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 point...in 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

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