How the Israelis Hoodwinked JFK on Going Nuclear

Newly declassified documents reveal how David Ben-Gurion’s mumbles and a trick sightseeing tour helped Israeli officials pull the wool over Washington’s eyes on the real purpose of the Dimona reactor.

President John F. Kennedy and Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion get together for a talk at the Waldorf Towers. (Photo By: Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
President John F. Kennedy and Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion get together for a talk at the Waldorf Towers. (Photo By: Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

In October 1961, the CIA issued a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Israel, the first since the discovery of the Dimona reactor less than a year earlier, in which the CIA’s analysts assessed broadly the rationale and character of the Israeli nuclear program. For nearly 55 years it was kept secret, until it was quietly declassified in its entirety last year. It sheds light on what the U.S. intelligence community thought about the Israeli nuclear project in the first year of the Kennedy administration, while the Dimona reactor was still under construction. The CIA judgment was straightforward and unequivocal: Israel was placing itself in a position to “produce sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for one or two crude weapons a year by 1965-66, provided separation facilities with a capacity larger than that of the pilot plant now under construction are available.” At a minimum, U.S. intelligence knew that the Dimona project was about weapons capability, not about energy, electricity, or development — as the Israelis had tried to spin the ongoing project.

The declassified NIE also sheds light, by implication, on what American decision-makers, including President John F. Kennedy, must have thought about what Israeli leaders and top Israeli government officials had told them about the Dimona project. For example, this NIE makes apparent that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion lied to, or at least misled, Kennedy during a private conversation with him just three months earlier. It also reveals that what top Israeli officials at Dimona had told visiting U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) scientists must have been false. Simply put, the CIA knew, or at least believed, that Israel was not telling the U.S. government the truth about Dimona — that the nuclear reactor was intended to develop a weapons capability.

This NIE, as well as other related documents, many of them never seen by scholars, from the first two years of the Kennedy administration, were published on April 21 by the National Security Archive, in collaboration with the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The collection highlights both the complexity and the gravity of the Israeli nuclear program for Kennedy and his administration.

The declassified record reveals that more than any other U.S. president, Kennedy was more personally engaged with Israel’s nuclear program and more concerned about it than any of his successors. Israel was the first case of nuclear proliferation that he had to deal with as a president. And nuclear proliferation was JFK’s “private nightmare,” as Glenn Seaborg, his Atomic Energy Commission chairman, once noted. And more than any other country, Israel was the one that impressed upon Kennedy the complexity and difficulty of the problem of nuclear proliferation.

Worried that a nuclear-armed Israel would destabilize the Middle East, Kennedy wanted to bring his concerns directly to Ben-Gurion. The two leaders met to discuss the nuclear issue at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on May 30, 1961. The meeting was possible thanks to a reassuring report about the first American visit at Dimona, by AEC scientists, 10 days earlier.

The documentation about the Waldorf Astoria meeting is interesting because it includes both the U.S. and Israeli official memoranda of conversations as well as a U.S. draft memorandum, which was previously unknown. Each has interesting differences. The U.S. official memorandum of the conversation, declassified and published in the 1990s, was prepared by Philips Talbot, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (and approved — possibly corrected — by White House Deputy Special Counsel Mike Feldman). The Israeli minutes, prepared by Ambassador Avraham Harman, were also declassified in the 1990s and historians have made extensive use of them.

In the Waldorf Astoria meeting, Ben-Gurion provided Kennedy with a rationale and narrative of the Dimona project that was very similar to what the Israeli hosts provided to the AEC visitors to Dimona (albeit non-technical and more political): Namely, that the Dimona project was peaceful in nature; it was about energy and development. However, unlike during the Dimona visit, Ben-Gurion’s narrative and rationale left a little wiggle room for a future reversal. The Israeli transcript makes Ben-Gurion’s caveat pronounced: “For the time being, the only purposes are for peace. … But we will see what will happen in the Middle East. It does not depend on us.” The American transcript, by way of rephrasing Ben-Gurion, reveals a similar caveat as well: “‘Our main — and for the time being — only purpose is this [cheap energy, etc.],’” the prime minister said, adding: “‘We do not know what will happen in the future.’ … Furthermore, commenting on the political and strategic implications of atomic power and weaponry, the prime minister said he does believe that ‘in 10 or 15 years the Egyptian presumably could achieve it themselves.’”

In his draft record, Talbot noted (in parenthesis) that during that part of the conversation, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” in a way that “some words were missed.” Nevertheless, Talbot thought he had heard Ben-Gurion referring to a “pilot plant for plutonium separation which is needed for atomic power,” but that might happen “three or four years later” and that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Ben-Gurion was giving himself a lot of wiggle room, if Talbot heard him correctly. The draft was declassified long ago but was buried in obscurity; it needs to be taken into account by scholars.

Days after the meeting, Talbot sat with Feldman at the White House to “check fine points” about “sidelines of interest.” A key issue was plutonium, about which Ben-Gurion “mumbled quickly in a low voice.” Ben-Gurion was understood to say something to the effect that the issue of plutonium would not arise until the Dimona installation would be complete in 1964 or so, and that only then would Israel decide what to do about the processing of plutonium. But that appeared to be incompatible with what Ben-Gurion had said to then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ogden Reid in January 1961, namely, that the spent fuel would return to the country that had provided the reactor uranium in the first place — France. But the U.S.-Israeli affairs desk officer, William R. Crawford, who looked further into the record, suggested that what Ben-Gurion had said to Reid was even more equivocal and evasive. Upon close examination, Ben-Gurion might have meant to hint that Israel was preserving Israel’s freedom of action to produce plutonium for its own purposes. Kennedy may not have picked up this point, but then again he, like Talbot, may not have been sure exactly what Ben-Gurion had said.

The Ben-Gurion-Kennedy nuclear summit helped clear the air a bit, but the wary view embodied in the NIE shaped U.S. perceptions of the Dimona project. The Kennedy administration held to its conviction that it was necessary to monitor Dimona, not only to resolve American concerns about nuclear proliferation but also to calm regional anxieties about an Israeli nuclear threat. By mid-1962 the Kennedy administration believed that a second visit by U.S. scientists was necessary and, toward that end, started to put diplomatic pressure on Israel.

On Sept. 26, 1962, after “repeated requests over several months,” a second U.S. visit to Dimona finally took place. Until recently, little was publicly known about that visit except that then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Walworth Barbour referred to it as “unduly restricted to no more than 45 minutes.” According to professor Yuval Ne’eman, at the time the scientific director of the Soreq nuclear research center and the host of the American AEC visitors, this short, deceptive visit was a deliberate “trick” he devised and executed to reduce U.S. pressure.

Ne’eman told us a great deal about this 1962 visit years ago, but asked not to cite it while he was alive. Now, exactly 10 years after his death on April 26, 2006, with the declassification of U.S. documents, it is time to tell his story. According to Ne’eman, as the host of the two AEC scientists who had arrived to inspect the Soreq reactor (under the terms of Atoms for Peace program) he arranged to take them for a tour of the Dead Sea. This sightseeing, however, was a well-planned pretext to bring them to Dimona — on Israeli terms. So, on their way back to Tel Aviv, as they were passing near the Dimona reactor, Ne’eman “spontaneously” suggested to arrange a quick visit at Dimona to say hello to the director. The purpose was, of course, to have a much shorter, more informal, visit than the U.S. government had been pressing for. In doing so, Israel planned to convince the visitors that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor. And, of course, when the United States continued to press for a visit at Dimona, Ne’eman’s plan was to tell them, “But you’ve already been there.”

A declassified document in the U.S. archives corroborates Ne’eman’s account of the second visit. According to a memorandum written in late 1962 by Rodger Davies, deputy director of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the whole visit had been improvised. The two AEC scientists, Thomas Haycock and Ulysses Staebler, were officially in Israel to inspect the U.S.-supplied “Atoms for Peace” reactor at Soreq. But on their way back from a tour of the Dead Sea, their Israeli host (the U.S. document does not mention Ne’eman by name) observed that they were passing by the Dimona reactor and he offered to “arrange a call with the director.” It turned out that the director was not there, but the chief engineers gave them a 40-minute tour of the reactor.

Davies later wrote that the visit made the AEC scientists feel a little awkward, “not certain whether they were [there as] guests of their scientist host or on an inspection.” They did not see the complete installation, nor did they enter all the buildings they saw, but they believed that what they saw confirmed that Dimona was a research reactor, not a production reactor; that, from their point of view, made the visit “satisfactory.” The Israelis cunningly offered the AEC the option to come back to the site to complete the visit the next morning, but because that would have forced a four-day layover Haycock and Staebler declined the invitation.

Davies wrote Talbot that the unconventional nature of the visit stirred suspicion within the relevant intelligence offices in Washington. At least one interagency meeting convened to discuss the visit’s intelligence value. The CIA’s “director of Intelligence,” probably a reference to Deputy Director of Intelligence Ray Cline, was cited to say that while “the immediate objectives of the visit may have been satisfied, certain basic intelligence requirements were not.” It was also observed that “there were certain inconsistencies between the first and second inspection reports insofar as the usages attributed to some equipment were concerned.” According to Davies, the fact that the inspectors were invited to visit again the next day seemed to indicate that “there was no deliberate ‘hanky-panky’ involved on the part of the Israeli,” but the fact that such a return visit would have caused a major delay in the team’s departure made the Israeli offer impractical and perhaps disingenuous.

Whatever the doubts about the intelligence value, the State Department used the visits’ conclusions to assure interested governments that Dimona was peaceful. A few weeks after the visit, as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, the State Department began to quietly inform selected governments about its positive results. U.S. diplomats told Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, during a briefing on the Cuban situation, that the recent visit confirmed Israeli statements about the reactor. The British and Canadians were also told similar things about the “recent brief visit” to Dimona, without explaining what had made it so short.

The ambiguities of the second visit and the knowledge that the Dimona reactor would be an operating reactor in 1963-1964 guaranteed that the issue and the need for thorough inspections would remain on the Kennedy administration’s agenda. For Kennedy, U.S. relations with Israel could be in jeopardy if an acceptable solution to the Dimona problem was not reached. The next stage of the drama — indeed, the most intense part of it — would come in 1963, when Kennedy sent ultimatums to Israel and diplomatic conflict turned into a secret showdown. However, his first two years in office demonstrated that his determination to prevent an Israeli nuclear weapons program was central to his efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Photo credit: WALTER KELLEHER/NY Daily News via Getty Images


Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a global fellow with the Wilson Center. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain With the Bomb. Twitter: @avnercohen123

William Burr is the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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