“No Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel”

Whenever the United States has put serious, sustained pressure on Israel’s leaders—from the 1950s on—it has come from Republican presidents, not Democratic ones…. Despite the Republican Party’s shrill campaign rhetoric on Israel, no Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel on any key national security issue.

— Efraim Halevy, “Who Threw Israel Under the Bus?,” New York Times, October 24

Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy likes Barack Obama and dislikes Mitt Romney. He’s entitled to his opinion. What he isn’t entitled to do is make categorical statements that do violence to the historical record.

I’m teaching a graduate course this semester on relations between Israel and the United States, and one of my purposes in following a historical approach is to fortify my students against people who misrepresent the past for some present purpose. Just the other week, we spent two hours discussing how President John F. Kennedy (yes, a Democrat) put the screws on Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, over Israel’s nuclear end-run. The story has been told at considerable length elsewhere, most ably by Avner Cohen, Zaki Shalom, Michael Karpin, and Warren Bass, so I’ll just recap it here. It’s relevant not only as a corrective to Halevy’s erroneous claim. It’s essential background to the renewed debate over Israel’s nuclear posture that the Obama administration has helped to prompt.

When Kennedy entered the White House in January 1961, the CIA had just concluded that the facility under construction in Dimona, with French assistance, was destined to become a nuclear reactor. U.S. intelligence had been one to two years behind the curve on the pace of Israel’s nuclear program, and Kennedy was worried. He had campaigned on a promise to stop proliferation. In his third debate with Richard Nixon, he had warned that “there are indications because of new inventions, that 10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity, including Red China, by the end of the Presidential office in 1964. This is extremely serious.” The CIA would soon list Israel right behind China as a potential proliferator.

In May 1961, just months after his inauguration, Kennedy raised the issue of Dimona with visiting Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and received a boilerplate assurance that the project had a peaceful purpose. Kennedy and his advisers continued to suspect otherwise, given the size of the plant. Israel allowed informal visits, but they were far from thorough, and in May 1963, Kennedy finally decided to press the issue and insist on regular inspections. He wrote a letter to Ben-Gurion (May 18), warning that an Israeli weapon would throw open the gates of proliferation everywhere:

We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel. I cannot imagine that the Arabs would refrain from turning to the Soviet Union for assistance if Israel were to develop a nuclear weapons capability—with all the consequences this would hold. But the problem is much larger than its impact on the Middle East. Development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would almost certainly lead other larger countries, that have so far refrained from such development, to feel that they must follow suit.

Then came the threat. Kennedy, noting the ways the United States had assisted Israel, warned Ben-Gurion that the U.S. commitment to his country “would be seriously jeopardized in the public opinion in this country and in the West as a whole if it should be thought that this Government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s efforts in the nuclear field.” Years later, Yuval Ne’eman, the physicist who helped Ben-Gurion write his replies, told a journalist that “Kennedy was writing like a bully. It was brutal.” Kennedy’s “Scylla and Charybdis-like letter,” writes Zaki Shalom, “made it absolutely clear that he wanted Israel to accede to his demands unconditionally and immediately, and a request of this sort from the pinnacle of American power, in language so blunt, left Israel no space for maneuvering.”

Within a month, Ben-Gurion had resigned. He had already been weakened politically, but there has long been a suspicion that Kennedy’s pressure contributed to his decision. (Ne’eman believed it was the main cause.) Kennedy did not relent, and after allowing Levi Eshkol ten days to settle in as new prime minister, he reissued his threat (July 5). Kennedy demanded of Eshkol that the United States be allowed to conduct visits

as nearly as possible in accord with international standards, thereby resolving all doubts as the the peaceful intent of the Dimona project…. As I wrote Mr. Ben-Gurion, this Goverment’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 the question of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field….. It would be essential… that our scientist have access to all areas of the Dimona site and to any related part of the complex, such as fuel fabrication facilities or plutonium separation plant, and that sufficient time be allotted for a thorough examination.

Avner Cohen writes of this letter: “Not since President Eisenhower’s message to Ben-Gurion, in the midst of the Suez crisis in November 1956, had an American president been so blunt with an Israeli prime minister…. Since the United States had not been involved in the building of Dimona and no international law or agreement had been violated, Kennedy’s demands were unprecedented. They amounted, in effect, to an ultimatum.” Israeli journalist Michael Karpin writes that “no American president had ever threatened an Israeli prime minister so bluntly during political negotiations in time of peace.”

Inevitably, Eshkol agreed to the inspections. He had little choice; to borrow Halevy’s words, he had been “strong-armed.” But the change in administration following Kennedy’s assassination in November created a gap that Israel exploited. During the course of the 1960s, Israel succeeded in turning the U.S. “inspections” of Dimona into hurried affairs scheduled well in advance. Parts of the facility were concealed from American scrutiny. By 1968, the CIA had concluded that Israel had built a bomb. It was Richard Nixon (a Republican) who finally sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on September 26, 1969, to finalize the U.S.-Israel understanding that exists to this day. Israel would keep its capabilities under wraps—nuclear “ambiguity” or “opacity”—and the United States would look the other way. The United States would not pressure Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thus was born the Israeli exception to the American rule.

Why is this relevant now? The debate over Israel’s nuclear exception is about to be renewed in full vigor. Kennedy wrote to Ben-Gurion: “Development of a nuclear weapons capability by Israel would almost certainly lead other larger countries, that have so far refrained from such development, to feel that they must follow suit.” Now Iran is cast in the role of the “larger country,” and the idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is gaining momentum. Israel would be called upon to disarm, in exchange for Iran’s disavowal of its nuclear ambitions. Obama’s own vision of a “nuclear-free world,” articulated in 2009, is the context.

An American-supported “Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference” (with the unpronounceable acronym MEWMDFZ) may or may not take place in December as scheduled. The head of Israel’s own nuclear energy agency has described the conference initiative as “futile,” and the meeting may be postponed. But as former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon has said, “after the U.S. elections, this issue of the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone will be back on the table.” And Israel’s leading authorities on the subject believe that in light of Obama’s commitment to non-proliferation, Israel “might face new pressure from the administration down the line.”

I’m reasonably certain that Halevy knows the history. Perhaps as a former head of the Mossad, he’s barred from discussing it. That’s understandable, but it’s inexcusable to pretend that the battle over Dimona never happened, and to do so for a purpose—playing American partisan politics—that’s unseemly for a man in his position. I’m now immersed in teaching precisely this subject, and I detect no systemic difference in the approaches of Democratic and Republican presidents to Israel. But when it comes to “strong-arming” Israel on the “key national security issue” of its nuclear posture, the unsurpassed record is held by a Democrat.