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Sunday, August 09, 2009

How Richard Nixon helped Lyndon Johnson form Israel's 'nuclear ambiguity' policy

A fascinating anecdote from the weekend edition of Haaretz:
In 1948, president Harry Truman recognized Israel over the objections of cabinet secretaries George Marshall and James Forrestal. Twenty years later Clark Clifford, who as Truman's adviser was helpful to Israel, was the secretary of defense who opposed Israeli nukes. So did Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but President Lyndon Johnson eventually overruled them.

The fascinating saga is chronicled at length in previously classified State Department documents. Two officials with the rank of undersecretary, Paul Warnke from the Pentagon and Parker Hart from the State Department, tried to make the sale of 50 Phantom fighter jets contingent upon Israel forgoing nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles. Warnke and Hart enlisted the support of Clifford, Rusk and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, hoping that the lame duck Johnson - who was waiting to see who would triumph in the November 5 election, his vice president Hubert Humphrey or the Republican candidate Richard Nixon - would press Israel to give in and become a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, thus giving Johnson something to leave behind as a positive legacy of his presidency, so badly bloodied by Vietnam.

In the deal, according to the documents, Warnke set down four tough conditions for Israel: It shall not deploy or attempt to deploy strategic missiles without prior warning and American consent, it shall not manufacture or acquire strategic missiles and nuclear weaponry without prior warning and American consent; it must accede to semi-annual inspection (Israel insisted on the term "visits") at certain sites, including Dimona, and it shall supply full information regarding any plan to obtain nuclear capability, and sign and ratify the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Johnson, who promised prime minister Levi Eshkol in principle to sell him the Phantoms, continued to ponder the decision as Eshkol's illness reached the terminal stage (he passed away four months later). Eshkol, said reports from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, is politically weak as well. If he gives in on the nuclear issue, he'll be portrayed as a spineless prime minister not to be trusted on matters of security and will lose the chance to make progress in the indirect (and occasionally also direct) talks with Egypt and Jordan.

After the election, the victor, Nixon, refused to help Johnson compel Israel to join the non-proliferation regime. Israel's Judgment Day weapon, the analysts said, was a guy named Abe Feinberg, a friend of Johnson, who persuaded him to shelve the conditions for the Phantom sale. In fact, two coups were achieved at once: For the first time, Israel would be receiving an advanced American fighter jet (the Skyhawk, the model that preceded the Phantom, was inferior to it), and Coca-Cola, which Feinberg obtained the license to manufacture here. Rabin, at the time Israeli's ambassador to the U.S., led the Israeli team in the talks with Warnke. Also present were Shlomo Argov, his deputy at the embassy in Washington [The attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, then Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1982 would lead directly to the First Lebanon War and Israel's expulsion of the PLO from Beirut. Argov survived the assassination attempt but was in a coma until his death in 2003. CiJ]; Major General Mordechai Hod, the air force commander; and Brigadier General David Carmon, the military attache.

The only surviving Israeli participant from those meetings is Yaakov Shapira, who headed the Defense Ministry delegation in New York. Shapira recalls a serious and positive atmosphere. Rabin, infused with the authority of having been chief of staff during the Six-Day War, was blunt and "brutally" assertive, according to an internal administration report. At the height of one clash, Rabin reportedly stated, "We did not come here to mortgage the sovereignty of the State of Israel."

What, exactly, is nuclear weaponry? How is it "presented" in an arena? When does a missile become strategic? (Rabin: "When its range covers Arab capitals.") The only explicit commitment by Israel, copied from the Skyhawk to the Phantom, was not to use the American jets to carry nuclear weapons.

Israel's representatives honed, by way of negation, their interpretation of nuclear weaponry: a nuclear device already tested and publicized. If these two conditions did not hold, then Israel at least (a stricter approach had to be taken toward a country with the declared intent of destroying Israel) had no nuclear weapons. To this end, Rabin relied on his military expertise, his natural skepticism and his acquaintance with Israeli industry and its political patrons: A weapons system is not deserving of the name unless it has passed testing.

The purpose of nuclear weaponry in the hands of the superpowers, said Rabin, is, as everyone knows, deterrence. Israel, on the other hand, was seeking to achieve deterrence by means of surface-to-surface missiles, in order to dissuade Egypt, which was arming itself with such missiles equipped with explosive, or possibly chemical and biological warheads, from using them against population centers and disrupting the call-up of reserves.
Read the whole thing.


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