Statesman and political leader David Ben-Gurion became the first prime minister and chief architect of the state of Israel. He was revered as “Father of the Nation.” Ben-Gurion was born David Gruen on Oct. 16, 1886, in the town of Plonsk,Poland. His father was a leader in the movement to reclaim Palestine asa homeland for the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe. The idea of an independent Israel became the leading motivation in Ben-Gurion’s life. At age 20 he immigrated to Palestine and worked for several years as a farmer. He adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion and joined the Zionist Socialist movement. At the 1907 Socialist convention he made sure that the party platform contained the statement: “The party aspires to the political independence of the Jewish people in this land.”
DAVID BEN-GURIONZIONIST-SOCIALIST Davidson, Lawrence, Zionism, socialism and United States support for the Jewish colonization of Palestine in the 1920s.., Vol. 18, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), 06-01-1996,pp 1(16).
( Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ) )
There can be no doubt that Zionism in Palestine from the 1920s onward was increasingly dominated by socialists. As Walter Laqueur tells us: “Labor Zionism emerged as[the movement’s] strongest political force. Its growth and the impact of its ideas were of decisive importance, for it shaped the character of the Zionist movement and subsequently the state of Israel.. . .” Moreover, in the 1920s the Zionist socialists, or “Labor Zionists” were “powerfully attracted by Russian Socialism and its leaders.”(11)
Among the main leaders of this Zionist socialist phenomenon was DavidBen Gurion. For Ben Gurion it was Palestine’s destiny to be “developed as a socialist Jewishstate.”(12) Here the model was the early Soviet state. “We are following a new path,” BenGurion explained in 1921, “which contradicts developments in the whole world except Russia.” (13) Thisled him to pay homage to the Soviet Union for “her great spiritual influence on our movement andour work in Palestine.”(14) In these years Ben Gurion came to “idolize Lenin” and “he even adopted the dress of the Soviet leaders – a quasi military uniform of rough wool.”(15)
Behind Ben Gurion was a growing and well organized Zionist socialist organization. It began as a group called Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) based largely in Eastern Europe and Palestine. From this beginning it merged in March of 1919 with like-minded Zionist organizations to form Adhut Ha’avodah, a socialist party that largely controlled the Jewish immigrant absorption process in Palestine and would come to dominate the Histadrut, the labor federation that would eventually organize and control much of the Jewish economic structure in Palestine and, later, Israel.(16) Under Ben Gurion’s leadership Adhut Ha’avodah evolved as a party that “followed the Russian model”.(17)
The evolving socialist nature of Zionism in Palestine was ultimately accepted and actively supported by most of the leaders of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Men like Chaim Weizmann, who were not themselves socialists or communists, nonetheless became convinced that it would only be by a socialist line of economic development that all available resources could be directed toward the rapid absorption of a maximum number of Jewish immigrants.(18) In the early1920s, Weizmann observed that middle- and upper-class Jews from Europe or the United States were not moving to Palestine in significant numbers. Only the Jewish working class of Europe had the desire to immigrate in numbers high enough to “up build” Palestine and make it Jewish.Those Jews with money to invest who did immigrate behaved like good capitalists and hired the cheapest labor they could find. This turned out to be the local Arab population and not their fellow Jews.
David Ben-GurionIllegally Manufactured Nuclear Weapons
( Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists )
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion feared for Israel’s future, and Israeli success in the 1956 Sinai campaign did nothing to allay those fears. In the late 1950s, Ben Gurion told an aide: “I could not sleep all night, not even for one second. I had one fear in my heart: a combined attack by all Arab armies.”(1)
Ben Gurion was determined that Israel should have a “nuclear option.” Only a nuclear weapon could counter the numerical superiority of the Arabs.
When Kennedy took office in January 1961 as president of the United States, he was strongly committed to the goal of nonproliferation, but the policy of how to reach that objective was yet to evolve. In hindsight, the case of Israel was an exception, not only because of Israel’s geopolitical situation, but also because of Israel’s geopolitical situation, but also because of the burden of history. Kennedy’s nonproliferation ideal had to be compromised.
No better example of that high-level compromise exists than the 1961 meeting between Kennedy and Ben Gurion in New York. Although Kennedy spoke grandly of nonproliferation, when it came to Israel, he simply didn’t want to press the matter too hard. That set the pattern for the next 30-plus years. Both Israel and the United States stumbled jointly into opacity.
Days of crisis
The Dimona nuclear project was conceived in the midst of an international showdown, in the darkest hours of the Suez crisis. Britain and France had persuaded Israel to participate in a military effort to help them regain the Suez Canal, which Egypt had seized in July 1956. Although the exercise demonstrated Israeli military capabilities, the November 1956 campaign was a political disaster. The United States condemned the use of force, a determined United Nations negotiated a ceasefire- -and, at the height of the crisis, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin had warned Ben Gurion that Soviet missiles could reach Israeli targets.
In response to the Soviet threat, Foreign Minister Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, Ben Gurion’s closest aide, flew secretly to Paris in the early hours of November 7 to meet with their French colleagues, Maurice Bourges-Manoury, the French defense minister, and Christian Pineau, the French foreign minister. According to French sources, since France could offer Israel no immediate guarantees against Soviet aggression, Peres suggested that after Israel withdrew from the Sinai, the French might provide a security guarantee in the form of nuclear assistance. Peres had discussed nuclear matters with top French officials during the spring and summer of 1956, and certain understandings were already in the making, but never before was the talk as explicit as it was that morning.(3)
It took a year of difficult, on-and-off negotiations before a basic understanding was formalized into a set of agreements and contracts. The EL-102 research reactor that the Commisariat a l’Energie Atomique (CEA) had agreed to sell Israel in September 1956 was transformed into a nuclear production reactor of roughly the same capacity as France’s G-1 reactor at Marcoule. More significantly, according to Pierre Pean, author of Les Deux Bombes, the Dimona package included French expertise in separating plutonium. Saint Gobain Nucleaire, the company that had built the Marcoule plant, would be the primary contractor for an underground plutonium separation plant at the reactor site–giving Israel an unprecedented type of assistance.
It was in the political and security interests of both France and Israel to keep the project secret and extremely compartmentalized. The details of the agreement, hidden to this day, were contained in separate political and technical sets of documents designed to provide the political actors with deniability about the technical aspects of the package. According to Pean, some elements of the deal were never put in writing–they remained oral understandings between individuals. The contract for the reprocessing plant was signed directly with Saint Gobain, and the deal “went underground” through a dummy organization.(4)
The Dimona project was complex, controlversial, and sensitive, and it would take a number of years to complete. It was particularly vulnerable to political upheaval, and the fragility of France’s Fourth Republic made even the strongest supporters of the French-Israeli alliance believe that the cooperative effort was unnatural and would be short- lived. The ever-present fear of the project’s architects–especially those on the Israeli side–was that a new French government might cancel the agreement. Another fear was that the U.S. government would discover the project early on and exert pressure on Israel and France to abort it.
In 1960 both fears appeared to materialize. Charles de Gaulle had been given extraordinary powers to establish the Fifth Republic in late 1958. By May 1960, his foreign minister, Maurice Couve de Murville, notified the Israeli ambassador, Walter Eitan, that France had reconsidered the arrangement. De Gaulle wanted Israel to lift the secrecy surrounding the construction of Dimona and declare the reactor’s peaceful nature, backed by foreign, perhaps international, inspection. If Israel did not accept these conditions, France would not supply fuel for the reactor.(5)
The French change of heart caused a nearcrisis in Ben Gurion’s inner circle. The collapse of the project would have had far-reaching political consequences–Ben Gurion and Peres had authorized and executed it virtually on their own.
Ben Gurion and de Gaulle got along well enough at a hastily arranged summit meeting on June 14, but the discussion produced no solution to the nuclear crisis. The conversation was a chatty exchange about world affairs and ideas between two elderly statesmen; the real issue was scarcely mentioned. When the meeting ended without a discussion of nuclear and military cooperation, de Gaulle suggested another meeting three days later.(6)
On June 17 the two leaders met privately, and this time the conversation began with the atom. Both sides wanted to avoid a confrontation, but no immediate solution was found. According to Ben Gurion’s biographer, Michael Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion said he understood de Gaulle’s reservations about French participation in the building of the reactor, and he pledged that Israel would not build nuclear weapons. Then he suggested leaving the practical details of future nuclear cooperation to Peres and Pierre Guillaumat, the French minister of nuclear energy.(7) De Gaulle was unconvinced, although he promised to reconsider his position.
But de Gaulle did not change his mind. On August 1, 1960, Couve de Murville reported that France intended to end its assistance if Israel continued to oppose outside inspection. But, he added, France would compensate Israel for the financial damage it would suffer by the termination.(8) After consulting with his advisers, Ben Gurion rejected the offer of compensation and sent Peres to Paris to try to negotiate a compromise.
By November, a compromise was reached. Although the French government would end its direct involvement in Dimona, French companies with existing contracts would stay on, which meant that Israel could continue the project on its own. Israel promised to make a public announcement about Dimona and declare its peaceful purpose; in exchange, France agreed to drop its insistence on outside inspection.(9)
De Gaulle believed he had ended the project. He writes in his memoirs: “So ended, in particular, the cooperation offered by us for the beginning, near Beersheba, of a plant for the converting of uranium into plutonium, from which one bright day atomic bombs could emerge.”(10) But de Gaulle’s statement is more self-serving than accurate. According to Pean, the compromise that Peres reached had saved precisely that part of the project–the plutonium reprocessing plant–that de Gaulle was determined to stop.
Nevertheless, Israel learned that there were political limits on its nuclear will. Ben Gurion had to pledge–albeit secretly–that Israel would not build nuclear weapons.
Less than six months later–even before Israel had fulfilled its part of the agreement to announce Dimona publicly–the secret was abruptly spilled on the other side of the Atlantic. Israel was preparing to announce the project when it was preempted by foreign press reports and by U.S. determination to be the first to put the issue on the table.(11)
As early as 1958, the United States knew something about Dimona–the CIA’s U-2 reconnaissance program had detected unusual excavation and construction work in the Negev desert. To the photo interpreters it looked unmistakably like a nuclear plant in the earliest phase of construction.(12) Some time in late 1958 or early 1959, this finding was reported to both President Eisenhower and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Lewis Strauss.
By December 2, 1960, the State Department had established that “a significant atomic installation was in fact being built near Beersheba.” (13) By this time, the evidence was too compelling and too widely known to be ignored. Meanwhile, American embassy officials in Paris had learned bits and pieces about “French participation in the alleged construction of a nuclear power plant in Beersheba, Israel.”(14) Also by early December there were signs that an Israeli announcement was imminent; the U.S. ambassador to Israel reported on December 3 that Ben Gurion was planning to make the announcement the following week at the dedication of a new university near Beersheba.(15)
In the end, the departing Eisenhower administration decided to preempt the anticipated announcement. On December 8, CIA Director Allen Dulles reported in a meeting of the National Security Council “that Israel was constructing, with French assistance a nuclear complex in the Negev,” and added that “CIA and AEC experts believe … that theIsraeli nuclear complex cannot be solely for peaceful purposes.(16) On the next day, Secretary of State Christian Herter summoned the Israeli ambassador, presented him with U.S. intelligence findings about the reactor under construction, and expressed U.S. concern. Amb. Abraham Harman “disclaimed any detailed knowledge of the reactor installation near Dimona.”(17) The administration also briefed Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE).
The December 19 issue of Time–which hit the newsstands on the thirteenth- -disclosed that a special congressional meeting had concerned “atomic development” by an “nth state” that was “neither ofthe communist nor the NATO bloc.” Three days later, the Daily Express of London identified Israel as the state, adding that “British and American intelligence authorities believe that the Israelis are well on the way to building their first experimental nuclear bomb.”
On December 18, AEC Chairman John McCone said on Meet the Press that Israel was secretly building a nuclear reactor and that the United States had questioned Israel about it. McCone said that the United States had “only informal and unofficial information” concerningIsraeli nuclear activities, but he pointed out that the possession of a reactor in itself did not “create a weapons capability.”
The Israeli reactor was a front-page story in the next day’s New York Times. The story, now known to have been written with “help” from McCone, revealed that “U.S. officials [are] studying with mounting concern recent evidence indicating that Israel, with assistance from France, may be developing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.” The State Department also acknowledged for the first time that Herter had summoned the Israeli ambassador on December 9 to express concern and ask for information, and that “a response has not yet been received.”
On the same day, the Israeli reactor was the topic of a presidential conference. The minutes, declassified in 1993, indicate that both Secretary of State Herter and CIA Director Allen Dulles referred to Dimona as “a plutonium production plant.” Eisenhower commentedthat the cost of the Dimona plant was between 100 to 200 million dollars.(18)
The next day, December 20, the political significance of Dimona was hyped in a follow-up story that revealed that Israel had led the United States to believe that the nuclear site was a textile plant, and that the issue had been discussed in a high-level briefing at the White House the previous day.
On December 21, the Israeli reply to the U.S. request for information was still awaited, and the New York Times reported that “a note of irritation crept into public and private statements of U.S. officials today about Israel’s building of a nuclear reactor.”
Not only was Dimona’s secrecy shattered, but the secrecy itself was fueling speculation about Israeli nuclear intentions and capabilities. The Dimona story had reached the level of an international crisis and Israel could no longer delay its official response.
The first Israeli comments were low key, unofficial, and, to some extent, ambiguous. The first came from Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) Chairman Ernst D. Bergmann, who called the report that Israel was developing nuclear weapons “flattering, but untrue.” He added that “Israel’s industry in the present state is incapable of undertaking such a task.”(19) On the other hand, Bergmann said nothing about Israeli intentions.
The first official confirmation of French assistance came the following day from Paris, in separate statements issued by the French foreign ministry and the Israeli embassy.(20) The Israeli embassy noted that Israel’s atomic development was “dedicated exclusively” to theneeds of industry, agriculture, medicine and science. The French statement went beyond that and insisted that “all necessary provisions have been taken by France to assure that the French aid to Israel in the nuclear field would be used only for peaceful purposes.”
These statements from lower-level officials did not restore calm. On the contrary, the long delay in response to an official request for information and the continued absence of an authoritative public statement from the highest level–Ben Gurion–only heightened the atmosphere of crisis. After three days of intense speculation, Israel took public and private actions to defuse the crisis. On December 21, Ambassador Harman formally replied to Secretary Herter’s query of December 9, assuring him that “the new Israeli reactor, now in the early stages of construction, is for peaceful purposes only.”(21)
Finally, Ben Gurion issued a circumspect statement on the matter to the Knesset. It was the first time that Israelis had been told that their nation was indeed constructing a nuclear reactor in the Negev. Ben Gurion repeated that the reactor’s purposes were peaceful. His statement was also the first and only time that an Israeli prime minister has made a public statement aobut Dimona:
“The development of the Negev–which we regard as our principaltask for the next decade–requires broad and manifold scientific research. For this purpose we have established at Beersheba a scientific institute for research in problems of arid zones and desert flora and fauna. We are also engaged at this time in the construction of a research reactor with a capacity of 24,000 thermal kilowatts, which will serve the needs of industry, agriculture, health and science. This reactor will also be used to train Israeli scientists and technologists for the future construction of an atomic power station within a presumed period of 10 to 15 years.”(22)
The reactor, the statement continued, was “designed exclusivelyfor peaceful purposes.” It would be constructed under the direction of Israeli experts and would not be completed for three or four years. When finished, it would be “open” to trainees from other countries.
Ben Gurion dismissed the report that Israel was building a bomb as a “deliberate or unwitting untruth,” adding that Israel had proposed “general and total disarmament in Israel and the neighboring Arab states” with mutual rights of inspection. In line with the Couve de Murville-Peres agreement, the statement made no mention of France as the reactor designer, stating only that the reactor was being constructed under Israeli direction. By that time, of course, the French government was no longer involved.
As a whole, Ben Gurion’s statement was true; he and others hoped to build a major power station in the Negev and they expected Dimona to be the first step in that direction. And Ben Gurion could readily deny reports that Israel was manufacturing nuclear weapons, which it was certainly not doing in December 1960. But he was careful not to be specific about the future. The claim that the reactor “was designed exclusively for peaceful purposes” was, from Ben Gurion’s perspective, a true statement. As he put the matter in a letter to President Kennedy 18 months later, “We have to secure our peace through strength.”(23) The purpose of a nuclear option was to avoid war.
Still, Ben Gurion did not tell the whole truth. He was persuaded that Israel must have a nuclear option. But for now, his goal was to allay American suspicions and political pressures. A confrontation with the United States might have left Israel with no nuclear project and a ruined relationship with the United States.
The strategy seemed to work. The U.S. State Department issued a statement that “the government of Israel has given assurances that its new reactor … is dedicated entirely to peaceful purposes,” adding that “itis gratifying to note that as made public the Israeli atomic energy program does not represent a cause for concern.”(24)
Whether the State Department read Ben Gurion’s assurances as going beyond what he actually said–after all, he gave no future pledge of any kind–it was certainly convenient to read them that way.(25) Indeed, the Israeli statement created an American expectation “that Israel will make its reactor accessible to the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” even though Ben Gurion had neither said nor hinted anything of the kind. But Israel’s assurances gave both sides what they wanted.
The Eisenhower administration, which had only months before celebrated the opening of Israel’s first research reactor at Nachal Soreq supplied by the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, had been left in the dark, and it was determined to receive further clarification and concrete commitments. Ben Gurion had left many issues unresolved, but from now on the U.S. government would seek answers in a less public fashion.
On December 24, Ogden Reid, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, met with Ben Gurion at the prime minister’s home in Tel Aviv. Reid, now a busines consultant in New York, recalls that he first gave Ben Gurion a Christmas card from President Eisenhower–a card for which he “expressed real appreciation.” Reid then got down to business, conveying the administration’ s concern with the possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
Ben Gurion was “direct and spirited, as always,” recalls Reid,but “friendly.” At one point, however, he expressed “mild irritation” in reference to the continuing flap over Israel’s reactor. “Why in the States,” Reid recalls Ben Gurion asking, “is everything being told everybody?”
On January 4, Reid again met with Ben Gurion and presented him with five questions that the United States would like to have answered.(26) At this point, the historical record gets muddled.
Ben Gurion’s biographer, Bar Zohar, suggests that the questions were presented as an ultimatum–that Reid asked that the questions be answered by midnight.(27) Reid, however, says Bar Zohar got it dead wrong. There was no ultimatum–“sovereign states don’t act that way.”The questions were in fact designed to elicit “clarifications,” saysReid:
What were Israel’s present plans for disposing of the plutonium that would be bred in the reactor? Will Israel agree to adequate safeguards? Will Israel permit qualified scientists from the IAEA or other friendly quarters to visit the reactor–and, if so, when? Is a third reactor in either the construction or planning stage? Can Israel state categorically that it has no plans for producing nuclear weapons?
Reid says Ben Gurion commented on the questions at the January 4 meeting, and there was no later meeting to discuss the answers to the questions. Reid’s cable back to Washington describing Ben Gurion’s “comments” is still classified.
In contrast, Bar Zohar asserts that the prime minister was “infuriated by this disrepectful demand” and that he did not answer immediately. Rather, he later summoned Reid to his residence at Sde Boker in the Negev, lectured him–“You must talk to us as equals, or not talk to us at all”–and then responded to the questions one by one. According to Bar Zohar:
“As to the first question, he replied: ‘As far as we know, thosewho sell uranium do so on condition that the plutonium reverts to them.’ In reply to the second question, concerning ‘guarantees,’ the Old Man replied: ‘International guarantees–no. We don’t want hostile states meddling in our business.’ At the same time he expressed complete willingness to permit visits by scientists from a friendly state, or from an international organization, but not immediately. ‘There is anger in Israel over the American action in leaking this matter, ‘ he said, and expressed his view that the visit would be conducted in the course of the year. He answered in the negative about the construction of an additional reactor and concluded by declaring that Israel did not intend to manufacture nuclear weapons ‘All that I said in the Knesset holds; it was said explicitly, and you must accept it at face value.'”(28)
The exchange between the departing Eisenhower administration and the Israeli government on the nuclear issue did not end with Ben Gurion’ s replies. On January 11, after consulting in Jerusalem, Ambassador Harman met Secretary of State Herter for four hours, primarily to discuss Israel’s nuclear energy program. The January 13 issue of Ha’ aretz reported that the discussion focused on the question of international control over the new reactor and the question of the ownership of the fissile material that it would produce.
A “secret” State Department report to the Joint Committee onAtomic Energy, dated January 17, detailed U.S. understandings about Dimona.(29) Perhaps the most important aspect of this document is that it suggests that the U.S. government took Ben Gurion’s private and public statements as a solemn pledge not to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Article 6 of the report attributes Israeli secrecy to “fears ofparticipating foreign companies over the prospects of [an] Arab boycott.” The document also includes three assertions that go beyond Ben Gurion’s public statement:
“There is no plutonium now in Israel and plutonium from the reactor will, as a condition attached to purchases of uranium abroad, return to the supplying country….
“In addition to the reactor the complex will include a hot laboratory, cold laboratory, waste disposal plant, a facility for rods, offices including a library unit and a medical unit….
“The reactor and ancillary facilities are expected to cost $34 million, of which $17.8 million would be foreign exchange. The reactor itself is expected to cost $15.4 million, of which $10 million would be foreign exchange.”
Ben Gurion’s month-long dealings with the departing Eisenhower administration set the basic parameters under which he would steer his beloved project between resolve and caution. As I interpret it, Ben Gurion’s first priority at this point was to complete the physical infrastructure needed for a weapons option. All else–matters of ultimate policy, doctrine, and posture–could wait.
Meanwhile, he had not compromised the basics of the project. For example, he evaded the sensitive question of the ownership of the plutonium, giving a vague and unverifiable pledge. He also rejected outright the notion of formal international inspections, whether by the IAEA or any other body. To avoid an allout confrontation, he was ready to accept a visit by scientists from the United States or other friendly states, although he made it clear that time was needed to prepare for a visit and that it would be carried out under Israeli control.
There events set the stage, in form and in substance, for the nuclear dialogue between Ben Gurion and Kennedy. This dialogue, which again threatened confrontation, consisted of secret communications between the two governments, at times through high-level emissaries, but often in private communications between the two states’ chief executives.
Face-to-face in New York
John Fitzgerald Kennedy had a great intellectual and emotional commitment to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, and he expressed his personal sense of urgency regarding proliferation both in public and private. In February 1960, France had become the fourth member of the nuclear club, and the question Kennedy faced was who would be next. In one of his most memorable speeches, Kennedy described his nuclear nightmare:
“Personally I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless weare successful, there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, 15 to 20…. I see the possibility in the 1970s of the president of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 25 nations may have these weapons. I regard this as the greatest possible danger and hazard.”(30)
His personal commitment is apparent in the way he dealt with the Israeli nuclear issue after he assumed office on January 20, 1961. Only ten days later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave the president a secret two-page memo on Israel’s atomic activities, which noted the “categoric assurances” obtained from Ben Gurion “that Israel does not haveplans for developing atomic weaponry.”(31) As to U.S. interests in the Israeli case, the memo defined them as opposition to proliferation in general and a particular concern that, in response to Israeli weapons, the Soviets might station nuclear weapons on Arab soil.
The memo indicated that French and Israeli assurances “appear tobe satisfactory … [although] several minor questions still require clarification.” These “minor questions” apparently concernedinspections at Dimona and ownership of plutonium, issues that had already been raised in Ben Gurion’s discussion with Ambassador Reid. The memo added, “At the moment, we are encouraging the Israelis to permit a qualified scientist from the United States or another friendly power to visit the Dimona installation.”
In Israel, the “Lavon affair” continued to unravel. That domestic scandal stemmed from a failed covert operation in Egypt in July 1954. Pinhas Lavon, who had replaced Ben Gurion in 1954 as minister of defense, blamed military intelligence for acting without his knowledge and approval. In 1960 he forcefully demanded an exoneration from Ben Gurion, and the issue plunged Mapai, the ruling party, into a massive power struggle. Those who rallied behind Lavon also opposed the “Young Mapai” leaders, in particular Peres and Moshe Dayan; it was also Peres and Dayan who were behind the secret atomic projects. Domestic politics and the nuclear issue were thus entangled. Under those circumstances, a direct confrontation with the United States could have wiped out the tenuous support for the nuclear program within the party. By late December, Ben Gurion had already decided to resign and to force his party to choose between him and Lavon, but he postponed his resignation because of Dimona, fearing that his colleagues might cave in to U.S. pressure on Dimona in his absence.(32)
By January 31 Ben Gurion had submitted his resignation, and a few days later Lavon was removed from his post. Ben Gurion continued to serve as interim prime minister, awaiting the new election in August. But the nuclear dispute with the United States was neither resolved nor defused. Kennedy had a “personal interest in the subject of Israel’ s atomic nuclear activities”; he was determined to do his best to halt nuclear proliferation, in the Middle East and elsewhere.(33)
Israel’s verbal assurances were welcome, but they were not sufficient. The new administration insisted that Ben Gurion’s statements must be verified by an early inspection at Dimona. Neither government wanted to dramatize the conflict over “the sensitive issue”–the codename the Israeli press adopted for Dimona–but as long as it remained unresolved it threatened the unique U.S.-Israeli relationship. When the Kennedy administration learned that Israel was interested in the Mirage IV, a French nuclear-capable bomber, its suspicions were further aroused.(34)
At this point, the project’s political opponents intensified their objections to the nuclear project.(35) Given this situation, it would have been virtually impossible to sustain the nuclear project against the full and open opposition of the U.S. government. From Ben Gurion’ s perspective, a confrontation had to be avoided at all costs.
In late March Ben Gurion decided to arrange a meeting with Kennedy. After conquering scheduling problems–including the State Department’ s opposition to an official visit–the two leaders agreed to meet privately at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The meeting was set for May 30, at the end of an official Ben Gurion visit to Canada.
To smooth the way for the meeting, Israel extended a special invitation to two distinguished American physicists–I.I. Rabi of Columbia University and Eugene Wigner of Princeton (who just happened to be in Israel when he got the “spontaneous” invitation). Both were Jews witha close relationship to the Israeli scientific establishment.
Rabi and Wigner visited Dimona in late April or early May, escorted by Amos de Shalit, one of Israel’s most respected–and charming–physicists. The visitors proved to be friendly indeed; they reported no evidence of weapon-related activity.(36) In early May, Rusk gave Kennedy the visitors’ report.
Kennedy had wanted to portray his informal meeting with Ben Gurion as a “spontaneous idea.” When plans for the meeting leaked out,it was characterized as an informal encounter made possible by “the coincidence of their presence in New York”–an explanation that was as far from the truth as one could get.(37) The meeting was, after all, the real purpose behind Ben Gurion’s trip to North America. According to his biographer, the Israeli prime minister was “very tense, fearing that Kennedy’s stiff position on the matter of the reactor would severely jeopardize the relationship.”(38)
This was the second time that the 74-year-old Ben Gurion had met with Kennedy, his junior by 30 years. Of their first meeting a year earlier, Ben Gurion said, “He looked to me like a 25-year-old boy…. At first, I did not take him seriously.”
Although Ben Gurion had anticipated it with great anxiety, the meeting was anticlimactic. It was friendly, at times even chatty. What set the relaxed and amicable tone was the “good report” that Kennedyhad received from Rusk just a few weeks earlier regarding the Rabi-Wigner visit. The following account of their exchange is based on official declassified U.S. and Israeli transcripts:(39)
After a brief exchange of amenities, the two leaders “plunged into a discussion of Israel’s nuclear reactor.” Ben Gurion began by saying that he had intended to brief the president, but this was redundant since the U.S. scientists had already visited the site. Kennedy responded that he had seen the report and that it was “very helpful.” Headded that on the same theory that “a woman should not only be virtuous, but should appear to be virtuous,” it was important not only that Israel’s purposes were peaceful, but that other nations were convinced that this was the case.
In response, Ben Gurion explained Israel’s interest in nuclear energy: Israel lacked fresh water, and development was possible only if a cheap source of energy could be found to allow the desalinization of sea water. Israel believed that atomic power, although still expensive, would one day be a source of cheap energy.
After outlining Israel’s long-term plan for desalinization, Ben Gurion went on to discuss the present. Since his comments are at the heart of the matter, it is worthwhile to record them as they appear in both transcripts. The text of the Israeli note-taker (Ambassador Harman):
“We are asked whether it is for peace. For the time being the only purposes are for peace. Not now but after three or four years we shall have a pilot plant for separation, which is needed anyway for a power reactor. There is no such intention now, not for four or five years. But we will see what happens in the Middle East. It does not depend on us. Maybe Russia won’t give bombs to China or Egypt, but maybe Egypt will develop them.”
The American note-taker (Myer Feldman, Kennedy’s special adviser on Israel) wrote:
“Israel’s main–and for the time being, only–purpose is this (cheap energy, etc.), the prime minister said, adding that ‘We do not know what will happen in the future; in three or four years we might have a need for a plant to process plutonium.’ Commenting on the political and strategic implications of atomic power and weaponry, the prime minister said he does believe that ‘in ten or 15 years the Egyptians presumably could achieve it themselves.'”
Kennedy responded by returning to his earlier point. While he appreciated Israel’s desalinization needs, it was important for the United States that it not appear “that Israel is preparing for atomic weapons,” especially given the close relationship between the United States and Israel, because then the UAR (Egypt) would try to do the same. “Perhaps in the next five years atomic weapons will proliferate, but we don’t want it to happen.”
At this point, the two versions differ slightly. According to the Israeli text, Kennedy said, “The report … is a fine report and it would be helpful if we could get this information out.” The American summary is more explicit: “The president then asked again whether, as a matter of reassurance, the Arab states might be advised of findings of the American scientists who had viewed the Dimona reactor.”
In any case, Kennedy asked Ben Gurion to let him share the scientists’ findings, and both versions confirm that Ben Gurion gave Kennedy a free hand to do whatever he saw fit with the report. Kennedy then pushed the point one step further, asking, “because we [the United States and Israel] are close friends,” whether it would not be helpful to let “neutral scientists” such as Scandinavians or Swiss observe the reactor. To this, too, Ben Gurion had no objection, and Kennedy expressed his satisfaction with the reply. With this sense of mutual understanding, the nuclear issue was dropped and the conversation shifted to the general issue of Israel’s security.
In his meeting with Kennedy, Ben Gurion had followed the same circumspect path he had taken in his first statement to the Knesset in December 1960. He desperately wanted to buy time for Dimona’s completion while avoiding either a confrontation or an outright lie, and without making impossible commitments with regard to the future. It was a juggler’ s act, and he knew it. His tension before the meeting highlights the point. He must have decided that it was too risky to admit Israel’ s interest in nuclear weapons–and the reactions of both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations suggest he was correct.
Ben Gurion hid the real and immediate purpose of Dimona behind a civilian, peaceful, and legitimate rationale–the need for cheap power, especially for desalinization. This explanation was not without foundation. On the enthusiastic advice of Bergmann, his scientific adviser, Ben Gurion was fully convinced that nuclear energy would be the key to the Zionist vision of a blooming Negev. Faith in nuclear energy was a familiar Ben Gurion theme, and Bergmann often argued that there was only one type of nuclear energy, which could be used for peaceful and non-peaceful purposes.
Although Ben Gurion clearly overplayed Israel’s interest in civil nuclear energy, at no time during the meeting did he explicitly exclude a possible future interest in nuclear weapons. Both records of the conversation clearly indicate that Ben Gurion pledged virtually nothing binding; his choice of wording was deliberately ambiguous. And he deliberately introduced an element of tentativeness, even ambiguity, to balance his stress on peaceful purposes. Nor did he hide Israel’ s intention to build “a pilot plant for [plutonium] separation”in four or five years. Notably, Kennedy made no comment on the matter.
In fact, Kennedy asked very little of Ben Gurion. Not only did he fail to ask about the separation plant, he did not bring up the question of the ownership of the plutonium that might be produced there. Apart from stressing the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation in general, and concern about Egypt in particular, Kennedy asked only to make the results of the scientists’ visit known to other nations–meaning the Arabs–to which Ben Gurion gave full approval. Even Kennedy’s request to let scientists from a neutural state visit Dimona was raised generally, not as an urgent matter.
The reason for the tenor of the meeting, I think, is that both leaders wanted to avoid confrontation–and each had a sense of his own political limits. Based on these understandings, the two leaders created the rules of the game on the nuclear issue as they stumbled along. Kennedy raised no questions that went beyond what Ben Gurion told him on his own. For example, Kennedy did not question Israel’s need for two research reactors–a small American reactor and a larger one of French design that could produce significant amounts of plutonium. Nor did Kennedy ask why Israel needed a plutonium separation plant or why Israel would invest so much of its financial resources in a large research reactor that was ostensibly only an interim step in building a nuclear power plant, or why the Franco-Israeli deal had been kept secret–all issues that had led to the confrontation in December and January.
Nor did Kennedy try to extract a promise that Israel would not develop a nuclear capability in the future. Instead, Kennedy limited himself to making the U.S. position on nonproliferation clear and pointing out the need to assure others of Israel’s peaceful intentions.
In turn, Ben Gurion respected Kennedy’s political needs. He did not question U.S. nonproliferation policy as applied to Israel. Later in the conversation, Ben Gurion expressed at length his long-term worries about Israeli security and the geopolitical vulnerability of the tiny Jewish state, but he made no explicit effort to use those issues to legitimize Israel’s interest in acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent. Only a year earlier France had gone nuclear; no nonproliferation norm existed. But Ben Gurion did not try to convince Kennedy that Israel was politically or morally justified in pursuing the nuclear option.
What created the positive atmosphere was, of course, the U.S. scientists’ report. Because it is still not available, we do not really know what the two physicists saw or were told by their Israeli escorts. With due respect to Rabi’s qualifications as a physicist, it should be noted that he was not an expert in nuclear reactor design. Wigner, however, had worked in this field during the Manhattan Project. But the Dimona site was still under construction, and the visitors were escorted by one of Israel’s most enlightened and charming physicists. Many years later, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, said that U.S. visits to Dimona in the 1960s “were not as seriously and rigorously conducted as they would have had to be to get the real story.”(40)
Although the nuclear issue was the reason for the New York meeting and the cause of Ben Gurion’s apprehensions, it took no more than ten to 15 minutes. Kennedy exerted no new pressures, and Ben Gurion had no need to use the arguments he had prepared. As his biographer wrote, “Ben Gurion felt relieved. The reactor was saved, at least for the time being.”(41)
In retrospect, the meeting at the Waldorf Astoria anticipated much of the future by setting, however unintentionally, the parameters by which both nations conducted their dealings on “the sensitive issue.” The meeting allowed the issue of Dimona to drop from the U.S.-Israeli agenda for almost two years, while other issues–such as refugees and water–became central. But Dimona resurfaced again in May and June 1963, in part because it was about to become operational and in part because Ben Gurion had pressed the United States for security assurances. In turn, Kennedy spoke of his concern about the weapons potential of Dimona.
In correspondence that brought U.S.-Israeli relations to the brink of crisis and which may have contributed to Ben Gurion’s resignation in mid-June at 76 years of age, the new prime minister, Levi Eshkol, eventually found a formula that satisfied both parties. Israel would allow one U.S. inspection per year, as Ben Gurion had previously proposed, and it would pledge not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.
The mid-1963 agreement notwithstanding, the subsequent tacit understandings were fateful. The legacy of the 1961 Kennedy-Ben Gurion meeting was lasting. As both leaders tested each other’s political wills–in 1961 and again in 1963–the rules of a subtle game evolved. Unknowingly, President Kennedy became Ben Gurion’s chief partner in the making of Israel’s unique nuclear posture. The seeds of Israeli nuclear opacity and the American response had been planted.
(1.)Michael Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion (Tel Aviv: Zmora Bitan, 1987), p. 1365.
(2.)David Ben Gurion letter to John F. Kennedy, June 24, 1962. John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files; Israel, Box 118.
(3.)Pierre Pean, Les Deux Bombes (Paris: Fayard, 1991), pp. 83–84.
(5.)Matti Golan, Peres (Tel Aviv: Schoken, 1982), p. 100.
(6.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1380.
(7.)Ibid., pp. 1383–84; cf. Golan, p. 102.
(8.)Matti Golan, Peres, p. 102.
(9.)Ibid.; Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, pp. 1388–89.
(10.)Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971).
(11.)Golan, Peres, p. 102; Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, pp. 1388–89.
(12.)Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 52–58.
(13.)Memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 30, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library, POF; Israel, Box 119a (declassified March 13, 1991).
(14.)U.S. State Department, Embtel G76-766 (Paris), Nov. 22, 1960, Houghton to Secretary of State. National Security Archives, collection on proliferation, Washington, D.C.
(15.)U.S. State Department, Embtel (Tel Aviv) 486, Dec. 3, 1960, Reid to Secretary of State. National Security Archives, collection on proliferation, Washington, D.C.
(16.)Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Vol. XIII (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 391.
(17.)”Summary of Additional Recent Information on Israeli AtomicEnergy Program,” enclosed in a letter from Assistant Secretary of State William S. Macomber to James T. Ramey, Executive Director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, U.S. Congress, Jan. 19, 1961. National Security Archives (released in 1991 pursuant to Freedom of Information Act request).
(18.)”Memorandum of Conference with the President, December 19,1960, ” signed by Gen. A.J. Goodpaster, January 12, 1926. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, International File, Box: Israel (3).
(19.)”Israel Denies Reports,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 1960.
(20.)”Peaceful Aims Affirmed,” New York Times, Dec. 20, 1960.
(21.)Dana Adams Schmidt, “Israel Assured U.S. on Reactors,”New York Times, Dec. 22, 1960.
(22.)An English translation of Ben Gurion’s statement to the Knesset appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Dec. 22, 1960. For a summary, see: “Ben Gurion Explains Project,” New York Times, Dec. 22, 1960.
(23.)David Ben Gurion letter to John F. Kennedy, June 24, 1962. John F. Kennedy Library, POF; Israel, Box 119a (declassified March 3, 1991).
(24.)Alvin Schuster, “Israel Satisfied U.S. on News of Reactor,”New York Times, Dec. 23, 1960.
(25.)See, for example, William L. Laurence, “Israel’s Reactor,”New York Times, Dec. 23, 1960.
(26.)Embtel 502 (Tel Aviv), The Acting Secretary to Reid, 12/31/60, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, International File, Box 8, Israel.
(27.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1391.
(28.)Ibid., p. 1392.
(29.)”Israel’s Atomic Energy Activities,” memorandum, fromSecretary of State Dean Rusk to John F. Kennedy, Jan. 30, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library, POF, Box 119a. (Partially declassified March 13, 1991.)
(30.)Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), p. 280.
(31.)”Israel’s Atomic Energy Activities.”
(32.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, pp. 1392, 1506, 1508.
(33.)”Memorandum to the Secretary of State on the Israeli Reactor Prepared by the State Department and Recommended to be Signed by the Secretary,” G. Lewis to Dean Rusk, March 1, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library, POF; Israel, Box 119a.
(34.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1393.
(36.)Hersh, Samson Option, p. 101; Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, 1393; interview with Myer Feldman (Deputy Counsel to President Kennedy), June 10, 1992.
(37.)”Memorandum for Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Subject: Press Interestin Ben Gurion Visit,” L.D. Battle to McGeorge Bundy, May 22, 1961, John F. Kennedy Library, National Security File; Israel, Box 119.
(38.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1393.
(39.)Israeli transcript: “Appendix: The Atomic Reactor.” Israel State
(40.)McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 510.
(41.)Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1393.
Adapted from a longer manuscript titled “Stumbling Into Opacity:The Untold Ben Gurion-Kennedy Dimona Exchange (1961–1963).” Avner Cohen is co-director of the Nuclear Arms Control in the Middle East Project and a fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.