted two staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on trumped up allegations (based on a rarely used 1917 Espionage law) that they had passed along a confidential memo to an Israeli Embassy official. This year it was announced that the charges against the two AIPAC members would be dropped. Last year, the best the State Department could come up with was a 23-year old allegation against an 84 year-old veteran who, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to Israel, passed on useless information (apparently details about F-15's, which Israel was already flying) to some low-level consulate staff member.

Cue Rose Gottemoeller, the latest conveyer of news meant to discomfit friends of Israel and malign the Jewish state.

So, is any of this really evidence of a secret accord, and more importantly, a change in the US-Israel relationship? As for the accord, the evidence suggests no official policy as such, but rather an understanding not to press the issue. There's a difference. And State Department threats may yet turn out to be paper tigers. Earlier this month, The Washington Times reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been assured by the US President that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding will be maintained.

And that understanding, which says so much about this unique bilateral relationship, reveals important distinctions between the functions and behaviour of the State Department and Congress. Un-elected officials of the State Department serve the nation; elected members of Congress and the President serve the nation’s constituents. Both roles are crucial. But, it’s a dangerous thing when anyone believes the state must prevail at all costs; there are times when the nation’s citizens may choose a course of action that is not prudent, but is in keeping with the values of the state. American support for Israel is a case-in-point, as was made abundantly clear when it was revealed that the President was sent a letter signed by 76 (of 100) Senators reminding Obama to "take into account the risks [Israel] will face in any peace agreement," and “to insist on the absolute Palestinian commitment to ending terrorist violence and to building the institutions necessary for a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side, in peace with the Jewish state of Israel."

After his first year in office, many are asking if Barak Obama truly understands the complex nature of Middle East politics. Early statements and demands of Israel have suggested naivety more than belligerency. And, despite some setbacks, last week’s appointment of Tamara Cofman Wittes as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs is a definite step in the right direction. Dr. Wittes is Director of the Middle East Democracy and Development (MEDD) Project at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a regional policy center at The Brookings Institution. She has also taught at Georgetown University and is a recipient of the Rabin-Peres Peace Award, established by President Bill Clinton.

There’s no question that public support for Israel is solid. A recent poll conducted by Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR) suggests that, despite the Gaza war, support for Israel is actually rising, with 63 percent of respondents, up from 49 percent just a few months ago, declaring themselves Israel supporters. With that in mind, the President now has the awesome responsibility to balance that support with the nation’s other needs. This has always been the challenge. But, the great Presidents have been the ones who could meet the practical needs while preserving America’s ethical core.

In all honesty, we can ask, has this enviable support for Israel always been pragmatic? Probably not. Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin put the question to Lyndon Johnson when he met the President in 1967. "I don't understand you Americans backing Israel," said Kosygin. "There are 80 million Arabs and only 3 million Israelis. It does not make sense. Why do it?"
Replied Johnson: "Because it is right."


UPDATE: The Jerusalem Report's Leslie Susser has a terrific piece in the May 26, 2010 issue, called Israel's policy of nuclear 'ambiguity' comes under fire. Read it here.

REVISED: Several previously unclassified documents were made public by Anonymous in April 2013. Appropriate quotes from several cables were added to this post on April 11, 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Going Nuclear: Part II

The next day, Secretary of State Rusk tabled a meeting specifically to discuss America’s nuclear concerns. Representing Israel were Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Ambassador Avraham Harma and Ephraim Evron. Rusk insisted that Israel’s continued obstinacy could have a, “disastrous effect on U.S.-Israeli relations” Abba Eban understood the US position but maintained that political issues at home made public declarations and visits to Dimona difficult. It was, of course, public declarations that the US was seeking. “Private assurances were of limited value,” averred Rusk.

Private assurances would have to do. Despite an agreement to sell Israel Skyhawk bombers, Prime Minister Eshkol refused any formal written agreement which, in his words, “might indicate to future historians that he had bargained away Israel's future nuclear policy and opened the Dimona facility to US inspection for the sake of ‘a mere 48 airplanes.’"

Even so, an understanding was arrived at that worked for both sides. The Americans would maintain Israel’s military advantage believing that “if Israel [was] unable to obtain its valid conventional arms requirements, those in Israel who advocate acquisition of nuclear weapons [would] find a much more fertile environment for their views.”

As part of the understanding, a team of U.S. nuclear experts visited Israeli atomic energy sites between March 31 and April 4, 1966; a few months later a memorandum from the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency to Secretary of Defense McNamara reported “the unanimous conclusion of the three-man team that there is no evidence that Israel is producing or intends to produce nuclear weapons material.”

Over the next year, the Soviets publicly pushed for a nuclear free Middle East and the Americans, at least in principle, agreed to the proposal. But, each time the issue was raised with Israel, the answer was always the same: Israel wasn’t pursuing nuclear weapons. And each time, the Americans seemed to accept the rejoinder. Until February 1967, that is, when American Embassy in Tel Aviv reported to the Secretary of State that “two Israeli contacts [had suggested] Israel could be much closer to nuclear weapons capability than...supposed. The State Department requested an urgent assessment. Israel agreed to another Dimona inspection and once again the “AEC team found no evidence that Israel [was] using Dimona to produce material for use in nuclear weapons.” Of course, they couldn’t rule out the existence of another nuclear facility, or Israel’s potential for building a weapon on short-notice.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to speak with a retired Dimona engineer in June of this year. I was intrigued when he said he was at Dimona during these inspections. "Was anything deliberately hidden from the inspectors?" I asked. "No," he responded. "Was there perhaps another nuclear facility whose existence was kept from the Americans?" I suggested. "Not that I knew of," he replied.

In May 1967, the State Department reported once more to President Johnson that there was, “no evidence that Israel [was] actually making a bomb,” but they remained convinced that..."Israel intends to keep itself in a position to do so at reasonably short notice should the need arise."

As the Six-Day War  (June 5 - 10, 1967) began, France reneged on arms deals with Israel and declared a weapons boycott, refusing to supply parts for Israel's French-made Mirage jets. Following the war, Israel was anxious to replace the Mirage, especially in light of the USSR's rapid re-arming of Egypt and Syria. Israel was pushed by need directly into the US sphere of influence.

In January 1968, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with President Johnson to urgently request military aid, especially the Phantoms. Johnson, who was a longstanding supporter of Zionism, assured Eshkol that the US would stand by Israel. But, as the negotiations for the jets proceeded over the next few months, opposition – namely linkage between the aircraft sale and the nuclear issue – emerged.

But, it was likely the State Department that was doing the pushing and Israel pushed back. Attempts by Paul Warnke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, to verify Israel's Dimona promises obligated Israel to request that the White House intervene. Secretary of Defense Clarke Clifford told Warnke to end the talks and not press the matter of verification.

In lieu of a formal agreement, Israel provided the US with a promissory letter, signed by Israel's Ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin, that Israel would not introduce nuclear weapons into the conflict. Israel reaffirmed "its long-standing policy as laid down in...1965 that it will not be the first power in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons and [agreed] not to use any aircraft supplied by the US and a nuclear weapons carrier. Israel and the US, however, continued to have a very different understanding as to the meaning of the concept of "introduction" of weapons. Israel's position was that as long as no weapons had been tested and publicly announced no "introduction" had been made. The issue was still outstanding as Johnson’s term ended in 1969.

At the start of his administration, Nixon assembled a 'special group' - Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson, CIA Director Richard Helms, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler, and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger - to “consider the status of the Israeli nuclear program and [US] responses to it."

"Public knowledge is almost as dangerous as possession itself," wrote Kissinger in the memorandum dated July 9, 1969 from the 'special group' to Nixon. "This is what might spark a Soviet nuclear guarantee for the Arabs, tighten the Soviet hold on the Arabs and increase the danger of our involvement"

Nevertheless, the document confirms that the US still wanted Israel to sign onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel was also expected to publicly commit not to acquire nuclear weapons, according to Kissinger. It's clear from this document - despite what the Washington Time's Eli Lake asserted - that the US did not yet believe that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. “We should try to keep Israel from going any further with its nuclear weapons program --it may be so close to completion that Israel would be willing." The State Department and Defense agree, however, that for their "own internal purposes [they] could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device." Disturbingly, Lake, in his article, actually falsified the text to suggest that Israel already possessed nukes at this point. 'Israel would likely have 24 to 30 French surface-to-surfaces missiles, 10 of which would have nuclear warheads,' he wrote, but the actual document read: "ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads." A big difference.

Still, the Americans had a problem. If they withheld the Phantoms, they would have to publicly disclose - or allow Israel to disclose - why and reveal Israel's nuclear program, which they were very reluctant to do. Nixon was presented with several alternatives including to "not raise the issue." Did Nixon choose this option? A follow-up Memo, dated October 7, 1969, suggests the answer. Nixon had met with Golda Meir and in "private discussions...emphasized that [the] primary concern was the Israelis make no visible (my emphasis) introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program."

Kissinger asked Ambassador Rabin for a formal response and received assurances that Israel would not become a nuclear power, and would consider the NPT. A few months later, Israel informed the US that they would not sign onto the NPT. But, these assurances seemed to be enough to provide the Americans with a "rationale for standing down," as Kissinger put it. In any event, from this point on, the pressure was off, as least as can be ascertained from declassified documents. The two sides seemed to have agreed on a policy of 'Nuclear ambiguity.'

Yet, the State Department continued to investigate Israel's nuclear ambitions even though some officials had "reservations about whether or not Israel [had] produced and assembled a complete nuclear weapon." Joseph J. Sisko, an assistant secretary of state and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler continued to fight to prevent Israel from going nuclear. The US “ought to push the NPT urgently" they demanded. And Robert Munn, well into 1970, pressed for another visit to Dimona.

At the same time, the Soviets were shipping tons of weapons, MIG-21 jets and thousands of military advisors into Egypt. Unwilling to allow the USSR to tip the balance of power away from Israel, the US finally agreed on September 1, 1970 to sell Israel the Phantoms.

Within weeks, the favour would be repaid. On September 21, Nixon received an urgent plea from Jordan's King Hussein: Jordan had been invaded by Syria and required "immediate physical intervention, both air and safeguard [the] sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Jordan."

Nixon instructed Kissinger to contact Yitzhak Rabin. "Don't ask anybody else. Tell him 'Go.' Israel prepared aircraft and moved troops toward the border with Jordan. The next day, the Syrians backed down and called their tanks and troops home.

Henry Kissinger relayed Nixon's appreciation to the Israelis. "The President will never forget Israel's role in preventing the deterioration in Jordan...these events will be taken into account in all future developments,” wrote Rabin in his memoirs. The leverage had now permanently shifted in Israel's favour; Israel had proven itself willing and capable of defending American interests in the region. Throughout his term, Nixon would remain a steadfast friend, providing emergency airlifts of weapons and supplies during the October War in 1973 (informing staff on October 9 that "the Israelis must not be allowed to lose!") and consistently stonewalling further attempts by the State Department to investigate Israel's nuclear program. On June 16, 1974, Nixon publicly asserted his loyalty to Israel by becoming the first US President to visit the Jewish state.

How subsequent administrations dealt with the nuclear issue will become clear as more documents become declassified in the future.

To be continued...Going Nuclear: Conclusion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Going Nuclear: Part I

Well, I finished a piece on Israel's nuclear program and, having not sold it and wanting to move on, I'm posting it instead. It's long so I'm breaking it down into 3 parts.

Is the United States changing its policy toward a nuclear Israel?

Hot on the heels of a statement by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller urging Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Obama announced plans for an international nuclear summit to be held March 2010. Although the summit is expected to focus on nuclear terrorism, Arab states have been demanding that Israel’s alleged nuclear program be put on the agenda.

Last May, The Washington Times asserted that the US and Israel have maintained a secret accord for 40 years to keep from the public Israel's nuclear weapons capabilities. The Times' Eli Lake presents a declassified memo between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon as evidence and writes that 'by the end of 1970, Israel would likely have 24 to 30 French surface-to-surfaces missiles, 10 of which would have nuclear warheads.'

Is the United States now changing its policy toward a nuclear Israel? Has America protected Israel’s nuclear ambitions for 40 years? An historical perspective is in order.

It was clearly in America's interests to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which would diminish stability in an already volatile neighbourhood and surely engage the USSR in some way. President Kennedy had expressed concerns on several occasions before his death in 1963. Since the Johnson Administration (1963 to 1969), the US kept a close watch on Israel's nuclear aspirations and repeatedly asserted the importance of keeping nukes out of the region. Throughout March 1965, State Department and Israel officials were engaged in heavy negotiations over President Johnson’s regional water plans. Johnson hoped to settle water disputes between Israel and her neighbours and proposed "an aggressive and imaginative program to advance progress in large-scale desalting of sea water." The plan involved "a combination of large-scale nuclear power plants and large-scale desalting plants could produce power and water."

The nuclear weapons issue came up on many occasions, each time Israel insisting it was not pursuing nuclear weaponry. The State Department, a recurrent thorn in Israel’s side, stressed the US position to Israeli authorities. "We've already made and remade every far stronger terms, especially on nuclear weapons. I'm surprised Israelis still speak to me," wrote Robert W. Komer, the President's Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs. In fact, Israel never denied the possibility of such a pursuit, reserving the right to do so depending on Egypt’s actions; Israel was convinced at the time that Egypt also had a nuclear agenda.

Nevertheless, the Americans remained certain that Israel was already pursuing nuclear weapons technology. "All indications are toward Israeli acquisition of a nuclear capability," wrote Rodger Davies, Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, "There is little realization in Israel of the intensity of U.S. opposition to nuclear proliferation. U.S. hesitation and delays in pressing for the recent inspection of the Dimona reactor plus the failure to insist upon a two-day visit have led the Israelis to believe we are not serious."

The Americans at this point stepped up the pressure. The State Department informed the Embassy in Israel to let it be known that an "offer to supply arms in the future [would be] carefully hedged and made contingent upon Israeli acceptance of undertakings on Jordan waters and on nuclear development..."

Two American scientists had made an unpublished visit to Dimona in 1961, the site of a French-designed nuclear power station, and were satisfied at the time that Israel wasn't developing weapons. However, within a few years, things weren't so clear. In March 1964 Canadian intelligence alleged that Argentina had agreed to supply Israel with 80-100 tons of uranium oxide, or "yellowcake." Once converted and enriched, "yellowcake" is an essential ingredient in reactor fuel. In September, the US embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed through its sources that the "yellowcake" agreement had been made the previous year.

By the mid-60s, the Americans assumed that Israel now possessed the scientific talent and a sufficient quantity of nuclear fuel to build a nuclear bomb but had yet to do so. A CIA assessment from 1965 alleged that "the Israelis could probably develop nuclear weapons by 1968-1969 and/or nuclear warheads by about 1971 [but did] not believe, however, that the Israelis have taken such a decision."

Officially, the State Department spoke of Israel’s "peaceful nuclear program," but they continued to harp on the weapons issue. Secretary of State Dean Rusk began to press President Johnson to pressure Israel "to accept IAEA safeguards on all of its nuclear facilities." Israel had signed the partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and was a member of IAEA, but had not accepted IAEA safeguards on the Dimona facility. On May 21, 1965 Johnson asked Eshkol "to place the Dimona reactor and all other nuclear facilities under IAEA controls...and for any U.S. materials or equipment transferred to Israel in connection with the U.S.-Israel desalting program." Eshkol, much to Johnson’s displeasure, asked that the issue be deferred until after the next Israeli election. As the year came to a close, the State Department still had to concede that there was "no evidence that Israel or any other Near Eastern state [was] in position to develop nuclear weapons in near future or that they have decided [to] develop or otherwise acquire them." (Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Jordan/1/ Washington, November 4, 1965, 10:35 a.m.)

Through the 1950's and early 60's, Israel had maintained close ties to Britain and France, both of whom were eager to preserve some influence in Middle East affairs. This trilateral relationship reached its apex with the attack against Egypt in 1956. But, by the mid-60s these relationships had cooled, especially with France which was dealing with Algeria. Nevertheless, the French government, which had supplied Israel with nuclear technology (as had the British, who, in 1958, supplied heavy water for plutonium production without informing the Americans), and was negotiating to sell Israel surface-to-surface missiles, remained convinced that "there was no evidence of any attempt by Israel to produce materials for nuclear weapons."

With the war of words between Israel and the Arabs heating up in 1966, Israel approached the US for more advanced weaponry. Israel had previously signed a deal with West Germany for 150 M48A2 tanks to replace aging French AMX-13 and British Centurions (upgraded and renamed the Sho’t) but due to opposition from Arab states, the Germans reneged on the deal after only 40 tanks had been delivered. Johnson approved an agreement to supply Israel with the remaining tanks, and an additional 100 M48s.

What Israel really wanted, however, was fighter jets. The US now had the upper hand. It was Robert Komer who made the obvious suggestion: "Can we use planes as a lever to keep Israel from going nuclear?"
(Memorandum From the President's Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to President Johnson, February 8, 1966)

to be continued: Going Nuclear Pt. II