35. Memorandum for the Record1


  • NSC Ad Hoc Review Group Meeting, Friday, June 20, 1969, on NSSM 40—Israeli Nuclear Program2


  • Henry A. Kissinger, Chairman
  • Elliot Richardson, Under Secretary of State
  • David Packard, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • General Earle Wheeler, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Richard Helms, Director, Central Intelligence
  • Rodger Davies, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
  • Harold H. Saunders, NSC Staff

[1 line not declassified]3 Dr. Kissinger suggested that the group might best get at the problem by talking first about what we are trying to accomplish.

Mr. Richardson outlined the following objectives:

1. We want to do what we can to prevent Israel from going further with its nuclear weapons program—[1 line not declassified].

2. We want to have a record of having tried to do this—for later use if and when [less than 1 line not declassified].

3. We have another objective which could be affected by our pursuit of the above two objectives—the diplomatic effort to achieve an Arab-Israeli political settlement.

Commenting on the above objectives, Mr. Richardson stated that deployment of nuclear weapons in the Middle East carries serious risks. Our main diplomatic effort since January 20 has been predicated on concern over the risk of a US–USSR confrontation in the Middle East. Knowledge by the Arabs [less than 1 line not declassified] would seem to increase the likelihood of a local confrontation—increasing possibility of eventual involvement of the US and USSR.

General Wheeler interjected that if the Israelis deploy their surface-to-surface missiles—[less than 1 line not declassified]—the Arabs might well conclude that the Israelis have nuclear warheads on them. By any [Page 117] rational military or economic calculation, there is no justification [2 lines not declassified]. When Dr. Kissinger asked how large a conventional warhead they might carry, General Wheeler said he was not sure but guessed it might be about 2000 lbs.—perhaps about the size of the German V–2 rockets in 1945.

Dr. Kissinger responded that there are two possible comments on General Wheeler’s points:

1. The Arabs just don’t think that precisely. Because they might not calculate their own cost-benefit ratios that rationally, they would not expect the Israelis to.

2. Even if they suspected strongly that the Israelis had nuclear warheads, they might decide to live with that fact as long as it did not become an announced fact of international life.

Dr. Kissinger continued that if the Israelis did indeed have nuclear warheads we might have two possible approaches to the problem:

1. to stop or reverse their deployment;

2. to keep the fact of their existence below the level of public acknowledgment.

Mr. Richardson returned to his discussion of the dangers of the existence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. He noted as the most likely Soviet response a Soviet announcement that they were targeting a number of their own missiles on Israel and that any use by Israel of nuclear weapons against the Arabs could bring Soviet retaliation.

Mr. Richardson noted that he had said to Ambassador Rabin and General Yariv, the chief of Israeli military intelligence, that the reason we could not agree to their political strategy of standing pat in the current impasse is that we see the situation deteriorating in ways that could lead to a US-Soviet confrontation, as well as to the deterioration of the US position elsewhere in the area. As part of his description of that deterioration, Mr. Richardson said he had described as one possibility the introduction of nuclear weapons by Israel, and Soviet targeting of its own missiles on Israel with the threat of a US-Soviet confrontation becoming consequently worse. He said that neither Rabin nor Yariv “batted an eye or made any effort to rebut.” If pushed they would probably say they do [less than 1 line not declassified] are only seeking a deterrent. In 1967 they saw their conventional superiority fail as a deterrent, and he believed that they had made up their minds then [less than 1 line not declassified]. From the US viewpoint, Mr. Richardson concluded, the risk of a US-Soviet confrontation is clearly raised [less than 1 line not declassified].

Dr. Kissinger asked whether we should push on this issue rather than for a political settlement. Mr. Richardson replied that he felt we should push on both, even though pressure on the nuclear issue might [Page 118] marginally prejudice diplomatic movement. However, he did not take this argument too seriously. He felt that the Israelis will arrive at a political settlement if it is in their interest—if it is not in their interest, as they see it, they will not. The degree to which we irritate them will not be a significant factor in their decision.

Mr. Packard asked whether it was possible to get a political settlement without settling the nuclear issue.

Dr. Kissinger replied to both of the last two points with the following analysis: If we can ever get the current debate over a settlement down to the reality of specific borders, any conceivable geographical settlement would reduce Israel’s security. What Israel may gain in goodwill and tentative Arab willingness to live in peace, Israel will lose in conventional security. [less than 1 line not declassified] they may provide an added incentive for them to hold on to territory. It seems axiomatic that a nation of three million people confronted by 100 million with any technological capacity at all would not over an historical period have a chance of surviving. But if there is any chance at all, it would come from having the most advantageous possible lines of defense. If the Israelis give up the conventional security which advantageous borders provide, they might want nuclear weapons to offset what they are giving up.

In short, Dr. Kissinger concluded the curious point about nuclear weapons for the Israelis is that—despite our interests in having them forego those weapons—we might find it easier to persuade the Israelis to give up territory if we ease along with them [1 line not declassified]. For a nation like Israel, losing one conventional war is as bad as losing a nuclear war. The disturbing feature in Israel’s present frame of mind is that [less than 1 line not declassified].

Mr. Richardson concurred in Dr. Kissinger’s analysis but suggested that perhaps different time frames were involved. If Israel held conventional superiority for ten years, [less than 1 line not declassified]. Beyond ten years—or some such period—Israel’s conventional margin of superiority might be eroded, but it is very difficult to look that far into the future, because we do not know what other factors will be introduced—on the non-proliferation and other fronts.

Dr. Kissinger felt that the Israelis do not want nuclear weapons just against the Arab nations per se, but rather against the possibility of a defeat in conventional war. Returning to Mr. Packard’s question, Dr. Kissinger said it is hard to imagine how we could work toward a settlement without relating these two issues. The problem as Dr. Kissinger saw it is that the relationship between these two issues might work in inverse proportion. He repeated that the Israelis might [less than 1 line not declassified] or vice versa, but he found it hard to believe that they would give up both.

[Page 119]

General Wheeler felt that it is very important for the US to avoid any degree of [1 line not declassified] the President should be in a position to say that he tried everything possible [less than 1 line not declassified]. General Wheeler had little doubt that the Israelis might analyze the situation in the same way as Dr. Kissinger had. However, General Wheeler doubted that the Israelis would have achieved any real addition to their security if the Soviets respond as Mr. Richardson suggested they might. In fact, in the short term, the Arabs might even go to war to try to prevent Israel from achieving full nuclear capability, while the Soviets “rattled their own rockets in the background.” In short, [less than 1 line not declassified] could trigger the very war they are trying to avoid.

Mr. Packard stated that our objective should be to [1½ lines not declassified]. We would need some system of inspection to assure Israeli compliance.

Dr. Kissinger asked, “Inspection of what?” Mr. Packard responded that we would have to “get in there and cover the country.”

General Wheeler returned to the idea that we would have to be concerned with [3 lines not declassified].

Dr. Kissinger asked whether we might state our choice of objectives as the following:

1. That the Israelis not deploy missiles.

2. [less than 1 line not declassified].

3. Both of the above.

Dr. Kissinger asked how it would ever be possible to monitor any assurances the Israelis might give. General Wheeler said we could do this only with very close inspection of Israel’s military facilities. Dr. Kissinger recalled that he had been shown in Israel how the Israelis had manufactured weapons right under the eyes of the British when the British had all of the power to inspect that comes from comprehensive police power.

General Wheeler returned to the importance of avoiding the appearance of American complicity. If we were inspecting—even if we were not inspecting the right things—we would have made a better record for ourselves.

Dr. Kissinger said that we seemed to have two choices:

1. We could raise the nuclear issue with the Israelis, make our case and then stop.

2. Or we could link this issue to the question of a peace settlement, and see if there is any trade-off between them in Israeli minds.

Dr. Kissinger asked what we are talking about when we talk about applying pressure to persuade the Israelis to [less than 1 line not declassified]. General Wheeler responded that we could withhold the re[Page 120]mainder of the A–4 Skyhawks and not begin delivery of the F–4 Phantom aircraft.4

Mr. Richardson stated that it might help at this point in the discussion to lay out some of the steps we might take. These were described on pages 6 and 7 of the issues paper.5 Mr. Richardson then turned immediately to look at the Defense Department proposal on page 7, rather than the State Department’s proposal on page 6. Dr. Kissinger noted that Mr. Richardson seemed to be speaking more along the lines of the Defense Department proposal, and Mr. Richardson smiled and said, “As usual, you have very keen powers of discernment.”

Mr. Packard interjected it was time for us to take a strong stand while we still have some leverage in holding up the F–4s.

Dr. Kissinger said if we were to hold up the F–4 deliveries we would have to do it quietly. Suppose we did, he said. The Jewish community in the United States would run amok and make a public confrontation. General Wheeler doubted that the Israelis would make it public because they would not be in a very good position on the nuclear issue.

Mr. Richardson suggested that, instead of talking about the pressure we could apply, we ought to start at the other end and think what we could ask the Israelis to do. If we reached the stage of confrontation over delivery or non-delivery of the aircraft, he felt that we would have failed.

He noted further that this was one case where getting the results we wanted and making a record might be in conflict. He felt the question was this: If we go and ask the Israelis to sign the NPT and halt the deployment of missiles [less than 1 line not declassified] would they agree if they knew we would refuse to deliver the aircraft?

Dr. Kissinger said that the Israelis might just tell us to go to hell if they felt: (1) that they could withstand whatever sanctions we might apply, or (2) if they thought we would not apply those sanctions.

Dr. Kissinger asked whether everybody agreed that we should at least call Israeli attention to the extraordinary seriousness with which we viewed [less than 1 line not declassified] and perhaps suggest that we might not deliver the F–4s.

Mr. Richardson stated that we should not imply that we would not deliver the aircraft unless we were absolutely clear in our own minds in advance that we were prepared to follow through on that threat.

[Page 121]

Dr. Kissinger reiterated that at a minimum the group seemed to agree that we should call Israel’s attention to the seriousness we attach [less than 1 line not declassified].

Dr. Kissinger went on to ask whether we should seek from the Israelis the following:

1. that they not deploy missiles;

2. that they not announce [less than 1 line not declassified];

3. that they not [less than 1 line not declassified];

4. that they sign the NPT.

The tough question, he said, is whether we are prepared to impose sanctions and, if so, what sanctions. He felt that withholding the F–4s carried with it the disadvantage of maximum publicity.

Mr. Richardson pointed out that the negotiations which concluded in the F–4 sale last November included an exchange between Ambassador Rabin and Paul Warnke to the effect that the Israelis promised not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East and the US stated that, if Israel did, we would consider it grounds for cancelling the contract.6

Dr. Kissinger returned to the problem of publicity which would be created by our withholding delivery of the Phantom. This would probably bring out into the open [less than 1 line not declassified]. He emphasized that, rather than domestic politics—he said the President was prepared to take the pressure from the Jewish community—the real problem lies in making a public issue out of [less than 1 line not declassified].

Mr. Richardson said we were not asking the Israelis to [less than 1 line not declassified]. They were in a position where they could [less than 1 line not declassified]. If we are just asking them to [1 line not declassified]. He posed the question whether we could be satisfied with [1 line not declassified]. It might be that we could get Israeli agreement [1½ lines not declassified].

Mr. Packard felt that we would need some way to enforce our agreement by inspection. General Wheeler said that it was one reason why we wanted the Israelis not to deploy their missiles. It is easier for us to monitor missile deployment. Mr. Packard said that we needed some way to monitor [less than 1 line not declassified] as well.

Dr. Kissinger asked, “How?” He felt that Israeli ingenuity would make it impossible. He said he had had occasion to study French efforts to inspect in Germany after World War I and had concluded that if a [Page 122] country totally opposes you, you just have no chance of making inspection work.

Mr. Richardson asked whether we might want to settle for an inspection that we knew was inefficient primarily for the purpose of making a record and washing our own hands of responsibility, as much as we could.

Dr. Kissinger said that his main concern was that our mere act of trying to do something might bring on the consequences that we worst feared and most wanted to avoid. We all agree that we should tell Israel that we take this development gravely.

General Wheeler noted that if we tried to inspect the Israeli program, we assumed responsibility before the international community. If on the other hand, we pressed the Israelis to sign the NPT, then inspection becomes the responsibility of an international body.

General Wheeler added that our objective should be to stop missile production—not just deployment—and to have the missiles already produced stored. Dr. Kissinger agreed that it seemed impossible to expect the Israelis to [less than 1 line not declassified].

Dr. Kissinger continued that, having isolated the proposal that we make some representation to the Israelis, it is important now to decide what our next steps might be and what steps are attainable and what the consequences of those steps might be. Mr. Richardson said he would restate where the group have come out as follows:

1. We need to distinguish between asking the Israelis [1 line not declassified] recognizing that “deployment” may be an artificial proposition because the Israelis might [1½ lines not declassified].

2. We need to decide whether to pose some form of inspection other than the inspection of future production facilities which would go with signing of the NPT.

3. We need to decide whether to ask the Israelis to stop further missile production and whether to ask them to dismantle what they have.

Dr. Kissinger asked whether we could list what we might get without sanctions. He doubted that bilateral inspection would be possible without some penalty or some reward.

Dr. Kissinger asked if another paper could be written that would include the following:7

1. List a hierarchy of steps that we might ask the Israelis to take;

2. List a hierarchy of sanctions that we might apply.

[Page 123]

3. Discuss the consequences of applying sanctions for each of the following:

a. achieving our objective;

b. preventing escalation of the whole issue.

Mr. Richardson said there was one more question—the level through which we should do these things. With Prime Minister Meir coming,8 the question arises whether or not the President should do this. Dr. Kissinger replied that, if this development is as grave as we see it, it is hard to see how the President could fail to involve himself.

In adjourning, Dr. Kissinger suggested that a new paper be prepared by Mr. Davies and that the group meet a week from June 20.9

Harold H. Saunders
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–038, Senior Review Group Meetings, Review Group NSSM 40—Israel 6/20/69. Top Secret; Nodis; Sensitive. Drafted by Saunders on June 24. All brackets are in the original except those indicating text that remains classified.
  2. Document 20.
  3. [text not declassified]
  4. Sixty A–4s remained to be delivered. The United States shipped the first four Phantoms on September 5 and the second four on October 20. A total of 100 A–4 Skyhawks and 50 F–4 Phantoms had been approved for sale to Israel. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967–1968, Document 333.
  5. See Document 31.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967–1968, Document 306.
  7. The paper is attached to a June 26 memorandum from Halperin and Saunders to Kissinger. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–038, Senior Review Group Meetings, Review Group NSSM 40—Israel 6/20/69)
  8. Meir was in the United States from September 24 to October 6.
  9. The Review Group met on June 26. A memorandum of the meeting is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 12 ISR. It is published in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 189, Document 9.