The Secret Handwritten Memos behind Israel’s Nuclear Project: What Do They Tell Us and How to Study Them
Or Rabinowitz assesses a mysterious trove of handwritten Hebrew-language notes that seemingly contain secret snippets of Israel’s nuclear history.
The development of Israel’s secretive nuclear program and the concurrent evolution of its policy of nuclear ambiguity, which included an Israeli decision not to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), have been at the heart of a growing body of literature in recent years. This burgeoning scholarly interest in Israeli nuclear history has been fueled by access to newly available documents and sources. These include non-Israeli sources, mainly from archives in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as some Israeli sources that are largely unverified. In this post, I will discuss the backstory of a unique and potentially revelatory set of Israeli sources.
Several years ago, a trove of handwritten Hebrew-language notes that seemingly contained heretofore secret snippets of Israel’s nuclear history surfaced. An undisclosed source gave Israeli historian Adam Raz –the author of two books in Hebrew about Israel’s nuclear history – an envelope full of handwritten notes, letters, and protocols, all related to Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s and 1970s. The notes are generally unsigned (leaving the authorship unclear or in doubt) and many are also undated.
Although several of these tantalizing documents were published in the Israeli press, the unclear provenance and unusual backstory of the notes makes it nearly impossible for historians to authenticate them. In other words, there is no authoritative way of telling whether the documents are genuine or not. Naturally, these sources should be treated by researchers carefully. However, the different handwritings in the notes appear to match those of several important Israeli ministers active in the 1960s, lending credibility to their authenticity. I treat them as an important auxiliary source which sheds light into Israel’s nuclear history, but not as a sole source for conclusive information on Israel’s nuclear history. Raz has kindly made these documents available to me, and below I discuss four of these notes.
The first document, presumably from Minister Yigal Allon, most likely circa 1969-1970, demonstrates that Israel adopted the NPT’s nuclear test criteria for its own purposes, allowing the Israeli leadership to maintain that Israel was not a nuclear state because it had not conducted a nuclear test. The note, which seems to have been written by Allon to Minister Israel Galili at an unspecified date, states the following: “Yisrael, I keep using the agreed term with Kissinger, that Israel is not a nuclear state. This definition stems from the agreement against proliferation of nuclear weapons. According to this agreement, a nuclear state is a state which has exploded a bomb or a device.”
The adoption of the NPT’s nuclear test criteria in this note mirrored Israel’s official language at the time when discussing the issue with US State Department officials.
A second document, presumably by Minister Yisrael Galili sometime in 1970, discusses the publication of a story on Israel’s nuclear program in the New York Times. According to the note, the story mentions “the agreement we have with the President,” alluding to the 1969 Richard Nixon-Golda Meir deal on Israel’s nuclear status. The note further attempts to analyze which source within the Nixon administration had approached the paper and leaked assessments on Israel’s nuclear capabilities, underscoring the secrecy and the sensitivity surrounding the 1969 understanding. The note refers to “An attempt to reduce the tension that was created by the President and Kissinger’s statements opposing the Russian involvement and a call to attain a political solution (albeit by coercion) before Israel threw the entire region into an atomic war (namely Rogers and his friends)”, referencing the diplomatic crisis which took place at the time between Israel and the United States against the backdrop of Soviet military deployment in Egypt, during the last stage of the Israel-Egyptian War of Attrition.
[top left vignette] N.Y times, item regarding nuclear issue
[Top right] 18 July 1970
[headline of stationary] State of Israel, Prime Minister office
“There are a few possibilities:
1. The same circle that does not know about the agreement we have with the President.
2. The circle which knows and opposes the President’s position in this matter.
3. An attempt to reduce the tension that was created by the President and Kissinger’s statements opposing the Russian involvement and a call to attain a political solution (albeit by coercion) before Israel threw the entire region into an atomic war (namely Rogers and his friends).
[Bottom right hand side vignette]
“by the way, Warnke, who is the owner [sic; i.e. source] of the conversation, no longer serves in the administration”
Two additional documents pertain to the earlier years of the Israeli program.
One of these notes was presumably written by Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir. Indeed, according to Sapir’s daughter, it is his handwriting. In the early 1960s, the Dimona project caused internal political tension and did not enjoy a consensus. In addition, the projected costs of the reactor’s construction were widely underestimated. In an undated note seemingly written by Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir to Minister Yisrael Galili, Sapir asked: “had we known in advance that it will cost 340 million dollars – would we have voted for Dimona?”.
The note underscores the tension between those in the Israeli leadership who spearheaded the construction of Dimona, led by Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, and those who doubted it and its financial feasibility, like Allon and others.
A final document, written by unknown author (possibly Yisrael Galili) to unknown recipient, dates from September 1963. It points to the fact that Israel saw itself as complying strictly with the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by David Ben-Gurion in his letters to President John F. Kennedy, referred to in the note as “B.G letters.” The note consists of a list of short explanatory statements on the nature of these commitments and how Israel interprets them:
- “We did not disclose the object of the factory;”
- “We did not commit to inspection;”
- “We mentioned and stressed sovereignty in the timing of friendly inspections;”
- “We did not break from the content of B.G letters;”
- and “The French inspection procedure on the fuel before start-up
This blog post forms part of a project on the constitutional history of the NPT funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
About the Author
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more
Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more