Michael KreponAn Introduction to Non-introduction

Israel’s nuclear posture is unique. Some countries with “advanced nuclear capabilities,” such as India and China, have publicly adopted “No First Use” postures. Israel has adopted a declaratory policy that it will not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. This posture has been met with widespread and willing suspension of disbelief, as it serves many useful purposes. How did the “NFI” posture come about? And has its meaning evolved over time?

Avner Cohen has produced the most complete account we now have of Israel’s NFI posture in his fine book, Israel and the Bomb. The key junctures of NFI, as chronicled by Cohen are as follows:

1. A meeting between President Kennedy and Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres on April 2, 1963. Kennedy pressed Peres hard to offer assurances that would support the President’s nonproliferation agenda. According to U.S. notes of the meeting, Peres said the following:

“I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.” The meeting with Kennedy was called on short notice, and Peres apparently improvised this answer, much to the discomfort of other Israeli leaders. When asked to recollect about this exchange in 1991, Peres said, “I did not want to lie to the President, but I could not answer his question straight, either. So I came up with what has become Israel’s policy for years to come.”

2. A Memorandum of Understanding reached on March 10, 1965 between Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and NSC official Robert Komer and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Walworth Barbour. In this MOU, the U.S. “reaffirmed its concern for the maintenance of Israel’s security” and to the “independence and integrity” of Israel. In return, “the Government of Israel has reaffirmed that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Arab-Israel area.”

3. An address to the Knesset by Eshkol on May 18, 1966, in which the Prime Minister stated, “I have said before and I repeat that Israel has no atomic weapons and will not be the first to introduce them into our region.”

Cohen’s careful account of this nuclear history includes very few attempts by U.S. officials to clarify the meaning of Israel’s NFI pledge. The principle exception occurred in the Johnson administration, which negotiated and championed the NPT. Paul Warnke, then a high-ranking Pentagon official, was under instructions from Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk to try to add definition and constraints to Israel’s NFI pledge. Warnke met several times with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin in November 1968, where these two men engaged in an oblique, yet crucial discussion about the meaning of Israel’s NFI pledge. Whatever leverage Warnke had was in the form of F-4s, which Israel desperately wanted. Rabin, who was without instructions, spoke extemporaneously. He suggested that the NFI pledge be characterized in terms of not testing nuclear weapons and not publicly declaring their possession. Warnke sought to expand Rabin’s offerings to include “physical possession.” (The State Department held out the vain hope in the Johnson administration that Israel could sign the NPT under its NFI pledge.) Rabin rejected physical possession as a constituent element of Israel’s NFI pledge. U.S. notes of the November 12, 1968 meeting has Warnke summarizing this discussion as follows: “In your view, an unadvertised, untested nuclear device is not a nuclear weapon.” Rabin’s response was, “Yes, that is correct.”

LBJ granted the sale of F-4s to Israel, and Israel did not sign the NPT. End of story? Not quite.

Two signal events have raised further questions about Israel’s NFI pledge. Just prior to the Six Day War in 1967, Israel is reliably reported to have readied a small number of nuclear weapons for operational use, if necessary. Missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons were also readied for use. This helps to explain Rabin’s refusal to endorse Warnke’s formulations, but it highly qualifies Israel’s NFI pledge.

Then there is Rabin’s unqualified “no test” pledge. On September 22, 1979, U.S. monitoring capabilities registered data suggestive of a low-yield nuclear event in the South Atlantic. One possibility was an Israeli test in collaboration with the Government of South Africa, or some variation thereof. A distinguished panel of U.S. technical experts, led by Jack Ruina, which included Dick Garwin Wolfgang Panofsky, and Luis Alvarez, poured over these data and gave Israel the benefit of the doubt. A new book by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, The Nuclear Express, paints a very different picture. Reed and Stillman’s book contains factual errors and unsupported assertions, but their account of the South Atlantic event cannot be summarily dismissed.

Avner Cohen, who knows more about Israel’s nuclear program than anyone else writing on the subject, treats this matter only inferentially, and with tortured logic:

Politically, the first full-yield nuclear test signifies the transition from secrecy to the public phase. A test provided a clear cut and visible criterion for recognizing when and how the nuclear threshold had been crossed. Nuclear proliferation was thus perceived as an either/or process: as long as a country did not conduct a full-yield test it was still given the benefit of the doubt concerning its nuclear status. Israel made its nuclear pursuit piecemeal and by taking advantage of this conceptualization of the proliferation process.

A great many nuclear weapon tests have been carried out at less than full yield – including the Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean tests. If Israel has participated in such a test well beyond the Middle East, does this accord with its NFI pledge?


  1. Arnold Evans (History)

    I think Iran won’t be getting the same logical backflips when it announces that it will not “introduce” weapons to the Middle East either.

  2. Azr@el (History)

    Aren’t all accusations of an IRI nuclear weapons program rooted in the implicit refutation of this line with repect to the impact of Israel’s NFI upon the greater South Eurasian Theater;
    “This posture has been met with widespread and willing suspension of disbelief”

  3. anon

    This is no more than a pathetic academic debate about the serious survival of millions of Israeli people.
    You need to come up for air.

  4. FSB

    Kissinger was content to accept a private assurance that Israel was a “non-nuclear weapons State” because it “would in effect ask the Israelis to accept privately the key obligation of the NPT.”

    Well, that sure turned out well…maybe Iran should consider the same tack…

  5. MarkoB

    Another interesting question is the evolution of US policy from Johnson to Nixon. My understanding is that Nixon really nailed the policy of opacity, in which case since Nixon the US has accepted the Israeli definition that is discussed here. The quote from Warnke, and the response, is a classic for any self-respecting analyst to file away. Thanks :)

    So, what is the US meaning of Article I of the NPT? Does this mean that if Iran develops a nuclear device, but does not announce that it has and does not test that it thereby would not be in violation of Article 1? Is there a difference between “manufacturing” a nuclear device and “introducing” one? It would seem to me that the argument is; Israel has manufactured nuclear weapons but has not introduced them in the same way that GM might have manufactured a car but precludes its introduction on the road.

    However, Israel reportedly deployed warheads on delivery vehicles during the Yom Kippur War/War of Ramadan in the early 70s. So even deploying warheads on delivery vehicles in some un-specified alert posture also does not constitute introducing nuclear weapons to the region? That’s a stretch.

    Notice that this war occurred during Nixon’s watch so right when opacity became settled policy.

  6. FSB
  7. FSB

    If no-use (or no-test) means you don’t have a nuclear weapon, then all the RRWs will also not be nuclear weapons since they will never be tested, right?

    US will then finally have zero nukes once we have signed onto RRW.

    But since the neocon hawks don’t want the USA to have zero nukes this means they must oppose RRW.

    hmmmmmm….insert logical explosion here!

    I can also show how black == white if no-use means no-possession.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Just to be a bit lawyerly (I’m not one): On being the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region, the US apparently was the first at Wheelus AFB in Libya in the early 1950s. So introduction subsequent to that time was obviously not the first.

  9. a non-anon

    In 1958, the State Department defined the “region” as including only Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

    Not Libya.

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    > In 1958, the State Department defined the “region” as including only…

    Ah, thanks. Do we know if the Israelis accept that definition?

  11. raghar (History)

    From my point of view non introduce in this context simply means:
    1. They wouldn’t give them to other countries in the Middle east.
    2. They will not wave them around and talk about deterrence.

  12. Rwendland (History)

    There are a couple of memos at the Nixon Library that don’t seem to be at the NSA. One early memo in particular is very illuminating Israeli Nuclear Program from Kissinger to Nixon, 16 July 1969. The memo summarises a number of opinions (JSC, Defense & State), and seems a bit contradictory, but just some on the info there is:

    a) 10 out of 24-30 Jerichos were planned for nuclear weapons and 12 had already been delivered from France.

    b) The administration’s dilemma was “Israel will not take us seriously on the nuclear issue unless we are prepared to withhold … the Phantoms [or more] … On the other hand, if we withhold the Phantoms and they make the fact public in the U.S., enormous political pressure will be mounted on us. We will be in an indefensible position if we cannot state why we are withholding the planes. Yet if we explain our position publicly, we will be the ones to make Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons public with all the international consequences this entails.”

    c) and “public knowledge is almost as dangerous as possession itself. This is what might spark a Soviet nuclear guarantee for the Arabs … and increase danger of our involvement. … while we might ideally like to halt actual Israel possession, what we really want at a minimum may be just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact.”

    A later NSC Kissinger to Nixon memo notes that if there was an Arab-Israel settlement requiring Israel to give up the security of expanded borders, the U.S. “would probably have to relax on the nuclear issue.”

    This pretty much sets the scene for all that followed. Doesn’t look like the U.S. had any wool pulled over its eyes by Israel. To be fair the first memo says JCS and State wanted to stop Israel final assembling the bombs, and Defense did not want them deployed – so maybe the above snips I give is more the Kissinger view.

  13. V.S. (History)

    So according to the NFI doctrine we can expect to see an Israeli test shortly after the first Iranian test? Kind of like the Pakistani response to the Indian test in 1998.

  14. hass (History)

    Hmmm…by 1974, the CIA had concluded that Israel had developed nukes, in part with highly-enriched uranium that was obained by Israel through “clandestine means” from the US in 1965 from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation in Apollo, PA. As the NY Times article says, the CIA report stated that a test of the weapon was not really deemed necessary. The CIA report from 1974 is here

  15. FSB

    Thanks Rwendland!

    Yes, I think it is better to say that US was held hostage to the domestic Israeli lobby: “On the other hand, if we withhold the Phantoms and they make the fact public in the U.S., enormous political pressure will be mounted on us. We will be in an indefensible position if we cannot state why we are withholding the planes.”

    There could easily have been a counter-threat to Israel saying that not make public the fact that the phantoms are being withheld or else…xyz…where xyz are any number of options.

  16. Robert Merkel (History)

    Sorry if I sound a bit thick here, but isn’t this all, well, a bit academic?

    As I understand it, the point of this whole exercise is to give everyone – the Israelis, the USA, other middle eastern governments – plausible (using a rather expansive definition of plausible) deniability that Israel has the bomb.

    If that’s the case, if Israel really did conduct a test in the South Atlantic back in 1979, or conducted tests on the far side of the moon, or for that matter got the USA to test one of their devices in Nevada, it doesn’t matter as far as the policy goes.

    What matters to all the governments concerned is that no unambiguous evidence of the test reaches the public domain.

    Even then, I suspect most governments would continue to claim that up is down, black is white, and that Israel hasn’t introduced nuclear weapons to the middle east.

  17. V.S. (History)

    There seem to be some clues about the time that the Americans knew about it or even the French and others.

    But can anyone help me with the following: When did the Egyptians and the Arabs in general realized that Israel had nukes?

    It’s important not only from a historical point of view but also from a theoretical one. Scott Sagan in “The spread of nuclear weapons” makes the argument that nukes actually don’t manage to deter even non-nuclear weapons states from launching a conventional attack against a state that possesses nuclear weapons. He uses the example of Argentina vs. Britain but also kind of makes the assumption that the Egyptians already knew by 1973, still they were not deterred from launching the attack that sparked the Yom-Kippur war.

    Also, any clue on HOW did the Arabs find out. Did the Soviets tip the Egyptians off or was it “leaked” from the Israelis/Americans so as to achieve the deterrent effect that in the end of the day, in theory at least, is the goal of having the damn things?

    Any idea, help, citation will be more than welcome.

  18. Rwendland (History)

    One interesting thing from the U.S. memos is the view that the NPT is “deliberately obscure” on the position of existing nuclear weapons when a state ratifies the NPT. Ratifying only says the state will not manufacture further nuclear weapons.

    In the 16 July 1969 memo the U.S. (JCS, Defense, State, Kissinger) seems to consider taking advantage of this: “Everyone agreed that … we want Israel to sign the NPT. This is not because signing will make any difference in Israel’s actual nuclear program because Israel could produce weapons clandestinely. Israel’s signature would, however, give us a publicly feasible issue to raise with the Israeli government — a way of opening the discussion. … we should try to get from Israel a bilateral understanding on Israel’s nuclear intentions because the NPT is not precise enough and because the Phantom aircraft are potential nuclear weapon carriers.”

    The U.S. seemed very intent on not themselves disclosing that Israel has nuclear weapons, even though they knew. I don’t fully understand exactly why: candidates are a) effect on states about to sign/ratify NPT, b) Jewish reaction in U.S., c) preventing U.S. export of warplanes/missiles to Israel, d) effect on Arab populace causing public Soviet nuclear guarantee, e) possible exposure of French and British (and U.S.?) help to Israel nuclear program.

  19. FSB

    an easy answer to your question about the possibilities you list is to ask yourself — With which other country would U.S. have behaved similarly? None.

    So I think it is mostly b) but probably all of the above.

  20. Evelyn Owen (History)

    <a href=http://12vzz72a3da09ms7.com/>x733aq97va00d3yh</a>

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