THE SAMSON OPTION: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Chapter 9: Years of Pressure
John Kennedy, profoundly committed to the principle of nonproliferation, continued throughout 1962 to pressure Ben- Gurion about international inspection and continued to receive the prime minister's bland and irritating assurances that Israel had no intention of becoming an atomic power. The President was far too politically astute not to understand, as he angrily told his friend Charles Bartlett, that the Israeli "sons of bitches lie to me constantly about their nuclear capability." One solution was to help get Ben-Gurion, then embattled in the most serious crisis of his political career, out of office.
A few days after Christmas 1962, Kennedy made what amounted to a direct move against the prime minister's leadership. He invited Foreign Minister Golda Meir, one of Ben-Gurion's leading critics inside the cabinet and the Mapai Party, to his Palm Beach, Florida, home for a seventy-minute private talk. Meir made no secret of the fact that she resented Ben- Gurion for permitting his acolytes, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, to operate behind the back of the foreign ministry; she and other party members who had been born in Eastern Europe, such as Levi Eshkol, the treasury minister, were convinced that Ben-Gurion chose to rely on young men such as Peres and Dayan only because they would be more reluctant to stand up to him.
The declassified memorandum on the Kennedy-Meir meeting contains no specific mention of nuclear weapons (some paragraphs were deleted for national security reasons), but there is little doubt that Kennedy pointedly raised the issue. The memorandum further shows that Kennedy made an extraordinary private commitment to Israel's defense. "We are asking the cooperation of Israel in the same way that we are cooperating with Israel to help meet its needs," Kennedy told Meir. "Israel doubtless thinks of itself as deeply endangered. . . . Our position in these matters may seem to be asking Israel to neglect its interests. The reason we do it is not that we are unfriendly to Israel; but in order to help more effectively. I think it is quite clear that in case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel. We have that capacity and it is growing." It was language no Israeli had ever heard from Dwight Eisenhower.
Moments later, according to the memorandum, Kennedy -- anticipating the chronic crisis that would be created by the refugees of the West Bank and Gaza Strip-expressed his regret that the Arab resettlement plan had failed and said his administration would not give up trying to find some solution to the refugee situation. He added that the United States "is really interested in Israel. ... What we want from Israel arises because our relationship is a two-way street. Israel's security in the long run depends in part on what it does with the Arabs, but also on us."
Kennedy's commitment to Golda Meir, along with his decision to sell the Hawk missiles, amounted to a turning point in American foreign policy toward Israel -- one little noted even today. The Kennedy offer might have been enough, if Israel's goal had been to forge a military partnership with the United States. But Israel's needs were far more basic.
John McCone remained agitated about the Israeli bomb and the failure of his agency to determine whether a chemical reprocessing plant was buried underground at Dimona. He also was more outspoken than any other Kennedy insider on the issue; at a 1962 Washington dinner party he publicly reprimanded Charles Lucet, a senior French foreign ministry official, for France's role in the Israeli bomb. Lucet, who had served as deputy ambassador in Washington in the late 1950s (and would become ambassador in 1965), was seated near McCone, who at one point abruptly asked: "So, Mr. Lucet, your country is building a reprocessing plant for the Israelis?" Lucet replied with what was France's public position on the issue: "No, we are building a reactor." McCone then turned his back on Lucet and did not speak to him for the rest of the evening; it was, given France's high standing with the President and his wife, who were both Francophiles, a pointed rebuff. 
Kennedy was constantly raising the nuclear issue in his discussions with senior Israelis-and constantly getting boilerplate answers. In early April 1963, Shimon Peres flew to the capital to meet at the White House on the still-pending Hawk sale, and was directly asked by the President about Israeli intentions. An Israeli nuclear bomb, Kennedy said, "would create a very perilous situation. That's why we have been diligent about keeping an eye on your effort in the atomic field. What can you tell me about that?" Peres's answer was a fabrication that would become the official Israeli response for years to come: "I can tell you forthrightly that we will not introduce atomic weapons into the region. We certainly won't be the first to do so. We have no interest in that. On the contrary, our interest is in de-escalating the armament tension, even in total disarmament."
The administration's lack of specific information about Israeli intentions was complicated by the fact, as the President had to know, that many senior members of Congress supported the concept of a nuclear-armed Israel. A few days before his meeting with the President, Peres had discussed nuclear weapons with Senator Stuart Symington, a Kennedy supporter and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and had been told, as Peres told his biographer: "Don't be a bunch of fools. Don't stop making atomic bombs. And don't listen to the administration. Do whatever you think best."
Israel was doing just that. The physical plant at Dimona continued to mature. The reactor went critical-that is, began a sustained chain reaction-sometime in 1962 with no significant problems, and was capable of being operated at more than seventy megawatts, far greater than the twenty-four megawatts publicly acknowledged by the Ben-Gurion government. Running the plant hotter would create more plutonium by-product to be reprocessed, and a larger nuclear weapons stockpile than any outsider could anticipate. Later that year, the private French construction companies at Dimona, always eager for business, began once again to work on the vital chemical reprocessing plant underground at Dimona- despite de Gaulle's insistence that France would have nothing more to do with the Israeli bomb. The French would build at a furious pace for the next three years, at high pay, finishing the reprocessing plant and the elaborate waste treatment and safety facilities that were essential. French technicians and engineers, who had begun drifting away, were back in force in Beersheba, whose population was growing steadily (it reached seventy thousand by 1970).
Israeli and French scientists continued to cooperate at the French nuclear test site in the Sahara, as the experiments became more weapons-oriented. By late 1961, the French had begun a series of underground tests and were perfecting a series of miniaturized warheads for use in aircraft and, eventually, missiles. There were further tests in the early 1960s of a more advanced Shavit rocket system, with no more public announcements; CIA analysts assumed that the long-range rocket was meant for military use. And in 1963 Israel paid $100 million to the privately owned Dassault Company of France, then one of the world's most successful missile and aircraft firms, for the joint development and manufacture of twenty-five medium-range .Israeli missiles. It was anticipated that the missile, to be known to the American intelligence community as the Jericho I, would be able to deliver a miniaturized nuclear warhead to targets three hundred miles away.
By spring of 1963, Kennedy's relationship with Ben-Gurion remained at an impasse over Dimona, and the correspondence between the two became increasingly sour. None of those letters has been made public.  Ben-Gurion's responses were being drafted by Yuval Neeman, a physicist and defense ministry intelligence officer who was directly involved in the nuclear weapons program. "It was not a friendly exchange," Neeman recalled. "Kennedy was writing like a bully. It was brutal."
The President made sure that the Israeli prime minister paid for his defiance. In late April, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq united to form the short-lived Arab Federation; such unity was Ben-Gurion's recurring nightmare. He instinctively turned to Washington, and proposed in a letter to the President that the United States and Soviet Union join forces to publicly declare the territorial integrity and security of every Middle Eastern state. "If you can spare an hour or two for a discussion with me on the situation and possible solutions," Ben-Gurion asked, "I am prepared to fly to Washington at your convenience and without any publicity." Kennedy rejected Ben-Gurion's offer of a state visit and expressed "real reservations," according to Ben-Gurion's biography, about any joint statement on the issue with the Soviets. Five days later, a disappointed Ben-Gurion sent a second note to Kennedy: "Mr. President, my people have the right to exist ... and this existence is in danger." He requested that the United States sign a security treaty with Israel. Again the answer was no, and it was clear to the Mapai Party that Ben-Gurion's leadership and his intractability about Dimona were serious liabilities in Washington. Golda Meir acknowledged to Ben-Gurion's biographer, "We knew about these approaches.... We said nothing, even though we wondered."
A few weeks later, on June 16, 1963, Ben-Gurion abruptly resigned as prime minister and defense minister, ending his fifteen-year reign as Israel's most influential public official.
The many accounts of Ben-Gurion's resignation have accurately described the resurgence of scandal, public distrust, and polarization that marked his last years. The Lavon Affair, stemming from the series of pre-Suez War sabotage activities inside Egypt, had come by the early 1960s to dominate much of the public agenda inside Israel, as new revelations came to light suggesting that low-level officials in the defense ministry might have falsified documents and given misleading testimony in an effort to accuse Pinhas Lavon, the former defense minister, of authorizing the operation. Lavon, still one of the most influential members of the Mapai Party, was serving as head of the Histadrut, the powerful federation of labor unions (85 percent of the work force in Israel belonged to unions) that also controlled a large segment of Israeli industry. Lavon asked Ben-Gurion for exoneration. Ben-Gurion refused, and Lavon took his case to the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee. Once at the Knesset, he charged that Ben-Gurion, Peres, and Dayan had undermined civilian authority over the military; then he made sure that his allegations were leaked to the press. With those actions, Lavon broke two cardinal rules of Israeli politics: he discussed defense matters in public and he failed to keep the party dispute behind closed doors. The next step was a cabinet-level committee, set up at Levi Eshkol's instigation, that was to recommend procedures for investigating the Lavon allegations. But the committee, instead of dealing with the procedural issue, cleared Lavon of authorizing the failed operation in Egypt.
Ben-Gurion accused the committee of overstepping its mandate, resigned once again, and called for a new government in an unsuccessful effort to annul the decision. Many of those who opposed Ben-Gurion, especially Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir, also opposed Lavon's violation of political norms and successfully moved for his dismissal from the Histadrut job. The primary goal of the Mapai Party leaders at that moment was to get the tiresome affair behind them before the Israeli citizenry, distressed by the continuing discussion of so many government secrets, became convinced that Mapai was unable to manage the country effectively. Ben-Gurion, arguing that someone had lied, continued to insist, however, that a judicial inquiry be convened. The public came to see him as a stubborn old man who was trying to keep the issue alive; the affair tarnished his reputation and made what seemed to be his dictatorial methods of running the government more vulnerable than ever. The clear victors in the scandal were Eshkol, Sapir, and Golda Meir, who emerged with higher public standing and with renewed determination not to permit Ben-Gurion to bypass them in favor of Dayan and Peres. Dayan and Peres joined Ben-Gurion as losers: Dayan never became prime minister, and Peres waited twenty years for the job.
A second public scandal surfaced in 1962 and 1963 when it was reported that Egypt had developed-with support from some West German scientists-what were alleged to be advanced missiles capable of hitting Israel. Golda Meir and her supporters took a hard line on the Egyptian-West German activities, warning that the coalition posed a danger to Israel's national security. Ben-Gurion was far more skeptical of the threat posed by Egypt's dalliance with West German scientists and, in his public statements, emphasized the contribution that West Germany had made to Israeli security. What the public did not know was that Ben-Gurion had just completed a successful, and secret, negotiation with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for modern weaponry, including small arms, helicopters, and spare parts. For Ben-Gurion, there now was "another Germany," profoundly different from the Germany of Hitler's time and far more willing than France and America to keep Israel armed. Ben-Gurion's point of view was ignored in the wake of press hysteria over the German aid to Egypt, with newspaper talk of German "death rays" and renewed "final solutions"-all of which turned out to be exaggerated. The public campaign over the West German help for Egypt soon evolved into a wave of criticism and scorn for Ben-Gurion and his notion of "another Germany." Ben-Gurion's colleagues in the Mapai Party-especially Golda Meir, who, like many Israelis, wanted nothing to do with Germans-joined in the attack. 
The controversy over Lavon and West Germany appeared to be more than enough to convince Ben-Gurion to leave public life and return once again to his kibbutz in the desert. Tired and distracted after years of leadership, the Old Man was looking forward to writing his memoirs and telling his version of the history of Israel and Zionism. There was no way for the Israeli public, surfeited with accounts of Lavon and the German scandal, to suspect that there was yet another factor in Ben-Gurion's demise: his increasingly bitter impasse with Kennedy over a nuclear-armed Israel.
Levi Eshkol, the new prime minister, was, like Ben-Gurion, a product of Eastern Europe (he was born in 1895) who turned to Palestine and Zionism at an early age. There were few other similarities. Eshkol was far more democratic, both in politics and in personality; the notion of compromise -- so foreign to Ben-Gurion-returned to the leadership of the government and the Mapai Party. Eshkol moved quickly to lighten government control of the press and also set up an independent broadcasting authority to ease the government's monitoring and censorship of the state-run television network-reforms that Ben-Gurion had bitterly resisted. Most significantly, Eshkol had spent the last eleven years as finance minister, much of it in a struggle against funding for Dimona, and was far less committed emotionally than Ben- Gurion to the concept that hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent each year on nuclear activity to the detriment of what he and his supporters saw as Israel's most immediate need-better weapons and training for the army and air force.
Kennedy, confronted with intelligence reports showing that Israel, far from slowing down its nuclear program during his presidency, had been expanding it, wasted little time in urging nuclear restraint on the new Israeli government; private presidential messages reiterating the need for international inspection of Dimona began arriving shortly after Eshkol took office. The President's belief in arms control had been strengthened in the early fall of 1963 by the positive American response to the Senate ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space.  Continued political support for nuclear disarmament meant less reason to fear the Jewish lobby. Israel's Jericho I missile was another factor in the continued White House pressure on Eshkol. American experts considered the Jericho's guidance system to be highly unstable and inaccurate, suggesting- so the analysts concluded-that only one type of warhead made sense.
Kennedy's persistent pressure on Israel stemmed from his belief that Israel had not yet developed any nuclear weapons; that it was not yet a proliferator. There is evidence that once Israel actually began manufacturing bombs-as the French had done -the President was prepared to be as pragmatic as he needed to be. While Kennedy remained resolutely opposed to a nuclear Israel to the end, he did change his mind about de Gaulle's bombs. Daniel Ellsberg, who would later make public the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, was involved in high-level nuclear weapons issues in 1963 as a deputy in the Pentagon's Office of International Strategic Affairs: He recalled seeing one morning a "Top Secret, Eyes Only" memorandum from McGeorge Bundy to the President summarizing a change in policy toward the French: "We would, after all," Ellsberg recalled Bundy's memorandum stating, "cooperate with the French and allow them to use the Nevada test site for underground testing." At the time, the French had refused to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and de Gaulle had announced that France would continue to test its bombs in the atmosphere.  Kennedy's obvious goal was to bring France in line with the test ban treaty, whether officially signed or not. The Bundy memorandum remained fixed in Ellsberg's memory: it was dated November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, like many Vice Presidents, had been left in the dark on sensitive national security issues by the President and his top aides. "Johnson went berserk upon being briefed in by the Agency," a former high- level American intelligence official recalled. "He didn't know anything about the problem and he cursed Kennedy for cutting him out." 
Johnson's ties to Israel were strong long before he became President. Two of his closest advisers, lawyers Abe Fortas (later named to the Supreme Court) and Edwin L. Weisl, Sr., while not particularly religious, felt deeply about the security of Israel. Johnson also had known of Abe Feinberg and his fund-raising skills since the Truman years; Feinberg was among those who had raised money for Johnson's successful 1948 campaign for the Senate.
There was a much deeper link, however, that had nothing to do with campaign funds: Johnson had visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau while on a congressional fact-finding trip at the end of World War II. His wife, Lady Bird, told a Texas historian years after Johnson's death that he had returned "just shaken, bursting with overpowering revulsion and incredulous horror at what he had seen. Hearing about it is one thing, being there is another." There are no photographs of the visit, but Johnson's congressional archives contain a full set of U.S. Army photos taken two days after the liberation of the death camp on April 30, 1945.
Johnson's sensitivity to the plight of European Jews had begun even before World War II when, as a young congressman from Texas, he was urged by Jewish supporters in his home district to cut through Washington's red tape and get asylum in America for German refugees running for their lives. Once the refugees got into the country, Johnson had worked hard to keep them in, and his congressional files show that Erich Leinsdorf, the eminent conductor, was among those whose deportation Johnson had prevented. Leinsdorf had made a stunning American debut with New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1938, but was scheduled to be deported late in the year when his six-month visa was up. Deportation to Austria after the Nazi Anschluss in Vienna meant slow death in a concentration camp. Johnson won the respect and the financial backing of the Jewish community in Texas by taking on the Leinsdorf case, and others, and finding a way to circumvent the rules. 
President Johnson stayed loyal to his old friends. Five weeks after assuming office, he dedicated a newly constructed Austin synagogue, Agudas Achim, as a favor to James Novy, a longtime Texas political ally and Zionist leader who was chairman of the building committee. He was the first American President to do so, yet only a few newspapers took note of the event. In his introduction, Novy, once the Southwest regional chair- man of the Zionist Organization of America, looked at the President and said, "We can't ever thank him enough for all those Jews he got out of Germany during the days of Hitler." Lady Bird Johnson later explained: "Jews have been woven into the warp and woof of all his years."
Lyndon Johnson was quickly consumed by the Vietnam War, and what he saw as the struggle of a small democratic nation against the forces of Communism. But Israel likewise was perceived as a besieged democracy standing up to the Soviet Union and its clients in the Arab world. Johnson's strong emotional ties to Israel and his belief that Soviet arms were altering the balance of power in the Middle East drove him to become the first American President to supply Israel with offensive weapons and the first publicly to commit America to its defense. The American Jewish community eventually would be torn apart by Johnson's continued prosecution of the Vietnam War, with many Jewish leaders insisting that Johnson's steadfast support of Israel entitled him to loyalty on Vietnam, while others continued to oppose the war on principle. In the early years of his presidency, however, Johnson echoed Kennedy's policy by urging Israel to submit Dimona to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection. His support for nonproliferation and his desire to end the Cold War were motivated by his belief that only by a relaxing of international ensions could he achieve his ultimate goal-the extension of the New Deal to all Americans. A nuclear Israel was unacceptable: it could mean a nuclear Egypt, increased Soviet involvement in the Middle East, and perhaps war.
1. Lucet was offended by McCone's action and, upon his return to Paris, relayed the incident to Bertrand Goldschmidt. "He asked me if we could separate France from responsibility for the [Israeli] bomb," Goldschmidt recalled with a laugh. "I said, 'No. Not only did we take the girl when she was a virgin, but we made her pregnant.'"
2. The Kennedy exchanges with Ben-Gurion also have not been released to U.S. government officials with full clearances who have attempted to write classified histories of the period. "The culminate result" of such rigid security, one former American official lamented, "is a very poorly informed bureaucracy -- even if there are people willing to buck the system and ask taboo questions."
3. The German issue was a never-ending and emotional one for a nation led by survivors of the Holocaust; any diplomatic contact resulted in a crisis. There had been street riots in front of the Knesset in 1952 to protest the initial Israeli-West German talks over compensation for the loss of Jewish lives and property in the Holocaust. Cash-starved Israel eventually accepted more than $800 million in reparations. Tensions remained, despite the flow of money: an Israeli violinist was later stabbed on the street after performing the music of Richard Strauss in public. In June 1959, a furor over the sale of Israeli munitions to West Germany resulted in another brief resignation by Ben-Gurion and yet another call for new elections. The Mapai Party held on to its Knesset majority, and Ben-Gurion, confidence vote in hand, returned to office.
4. Arthur Schlesinger described in A Thousand Days how Kennedy, "almost by accident," raised the nuclear test ban during a speech in Billings, Montana. The President casually praised Senator Mike J. Mansfield, the majority leader from Montana, for his support for the treaty. "To his surprise," wrote Schlesinger, "this allusion produced strong and sustained applause. Heartened, he [Kennedy] set forth his hope of lessening the 'chance of a military collision between those two great nuclear powers which together have the power to kill three hundred million people in the short space of a day.' The Billings response encouraged him to make the pursuit of peace increasingly the theme of his trip."
5. The French had been cut out from any postwar nuclear cooperation by the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, which prohibited the transfer of American nuclear weapons information to any other country. In 1958, President Eisenhower recommended, and Congress approved, an amendment to the 1946 act that permitted the United States to exchange nuclear design information and fissionable materials with the British; France, of course, was enraged by the exclusion. (Britain ended up completely dependent on the United States by the early 1960s for its strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, a status that existed into the early 1990s.) The Kennedy administration continued to antagonize the French on nuclear issues. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, distressed at France's nuclear independence and its continued testing in the Sahara, went on a public campaign in 1962 against the force de frappe. In a famous spring commencement address at the University of Michigan (in which he announced that the United States was moving away in its targeting from massive retaliation to limited nuclear war), McNamara criticized "weak national nuclear forces" as being "dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence, and lacking in credibility as a deterrent." Instead, he insisted, the nations of Europe should buy American arms and rockets to build up their conventional forces and let the United States handle the issue of nuclear deterrence. He had delivered essentially the same message a few weeks earlier in Athens, enraging not only de Gaulle, but America's NATO allies. "... [A]ll the allies are angry," British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary, "with the American proposal that we should buy rockets to the tune of umpteen million dollars, the warheads to be under American control. This is not a European rocket. It's a racket of the American industry.... It's rather sad, because the Americans (who are naive and inexperienced) are up against centuries of diplomatic skill and finesse." Continued U.S. opposition to the force de frappe was one reason for de Gaulle's 1966 decision to remove France from NATO's military organization and evict NATO headquarters and all allied military facilities from French territory.
6. Johnson similarly had been excluded from the intense meetings and discussions during the Cuban missile crisis the year before, and it was left to John McCone to tell the Vice President about the issue just hours before it was to be made public. "Johnson was pissed," McCone later told Walt Elder, and, "harrumphing and belching," threatened not to support the President on the issue if the Senate leadership did not. McCone assured the Vice President that the Senate was indeed backing the President, and the placated Vice President reversed course.
7. Jews in Europe found it extremely difficult in the 1930s to get visas for the United States, although American immigration quotas went unfilled. Between 1933 and 1938, for example, only 27,000 German Jews were granted entry visas to the United States, far less than the 129,875 permissible under the quotas. More on Johnson's early role in support of Jews can be found in "Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background," an unpublished 1989 University of Texas doctoral thesis by Louis S. Gomolak.