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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Letter to Israeli PM Eshkol Regarding Dimona Reactor

(March 19, 1964)

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

I am distressed to learn from Ambassador Barbour that you feel unable to approve of our reassuring President Nasser about the peaceful character of the Dimona reactor./2/ We are far from confident that apprehension as to Israel's atomic potential will, as you suggest, help deter Nasser from attacking Israel. Quite the contrary, we believe that Nasser's fear of a developing Israeli nuclear power may drive him to a choice between accelerating the UAR military buildup or a desperate pre-emptive attack. Either of these choices would have the gravest effects on the security of Israel. We think it plain that any possible deterrent value that might come from keeping Nasser in the dark is trivial compared to these risks.

It is also hard to see how Nasser could adversely exploit reassurance that Israel's nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. We certainly do not intend to provide him with details. Nor did he misuse our reassurances when, with the agreement of your government, we last informed him along these lines. Indeed our doing so served to ease Arab-Israeli tensions.

Therefore I hope you will reconsider your decision on this matter, on which I am sure you will agree that our ultimate interest--enhancement of Israel's security--is the same as yours.

With warm regards,

Sincerely, Lyndon B. Johnson.

[George Ball suggested that LBJ] make following points orally to Eshkol:

1. Nasser aware past US visits to Dimona and eventually will learn of January visit from other countries Israel has agreed we may take into our confidence. Preferable permit us give Nasser information directly to gain maximum favorable results.

2. Content February 22 Nasser speech not new. Every Arab politician must inveigh against Israel to survive politically. Realistic and moderate resolutions taken by Arab Summit Conference reflect Nasser's position more clearly than his words.

3. Al-Ahram editorialist Hassanain Haikal, confidant of Nasser, has publicly voiced UAR recognition that war against Israel is not possible because of US support.

4. Israel's security lies in US capability and preparedness to ward off aggression. Total security is not possible, however; even US lacks that.

5. Tank issue unrelated to Nasser reassurance./3/

FYI. Jewish Observer February 14 carried article entitled "Dimona Report Studies" that referred to "a top secret report from American experts who had studied the potentialities of Israel's principal nuclear reactor at Dimona. . ." While word visit not used, idea is implicit especially to those aware already of our earlier inspection. Moreover, early in February Israeli newsman here specifically inquired about US interest in Dimona and rumored visit by US scientific team. End FYI.



/1/Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, AE 11-2 ISR. Secret; Limdis. Drafted at the White House; cleared by Davies, Harriman, and McGeorge Bundy; and approved by McKesson. A March 14 memorandum from Komer to the President states that he had "greatly toned down State's rather abrasive draft" of the letter to Eshkol. Bundy initialed the President's approval on Komer's memorandum and sent the revised draft to Benjamin Read with an attached note of March 19 stating that it was approved by the President. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Special Head of State Correspondence File, Israel, Presidential Correspondence)

/2/Telegrams 916 and 919 from Tel Aviv, March 3 and 4, reported a March 3 conversation between Barbour and Eshkol, in which Eshkol argued that a degree of apprehension as to Israel's nuclear potential would serve as a useful deterrent to Nasser. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, AE 11-2 ISR)

/3/Telegram 976 from Tel Aviv, March 23, reported that in a meeting with Eshkol that morning, Barbour delivered Johnon's message and made the five points in telegram 810. (Ibid.)

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