Dan Sagir

Henry Kissinger and Israel’s nuclear posture

It was Kissinger's recommendation to President Nixon that led to the United States de facto recognizing Israel's nuclear status
Presidential adviser Henry Kissinger briefs newsman on the upcoming state visit of Soviet Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev in Washington, Thursday, June 14, 1973. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
Henry Kissinger in 1973 (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

The American-Jewish statesman Henry Kissinger, who passed away last weekend at the age of 100, was not a popular figure in Israel during his tenure as the national security adviser and secretary of state in President Nixon’s administration.

Following the Yom Kippur War, in which he played a central role, he mediated between Israel and Egypt and Syria to secure ceasefire agreements and troop disengagements. Later on, he worked towards achieving interim agreements for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, ultimately leading to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Kissinger was attacked by the Israeli right, who, despite his being a Jew whose family immigrated from Germany to the US following the rise of the Nazis to power, pressured Israel to return territories to its Arab adversaries.

Yet Kissinger’s great contribution to Israel’s security was never credited to him. It was his recommendation to President Nixon that led to the United States de facto recognizing Israel’s nuclear status, subject to adopting a policy of opacity.

After his retirement, Kissinger, who wrote extensively about his activity as a statesman on the international scene, refrained, due to the sensitivity of the subject, from telling about his major involvement in reaching the understandings between the United States and Israel on the nuclear issue in September 1969.

President Richard Nixon points out some of the beauty surrounding his Florida retreat at Key Biscayne to Henry Kissinger, prior to their ‘extensive consultations,’ December 2, 1972. The two men talked on the new rounds of meetings with the North Vietnamese prior to Kissinger’s departure for Washington later today. (AP Photo/Bob Schutz)

We know about Henry Kissinger’s support for the idea of ​​Israel becoming an undeclared nuclear state from a closed conversation that took place while he was a professor at Harvard University.

In 1964, Col. Dan Hiram, who was appointed special adviser to the Minister of Defense and was formerly the IDF attaché in Great Britain, met with two professors from Harvard University, Thomas Schelling and Henry Kissinger. From his confidential report, it appears that the Israeli rationale for turning to the development of nuclear capabilities in view of its strategic situation was supported and strengthened by both of them.

Schelling, an early formulator of nuclear deterrence theory who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his research, argued that Israel should take advantage of its ability to develop nuclear arms because that was its strongest bargaining chip vis-à-vis the US administration and the region as a whole.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, right, and Premier Golda Meir are all smiles as they met with each other in the premier’s Jerusalem office on February 27, 1974. Dr. Kissinger is on his fourth Mideast peacemaking mission. (AP Photo/Max Nash)

At the same time, Kissinger felt that, although maintaining the status quo was the basic problem, Israel’s security reality nevertheless required it to strike first, meaning that an alliance with the US would not resolve Israel’s intrinsic issues. In his view, only the development of a nuclear option could provide a response to Egypt’s missile development.

Five years after, he recommended in a closed conversation that Israel continue with its nuclear program, President Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969, and Kissinger was appointed as his National Security Adviser, thus joining the group of decision makers in the American government regarding the United States’ policy with respect to Israel’s nuclear capability. At the same time, Israel also underwent a change of leadership as Golda Meir was sworn in as Prime Minister.

After years of futile efforts to discourage Israel’s nuclear program, the new government in Washington came to the conclusion that, while not entirely contradicting American interests, there exists a strategic congruence between the United States and Israel.

During the discussions between Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador in Washington, the White House came to realize that Israel’s nuclear capability had become a fait accompli. A realistic approach from the government’s side would influence Israel to play down its strategic advantage in order to prevent, to the extent possible, the region from being drawn into a nuclear arms race.

Prime Minister Golda Meir and Dr. Henry Kissinger flanked by ambassador Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Leah, during a cocktail at the ambassador’s house in Washington, DC, welcoming Prime Minister Meir on her official visit to the US, February 27, 1973. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

In September of that year, the new leaders reached historic understandings on the Israeli nuclear issue, which reflected the political thinking of Nixon and Meir amid the new political and strategic reality. The new “Golda-Nixon understandings” from September 1969 were thus based on an assumption – tacit and unacknowledged – that Israel possesses nuclear arms.

Nixon and Kissinger reconciled themselves to Israel’s nuclear status; the president gave Israel to understand that the US would neither object to that status nor try to turn back the clock, so long as Israel kept a low nuclear profile. Until today, these tacit understandings between Israel and the US have been passed down over the years from one president to the next.

In contrast to other historical events in which he was involved, on the sensitive nuclear issue Kissinger refrained from publicizing his role. However, because he was the major creative force in the Nixon administration, as well as the figure most prominently credited with shaping US Mideast policy during those years, we may conclude that it was Kissinger who recommended to the President that the confrontations with Israel over the nuclear issue be discontinued, and that understandings be reached whose practical implication would be American acceptance of Israel’s nuclear status.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Sagir is a research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, "Weapons of Mass Deterrence: The Secret Behind Israel's Nuclear Power," was recently published (Amazon).
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