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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Observations on Israeli Nuclear Concerns and Other Regional Issues

(March 5, 1965)

The United States Government is looking at Israeli nuclear and rocket developments, water and other issues.

Memorandum From the Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs (Davies) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Talbot)1

Washington, March 5, 1965.


Observations of H. Earle Russell During His Recent Trip to Israel Based on Conversations with Embassy Officers

Nuclear Developments

All indications are toward Israeli acquisition of a nuclear capability. There is little realization in Israel of the intensity of U.S. opposition to nuclear proliferation. U.S. hesitation and delays in pressing for the recent inspection of the Dimona reactor plus the failure to insist upon a two-day visit have led the Israelis to believe we are not serious. Some embassy officers believe we may run into difficulty in arranging the next visit.

Israeli officials and public appear firmly to believe that the U.A.R. will have a nuclear capability within 5 to 7 years. Planning for Israeli acquisition of a comparable capability is moving forward on this assumption. The Science Attache has calculated that the target date for acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel is 1968-9. He has discovered information indicating that Israel has already acquired the know-how for Plutonium metal production. There is no need for sizeable domestic ore production facilities since Argentina has been a ready source.

Ambassador Barbour is convinced Israel fears U.A.R. acquisition of a nuclear capability and believes it must prepare for the time this occurs. He also believes a psychological case can be made for U.A.R. development of a "radiological garbage bomb." The GOI, of course, has exploited this issue publicly.

Ambassador Barbour does not seem as convinced as his staff of Israeli determination to acquire nuclear weapons. He felt it inadvisable to press for more trips by Embassy staff to the South. The GOI is already sensitive on this issue and such trips could prejudice 1) the Dimona inspections, 2) [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] and 3) the position of one or more Embassy officers--Ben-Horin/Marom in reverse. The Ambassador believed the Dimona inspections hung by only a thread. Prime Minister Eshkol has found it increasingly difficult politically to continue them, but realizes he has a firm commitment to the U.S. The argument that Ben-Gurion also agreed to the inspections does not solve the Prime Minister's problems since he has other fractious political elements with which to deal.

Ambassador Barbour said that cutting down the duration of the last Dimona visit had not been Prime Minister Eshkol's doing. The Prime Minister had ordered the facility to be cleared for inspection beginning Friday night through Saturday night as late as necessary. The GOI was not monolithic and local officials did not always respond readily to instructions. Eshkol was disturbed that the President might think he had welched on his commitment.

In this connection, the Science Attache believed he had convincing evidence that parts of the Dimona facility had been purposely moth-balled to mislead the visiting team. He and other Embassy officers believe Israeli scientists are preparing all necessary elements for production of a nuclear device, leaving undone only last-minute assembly.2

Preemption Against Arab Water Diversion Works

Embassy officers reflected a widespread Israeli philosophy calling for preemptive action to forestall Arab Jordan water diversion. Although the technical community and some members of the Foreign Ministry discounted Arab intentions to divert water, the IDF and Foreign Ministry "hard liners" played up the need for such action. The public, of course, was sold on the idea. IDF officers had indicated they believed the U.S. had been given ample warnings of Israeli intent to take preemptive action. A commonly expressed feeling was that preemptive action would be desirable soon while U.A.R. troops were still embroiled in Yemen.

The Consulate General at Jerusalem reported concern in Jordan that aggressive Israeli pressures might result in hostilities. For the first time in their experience, old time American residents had approached the Consulate inquiring about plans for caring for American citizens in times of crisis. Both the Consulate General and the Embassy were reviewing their E and E plans.

In fact, there is at the present time little against which to take preemptive action. Since November 1, 1964, only about 8 kilometers in Syrian territory have been cleared as a right of way for a possible canal. Rains had prevented rapid progress on this work which was supervised by Yugoslav engineers and surveyors. Preemptive action at the present time would be limited to destruction of up to ten bulldozers.

Ambassador Barbour did not believe reference of the water issue to the UN was practical and the Israelis believed our suggestion to do so represented backtracking on our undertaking to support the Unified Plan. It had become necessary now to reaffirm this support openly. The verbiage attached to our recent statements of support had caused Israeli officials to feel they were "on the slippery slope."

Israeli Rocket Developments

Israel's capability for rocket production has increased. The Israel Aircraft Industries (Bedek) has built up its personnel considerably, beyond the needs for a normal aircraft corporation. Research on rocket propulsion and components is moving forward rapidly. Recent reports indicated Israel would soon be capable of producing ten tons of liquid oxygen or more per day. Other rocket production activities included operation of filament winding machines, heliarc tube welding apparati, operation of a $750,000 computer. Israel appeared to have decided to develop an indigenous capability in the production of rocket propellants and small rockets but to acquire large rockets abroad.

Israeli Counter Boycott

The Ministry of Commerce was not enthusiastic about the Israeli counter boycott because the Israeli economy was doing well without it and its imposition might create unforeseen problems. The Foreign Ministry, however, appeared to favor the boycott and the word had gone out to the American Jewish communities. Companies such as Union Carbide had already begun calculating the pressures that could be placed on its business activities by American Jews. Their preliminary conclusions were that they could not withstand these pressures.

Ambassador Barbour's Thoughts on the Jordan Arms Quid pro Quo Package

Ambassador Barbour believed that we may have been well advised to append a large package of quid pro quo's to the request for Israeli support on U.S. sales of arms to Jordan in return for selected direct sales to Israel. He was disturbed, however, that the Department thought it could obtain these desiderata. He believed their inclusion may have been useful in shaking up the Israelis but now it might be preferable to seek each objective separately. It was preferable to make a "grand gesture" on direct arms sales since we considered it inevitable anyway. Such an attitude would ensure greater Israeli receptivity to our other demands.


1 Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, ORG 7 NEA. Secret. Talbot sent the memorandum to Rusk with a covering memorandum of March 8. Rusk's initials on the covering memorandum indicate that he read it.

2 Airgram A-742 from Tel Aviv, April 9, discussed the status of the Dimona reactor in more detail. It concluded that the Israelis "have now created a flexible basis of choice regarding the possibility of producing nuclear weapons. Although the technical facilities are in an advanced state of preparation, we believe that weapons are not now being made, and there is no evidence that the Israelis have made a decision to move the rest of the way toward producing them." (Ibid., AE 11-2 ISR)

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, V. 18, Arab-Israeli Dispute 1964-1967. DC: GPO, 2000.