When the Pentagon Feared Israel's Nukes

By Robert Beckhusen
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In another memo, Paul Warnke—the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs—described Israel’s weapons program as constituting “the single most dangerous phenomenon in an area dangerous enough without nuclear weapons.”

But Warnke was skeptical that cancelling the fighter deal would make much progress. Israel was only a few months away from finishing a nuclear weapon, and “would be unable and unwilling to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Ultimately, Nixon didn’t cancel the fighter deal, and Israel went ahead and built the undeclared nuclear arsenal that exists today. The National Security Archives notes that the exact reasons why Nixon did not follow the advice of his Pentagon advisers is unclear. If documents exist showing why, the government hasn’t released them.

It could be because of influence from the State Department, whose officials feared that public knowledge of Israeli nukes would scuttle peace negotiations. The diplomats favored a softer line and a “graduated approach” that would “begin with essentially persuasive tactics,” one State Department memo explained.

There were also worried how the Soviet Union would react. If the open-secret became totally open, the State Department feared the Arab states would demand the Soviet Union supply them with nuclear material. That’s something Moscow would have been reluctant to oblige, but it may have been forced to do it anyways.

The Soviet Union put high priority on maintaining good relations with its Middle East allies. A cold—but preferable—option would be to publicly pretend Israel’s weapons program didn’t exist. And that’s what it appeared the U.S. did.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is the blunt and caustic attitudes from the Americans.

“Israel wants nuclear weapons, as was both explicit and implicit in our conversations with [Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Yitzhak] Rabin, for two reasons: first, to deter the Arabs from striking Israel, and second, if deterrence fails and Israel were about to be overrun, to destroy the Arabs in a nuclear Armageddon,” the State Department memo noted.

But as the memo also stated, it’s not possible to deter an irregular adversary, which Israel’s enemies were fast becoming. Aside from provoking Israel’s rivals from developing nuclear weapons on their own—nuclear programs would later proceed to various degrees in Syria, Iraq and Iran—it would provoke a shift from conventional to unconventional warfare Israel would be hard-pressed to deter over the long term.

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Robert Beckhusen
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