Nixon-Era Memo Shows U.S. Respected Israel on Nukes

Declassified memo from 1969 shows Israel said ‘no’ to U.S. on developing A-bomb, U.S. considered pressure but also respected Israeli resolve.

Contact Editor
Gil Ronen,

Golda Meir
Golda Meir
Israel news photo (file)

Newly declassified official documents from the Nixon White House show that Israel made its decision on developing nuclear weapons in defiance of what the U.S wanted. The documents appear to show that although displeased with Israel’s position, the U.S. respected the Jewish state’s resolve and hesitated to apply severe pressure on it.

Declassified memo.
The Nixon Library

An undated National Security Council memo apparently written in the spring of 1969 and bearing the heading “Israel” says:

Israel has not signed the NPT [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in June 1968 – ed.], even though all Arab countries except Algeria and Saudi Arabia have now signed. Officially the GOI [Government of Israel – ed.] position is that it has not yet reached a decision one way or the other on signature and that it is studying the full implications of this step.

Behind this official position Israel is actively working to improve its capability to produce nuclear weapons at short notice. In the absence of progress toward a peace settlement, Israel’s leaders have probably decided Israel cannot afford to surrender the nuclear option. Until the Arabs show a disposition to negotiate with Israel, the GOI reasons that there may be advantages in not signing the NPT – it keeps the Arabs guessing as to Israel’s deterrent power, and it could provide bargaining power in the context of a settlement.

The memo explains that Israel’s development of a nuclear weapon would be detrimental to U.S. policy in the Middle East and the entire world:

The importance to the U.S. of Israeli adherence to the NPT lies not only in the very great effect of its adherence on the prospects for the general success of the Treaty, but also because, unlike other hold-outs, we believe Israel is actively working to give itself the capability to build a bomb. The longer Israel delays a decision on the NPT, the more momentum its weapons program is likely to acquire, and the more difficult it will be for the GOI to give it up. Should it become generally accepted that Israel possessed nuclear weapons (even if Israel has not conducted a test), it would reduce even further the prospects of a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem, and it could well cause so many hold-outs to the treaty throughout the world as to seriously vitiate the effectiveness of the Treaty.

However, the top U.S. intelligence body was apparently aware that Israel was no pushover on this matter. While hinting that the U.S. could apply severe pressure on Israel by threatening to hurt its security, it also warned of the consequences of such a move:

Because Israel views its nuclear option, and thus its position on the NPT, an integral part of its national security, its decision on the NPT will not be easily influenced by outside suasion or pressure. If the U.S. decides that Israeli adherence to the NPT is of major importance to its policy objectives, we must be prepared to make this a crunch issue with Israel and to make it clear that if Israel elects to go to the nuclear route it would cause a fundamental change in the US-Israeli relationship, including our long-standing concern for Israel’s security. To make the Israelis believe in our determination, we would have to show that we are prepared to have the issue become public and to defend our position in the face of domestic pressures. Short of using U.S. influence on this scale, it will be futile, and probably counter-productive, for the U.S. to resort to half-way measures, such as attempting to use Israeli requests for conventional weapons as leverage on this issue.

The NSC also suggested a middle-of-the-road option that involved lesser pressure on Israel:

If the U.S. decides it does not wish to employ pressure on this scale, there are perhaps some actions in the realm of low-key suasion that could have a marginal (but not decisive) effect on Israel’s attitude toward the NPT. Through diplomatic approaches, we could try to sell the Israelis on the idea of signing the Treaty in the immediate future but withholding ratification until Israel’s security concerns are more fully assured.

The NSC recommended that the Nixon administration hold “continuing high-level review… as to the importance the U.S. attaches to the Israeli adherence to the NPT, and the measures we are prepared to take to achieve this objective.

Another newly declassified document made available by the Nixon Library is a letter from then-Prime Minister Golda Meir to then-President Richard Nixon on December 1, 1970, in which she says that Israel accepts a U.S. peace plan but rejects specific proposals made by Secretary of State William Rogers in 1969.

"To turn to the territorial question, I feel it necessary to reiterate what I had occasion to tell you personally in September 1970, that we cannot accept the proposals made by Secretary Rogers in October-December 1969,” Meir wrote Nixon. “The Government of Israel thinks it imperative that it should be completely free to negotiate without relation to those proposals. By this I mean that the Arabs and the Soviets should not be able to exploit those proposals as a means of pressure on us."

Taken together, the documents give a behind the scenes look at U.S. pressure on Israel and Israel’s response to it, on the same matters which the two countries disagree about today: nuclear weapons and territory. Arguably, they could be taken as showing that the U.S. has, for the past 40 years, considered applying severe pressure on Israel but in the end opted not to, while Israel has given in to some U.S. demands but stood its ground where its most vital interests were concerned.