This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
Every time someone points to Israel and claims “this country has nuclear weapons” the most commonly heard response is “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East arena”. This trial has been a cornerstone in terms of the so-called “Israeli nuclear capabilities”. But where did this phrase begin? What are its roots?
When preparing for the nuclear meetings between Prime Minister Levi Eshkol with President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whose proceedings were conducted by, Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., along with the CIA, the U.S. asked that Israel undertake to continue to being “a non-nuclear state”. Based on this understanding the formal stance of ambiguity was established. One of those which exposed Israeli secret nuclear issue was Prof. Edward Teller; father of the hydrogen bomb, after meetings with the top brass in Israel, including Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Teller’s “door opener” at the Atomic Energy Commission was his scientific colleague and personal friend – Prof. Yuval Ne’eman.
By Ami Dor-on
When considering the relationship between sovereign states in the modern era, one can rather easily distinguish one unique fact: often the nature of the relationship is determined by personal “chemistry” between the leaders. “Chemistry” in this context can range between sympathetic emotions, deep affection, or common language and understanding, and all the way to un-bridged hatred and mutual loathing. Positive “Chemistry” between two “rough country men” that share similar qualities, such as Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and President Lyndon Johnson – was the base for one of the most solid and continued relationships between the two countries. It started to develop during their tenures and included the nuclear period.
To understand why such a good relationship was established between these two men it is worth explaining a little about their family backgrounds
Levi Eshkol (Shkolnik) was born in Ortabo, Ukraine in 1895, the village was part of the Russian Empire. His father Joseph was a manager of tiny farm. Eshkol studied in a “Cheder” (a small Yeshiva for kids) and attended a Gymnasium in Vilnius, in his youth he joined the political Zionist movement: Young Zion. At the age of 18 he made “Aliya” and moved to Israel. For several years he worked as a farmer and a guard in Petach Tikva and Rishon Lezion. By the end of the First World War, in 1918, he volunteered for the Jewish Legion,established by the British army and afterwards became one of the founders of the village of Deganya.
Lyndon Johnson was also a man of “land and labor”. He was born in 1908 in a poor, rural Texan farm town. After graduating from high school he went on the labor market. The first job he held, enabling him to pay his way through teachers college, was running an elevator. From the beginning of his way through college, Johnson loved to be involved in public debates and in his first year of teaching he taught Mexican children. That year he witnessed the distress of these peoples existence and he would never forget about it. The fact that these poor people were never given an equal opportunity dictated many of his future actions and led him to open doors and opportunities for the underprivileged.
When the two first met, Johnson was President of the United States, a mature person age of 56, and the Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, older than Johnson by 13 years. The Meeting was held at the White House. Eshkol’s English was not first-rate but he was “a man of the people” and had a sense of humor, ready to laugh at himself. It had been clear since the beginning of the first meeting that the two had good “chemistry” and a common “language of the people”.
Their good personal relationship gave later gave rise to an extraordinary homage to Eshkol, on the part of Johnson. Prior to their meeting in January 1968, he had invited the Prime Minister and his entourage to stay at his private ranch in Texas. Except for diplomats accompanying Eshkol, another member of the Israeli team was Major General Mordechai Hod, the Commander of the Israeli Air Force fresh after the glorious victory of the overwhelming Six Day War. Eshklol allegedly brought Hod as an “air expert” because the issue was Israel’s request to purchase 50 Phantoms from the U.S. Hod, born in Deganya, was Eshkol’s military confidant.
Before the meeting, following the preparatory talks by Henry Kissinger (then assistant for National Security Affairs) [J2] with Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1968 was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., the State Department prepared a brief for the President. Unlike the first meeting between Johnson and Eshkol, where a very short discussion was raised regarding Israel’s nuclear capability, this time the agenda was clear, focused, and mostly “nuclear”. The contents of this document – set title “Top Secret / Sensitive”- was released publicly only 30 years later, in 1997. In accordance to what was written in the document, Rabin wanted to know, before the issue would be discussed in detail at a meeting with the President, if the following
- Israel would not become a nuclear power.
- Israel would not consider joining the International Convention on Prevention of Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Adjacent to each one of the “nuclear” topics, a detailed document was presented to President Johnson that included the State Departments assessment of the significance of the issues raised in the preliminary sessions contained as follows:
- Regarding the definition that “Israel will not become a nuclear power,” – said the document – the Israelis have promised that if the request to supply Phantoms will be fulfilled, they are willing to commit that Israel will not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. “We asked” – wrote the State Department – “that the term will be “possess” in the sense that Israel will not possess nuclear weapons. Or, in other words, that Israel will undertake that its activities will not reach the stage of ‘assembling a complete nuclear weapon”. Instead of receiving our position – the document said – Rabin’s reply was that Israel prefers to stay within the definition “Israel will not become a nuclear power”.
- Regarding Israel’s accession to join the Convention on the prevention of proliferation, the document said, the key question in this context is Israel’s desire for a clear distinction between a country that is in “nuclear weapons mode” and a state that is in “non-nuclear mode”. In the preliminary hearing it was made clear that from the inception of the definition that “a country that manufactured and detonated a nuclear weapon or conducted a nuclear test before January 1st 1967″. The convention, the document states, is deliberately ambiguous about Israel’s position that “Israel may have already assembled an atomic bomb but never used it and did not perform a nuclear test”.
- “The reason Rabin proposed this specific wording were unclear to us” – was written in the document prepared for Johnson – “But when we was asked how can a country become a nuclear force” without having nuclear weapons – he answered in plain words: “This is what we prefer”.
- All these verbal definitions – the document states – are vague. It would be impractical on our part to try and force Israel to accept our definitions. We strive to make Israel commit to the U.S. that the nuclear weapons do not become a “known factor” and that only complicates the Israeli – Arab situation.
- The bottom line of the documents recommendation states that: We should make it clear to Israel that it must commit to continue to be a “non-nuclear state” as defined in the nuclear weapons prevention proliferation Convention. The conventions definition says that States “must not receive nuclear weapons, produce nuclear weapons, nor purchase nuclear weapons or any other nuclear facility”.
- The friendly meeting at the Presidential farm went well. Eshkol’s shopping cart was filled with 30 Skyhawk fighters and other such items, even an expressed agreement, in principle, was made to examine the possibility of a transfer of 50 Phantoms to Israel out of the 250 Israel had initially requested. (More details of Eshkol’s encounters with Johnson appears in the book entitled “Israel and the Bomb” by Avner Cohen).
Sometimes history plays tricks on us, often it happens when important events in human history by chance may lead to unlocking hidden secrets, which previously, no effort nor resources could unlock. The Opportunity for exposing of this kind of mystery happened during the meeting with Eshkol, and proving that the Prime Minister of Israel had the degree of strength and sophistication higher than that of the U.S. intelligence. When the President and the Prime Minister had met privately for a conversation, both knew of the preparatory work that had been done for the meeting. Eshkol knew that the State Department prepared the details of the topics listed for discussion with Rabin but never imagined that equally profound work – in the intelligence field – was prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency.
About one “spicy” detail of that meeting – whether it actually happened though no one knows for sure –but a year before his death in 1988,Eshkol told Eliyahu Speiser, who was secretary of the Mapai party in Tel Aviv, about a “conversation” he had with President Johnson.Apparently when the two heads of state finished discussing matters that were on the agenda, President Johnson pulled PM Eshkol to an isolated corner, put his hand on the Prime Minister’s shoulder and told him, with fake-innocence: “I never asked you specifically if you actually have or don’thave atomic bombs, and I don’t mean to ask now because I know that if I ask I won’t get a real answer.
Johnson did not expect an answer. He tapped a friendly pat on shoulder of Eshkol’s shoulder and smiled a smug, smile reminiscent to that of a cat that had just finished drinking his stolen milk.
What finally convinced the U.S. to believe that Israel had nuclear capability was the renowned Jewish nuclear scientist, Prof. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, and a close friend of Israel.
Edward Teller was born in Budapest in 1908, which at that time was an important city of the Austro – Hungarian Empire. His capability for creative innovation especially in the field of exact sciences was evident from his youth and to further develop his skills in the field of science, Teller moved to the University of Karlsruhe where he got his chemical engineering degree. Receiving his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Leipzig. In 1934, with the aid of a “Jewish Rescue Fund” scholarship, he got the opportunity to work in the presence of the renowned atomic scientist Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. In 1935, with Bohr’s recommendation, Teller was invited to serve as a professor of physics at Washington University in the U.S. where he came to fame as a bright nuclear scientist. The outcome leading to the most important step of his life was not long in coming. In 1942 Teller was invited to participate in a “reflective” seminar about the “possibilities of atomic fission” under the direction of Professor Robert Oppenheimer at UC Berkeley. This seminar and its participants were the nucleus out of which the “Manhattan Project” grew in the “Los Alamos” labs.
A few weeks before joining Oppenheimer’s seminar, Teller met with his friend the famous Italian physicist Enrico Fermi for a “Friendly Discussion” on the feasibility of developing a nuclear weapon. During the conversation dealing with the nuclear theoretical worlds, Fermi said, quite casually, that it might seem that nuclear weapons based on nuclear fusion can be much more effective than weapons based on nuclear fission. Teller “lit up” on the idea and from that day onward the course of his life actually changed: the “normal” atom which hadn’t yet reached an operational bomb – started to bore him. His brilliant mind began to engage more and more on the amazing possibilities inherent in hydrogen fusion. His revolutionary ideas have been raised in Oppenheimer’s discussion. The fact that Teller pushed to engaging in fusion instead of fission initially created a lot of tension between him and Oppenheimer, who was adamant that firstly one needed to complete the project and achieve nuclear fission for bomb production. Additional stress added to this exemplary scientific staff was exacerbated by Teller’s “disturbing” and exceptional trait. When he wanted to concentrate – he used to sit at the piano – and play. He used to play and concentrate day and night. A team member later recalled how much this used to get on every-ones nerves.
After the first atomic detonation achieved by the USSR in 1949 due, in large, to the information – including drawings of the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima – transferred to them by the “implanted” spy Klaus Fuchs, a member of the nuclear development team – President Truman ordered the “emergency operation” to develop the hydrogen bomb, to “ensure continued American superiority” over the Soviet Union. The presidential pressure worked well. As early as 1950 the practical work had begun and the hydrogen bomb – the most terrible bomb in the history of humanity – was underway. This path ended the link between Teller and the “Los Alamos” Labs. Following Truman’s decision, Teller found his scientific home at the “Lawrence Livermore” National Laboratory at Berkeley, the biggest rival of “Los Alamos” National Laboratory, and later he became the lab’s manager. From this laboratory also came the news of the hydrogen bomb.
Teller’s first contact with a representative of the Israeli Nuclear-scientific establishment occurred in 1964 when Teller met with Prof. Yuval Ne’eman – a known nuclear physicist, who was on sabbatical in the U.S. and later also served as chairman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. The two men found a common language, both scientifically and personally. Teller opened the gates to the faithful prestigious lab “Lawrence Livermore” and allowed him to lecture to its scientists. Upon his return to Israel, Ne’eman told Prime Minister Eshkol about Teller and his activities. Soon Teller was invited to Israel and arrived for his first visit at the end of 1965. During his trip Teller met with Eshkol, and a few other scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission as well as leading figures in the security establishment. Over the years, even after he was named the inventor in the world’s “doomsday weapon”, Teller visited Israel a number of times. Teller never asked and therefore did not get an answer to the question that occupied the entire world: Does Israel really have nuclear weapons and the means – missiles or aircraft – to deploy it.. But Teller didn’t need to ask. As an expert and scientist with extraordinary intelligence, after sitting in the meetings in Israel, he had deduced that the answer was “yes”. Years after his visits to Israel, Teller, during a U.S. television interview, said that he had concluded mainly based on personal opinion, that Israel has nuclear weapons. In conversations he had with top scientists on the committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Teller said: “The Israelis have it, but they also have enough sense to rely on the efficiency and accuracy of their research not to not do nuclear tests. They know that an experiment will complicate matters and put them in serious trouble”.
The Israeli atomic scientists conversations with Teller were not one-sided. The Israelis tried to suss out any information about his favorite “hydrogen bombs”. Whether or not Teller revealed his secrets to his Israeli colleagues is still not known, years later however it was stated that according to the information available to American experts, Israel has also built bombs on hydrogen fusion.
If Israeli scientists arrived at the opening of a hydrogen “new world” and entered it, there is no single simple-cut answer. The prevailing view in the scientific world to the answer to this question is yes. An example of such an evaluation can be found, for example, in a study called “Holy of Holies”, published by the investigator Warner D. Farr of the Proliferation Center of the U.S. Air Force. At the end of the study he gives information on the development of the bomb and missile arsenal of Israel from 1967 to 1997. At the end of the list, with certain coyness, it’s casually written: Israel has 400 “thermo-nuclear and nuclear” bombs that can be launched. “Thermo-nuclear” means: bombs based on the hydrogen fusion process, or, in popular parlance: hydrogen bombs. Bombs, which are currently the most terrible weapon in human history, ones that major powers no longer use out of fear. Fear that the development and experiments of these weapons will bring the human race to extinction.
Teller’s assessment regarding Israel’s nuclear capability was brought to the attention of Carl Duckett, who was deputy director for science and technology in the CIA and passed the information to his boss, CIA Director Richard Helms. Helms reported to President Johnson. Following the evaluation of the information obtained by Teller and other intelligence sources, the CIA, not long before the Johnson-Eshkol meeting, a secret National Intelligence estimate with the following statement: “New evidence shows that Israel already has nuclear weapons”. This assessment was also presented in the clearest possible way at a hearing of the Senate.