WASHINGTON (JTA) — Declassified documents show President John Kennedy warned Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1963 that U.S. support for the young country would be “seriously jeopardized” if Israel did not allow the United States periodic inspections of Israel’s nuclear reactor.
A telegram from Kennedy dated July 4, 1963, congratulates Eshkol on assuming the prime ministership after David Ben-Gurion’s resignation and recounts talks between Kennedy and Ben-Gurion about inspections at the reactor in Dimona.
“As I wrote Mr. Ben-Gurion, this government’s commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we were unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as Israel’s effort in the nuclear field,” the telegram said.
The telegram was declassified in the 1990s but was not widely available until last week when the National Security Archives, a project affiliated with George Washington University, posted it on its website.
Kennedy, who was otherwise close to Israel, was furious with its ostensible nuclear weapons program, fearing that the Soviet Union could use it as leverage to maintain its influence in the Middle East.
Eshkol, caught off guard by the tone of the telegram, took seven weeks to assent, and the twice-yearly inspections continued until 1969, when President Richard Nixon ended them.
Also revealed in the trove of documents the National Security Archives posted is the origin of Israel’s oft-repeated credo that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons — a deliberately ambiguous statement that left Israel room to develop the weapons but not arm them.
Shimon Peres, then the deputy defense minister — he would later lead the country as prime minister for two stints and then become president — improvised the statement when he was surprised by Kennedy during a meeting that Peres had scheduled with Kennedy’s adviser, Myer Feldman, who also functioned as the administration’s liaison to Israel and the U.S. Jewish community. Unbeknownst to Peres, Kennedy and Feldman had planned the “surprise” encounter.
According to a Hebrew-language Foreign Ministry of Israel account of the April 2, 1963, meeting, Kennedy asked Peres into the Oval Office for 30 minutes and questioned him on Israel’s nuclear capacity.
“You know that we follow very closely the discovery of any nuclear development in the region,” Kennedy said. “This could create a very dangerous situation. For this reason, we monitor your nuclear effort. What could you tell me about this?”
Peres improvised, “I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.”