Surprise, surprise – another knife in the back from our ‘closest ally in the Middle East."
In July 1969,
while the world was spellbound by the Apollo 11 mission to the moon,
President Richard M. Nixon and his close advisers were quietly fretting
about a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Their main worry was not a potential enemy of the United States, but one of America’s closest friends.
“The Israelis, who are one of the few peoples whose survival is genuinely threatened, are probably more likely than almost any other country to actually use their nuclear weapons,” Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, warned President Nixon in a memorandum dated July 19, 1969.
Israel’s nuclear arms program was believed to have begun at least
several years before, but it was causing special fallout for the young
Nixon administration. For one thing, President Nixon was getting ready
for a visit by Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, who was also in her
first year in office and whose toughness was already legendary.
Should Washington insist that Israel rein in its development of
nuclear weapons? What would the United States do if Israel refused?
Perhaps the solution lay in deliberate ambiguity, or simply pretending
that America did not know what Israel was up to. These were some of the
options that Mr. Kissinger laid out for President Nixon on that day
before men first walked on the moon.
The Nixon White House’s concerns over Israel’s weapons were recalled
in documents held by the Nixon Presidential Library that were released
today by the National Archives. They provide insights into America’s
close, but by no means problem-free, relationship with Israel. They also
serve as a reminder that concerns over nuclear arms proliferation in
the Middle East, currently focused on Iran, are decades-old.
The papers also allude to a campaign by friends of W. Mark Felt, who
was then the second-ranking F.B.I. official, to have him succeed J.
Edgar Hoover as director of the bureau in 1972. President Nixon, of
course, did not take the advice, choosing L. Patrick Gray instead, and
Mr. Felt later became the famous anonymous source “Deep Throat,” whose
Watergate-scandal revelations helped to topple the president.
There are also snippets about Washington’s desire to manipulate
relations with Saudi Arabia, so that the Saudis might help to broker a
peace in the Mideast; discussion of possibly supporting a Kurdish uprising in Iraq;
and a 1970 incident in which four Israeli fighters shot down four
Russian Mig-21’s over eastern Egypt, even though the Israelis were
outnumbered two-to-one in the battle.
But perhaps the most interesting material released today, and the
most pertinent given the just-completed Mideast peace conference in
Annapolis, concerns Israel and its relations with its neighbors, as well
as with the United States.
“There is circumstantial evidence that some fissionable
material available for Israel’s weapons development was illegally
obtained from the United States about 1965,” Mr. Kissinger noted in his long memorandum.
One problem with trying to persuade Israel to freeze its nuclear program is that inspections would be useless, Mr. Kissinger said, conceding that “we could never cover all conceivable Israeli hiding places.”
“This is one program on which the Israelis have persistently deceived us,” Mr. Kissinger said, “and may even have stolen from us.”
Israel has never officially acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons,
but scientists and arms experts have almost no doubt that it does. The
United States’s reluctance to press Israel to disarm has made America
vulnerable to accusations that it is a preacher with a double standard
when it comes to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction in
the Middle East.
Mr. Kissinger’s memo, written barely two years after the Six-Day
War and while memories of the Holocaust were still vivid among the first
Israelis, implicitly acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself, as
subsequent American administrations have done.
After President Nixon met Prime Minister Meir at the White House in late September 1969, he said: “The
problems in the Mideast go back centuries. They are not susceptible to
easy solution. We do not expect them to be susceptible to instant