Middle East Studies

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Israel’s Nuclear Option

Behind the Scenes Diplomacy between Dimona and Washington

Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute at Ben-Gurion University. He is also member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel's defense policy, the Arab–Israeli conflict, and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel's struggle against Islamic terror.

Documents the development of Israel’s nuclear option, the most ambitious strategic project ever undertaken by the State of Israel

Draws on extensive source material, including recently declassified defense information

Examines the sequence of events and character of the dialogue between the US and Israel

Presents Israel’s overall nuclear policy and questions the current value of the policy of nuclear opacity

In the early 1950s, Israel secretly launched a project designed to achieve a nuclear option. Initially supported by France, this daring project stood to engineer a dramatic change in Israel’s strategic position vis-à-vis its neighboring Arab states and the wider international community. A nuclear program was driven by the firm conviction of David Ben-Gurion that Israel’s existence could be guaranteed only with the aid of such a deterrent. The ensuing nuclear defense strategy was upheld by successive Israeli governments.

Adamantly opposed to America’s request to allow external supervision of its nuclear activity, Israel labored to avert a potentially disastrous rift with its one superpower ally. Israel's Nuclear Option recounts the dialogue and related diplomatic activity that took place during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Ben-Gurion and Eshkol premierships. The intense and often difficult discussions, which pitted Israel's security concerns against the United States’ determined goal to stem nuclear proliferation, eventually produced a set of formal and informal strategic understandings regarding Israel’s nuclear deterrence.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-013-2
Hardback Price: £47.50 / $69.95
Release Date: April 2005
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-014-9
Paperback Price: £18.95 / $32.50
Release Date: April 2005
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No



1 Historical Background
Ben-Gurion's Perception of Israel and the Arab World
The French Connection

2 The Kennedy Administration's "Low Profile" Policy
Publicizing the Reactor
The First Dialogue with the Kennedy Administration
Great Britain and the Dimona Project
The Ben-Gurion–Kennedy Meeting

3 The Volte-Face in American Policy
Behind the Reversal
The Implementation of the "Crushing" Offensive

4 The Eshkol–Kennedy Dialogue
The Domestic Debate and Ben-Gurion's Resignation
Renewed American Pressure
A Return to the Low Profile

5 Launching a Dialogue with the Johnson Administration
The Alleged Security Débâcle
The Initial Eshkol–Johnson Dialogue

6 The Enhanced US–Israel Chemistry
Debates over the Missile Project
The Eshkol–Johnson Meetings of June 1964

7 The Road to the American–Israeli Memorandum of Understandings
New Appeals to Egypt
Eshkol's Personal Request
The Harriman–Komer Mission
The Memorandum of Understandings

8 The Monitoring Dispute
The Last US Attempt to Turn Back the Clock
The Post-Election Dialogue
The Representatives' Visit
Subsequent Discussions on Monitoring

9 The Challenge of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Aftermath of the Six Day War
The Phantoms Negotiations
Johnson's Final Effort toward the NPT

10 Israel's Nuclear Option: An Assessment
Postscript Israel's Current Nuclear Policy


The book focuses in considerable detail on the diplomatic exchanges on arrangements and understandings of the nature, scope, and monitoring of Israel’s nuclear activity between Israel and US administrations, which often took a benign view of that activity. Shalom concludes that this historical account has relevance for the current US–Israel diplomatic dialogue on nuclear policy and on arms control.

While Israel’s nuclear status has long been an open secret, the details surrounding the nuclear program and its impact on the Middle East are complex and elusive. In this book, Zaki Shalom draws upon a rich collection of primary sources (including some recently declassified material) to examine the history of Israel’s nuclear program and its effects on Israel’s strategic and diplomatic standing in the world. Within that context, Shalom considers whether Israel should maintain its current nuclear policy or replace it with a more open one.
Middle East Journal

“Zaki Shalom recounts the US–Israel dialogue on Israel’s nuclear project, and delineates the limitations a superpower faces when trying to impose its security agenda on a regional ally. Shalom’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Israeli nuclear project, and the diplomacy of arms control.” Prof. Yair Evron, The School of Government and Policy, The Security Studies Program, Tel Aviv University

In recent years much of the vaunted 'opacity' of Israel’s nuclear weapons status has been stripped away by scholars and critics. In this context, Zaki Shalom contributes a thorough, painstakingly documented blow-by-blow account of the diplomatic dimension of the process by which Israel, unbidden, penetrated the nuclear club. Shalom’s work is exemplary archival research, refreshingly old-fashioned in its assiduous attention to multiple primary sources, showing the strengths of a documentary focus even on such a ‘sensitive’ topic. As an established scholar of David Ben-Gurion he is particularly effective in underlining how Ben-Gurion's audacity was key to the decision to push ahead; put simply, there was nothing preordained or certain, in the 1950s and 1960s, about Israel’s seemingly quixotic pursuit of nuclear capability.
Alan Dowty, Kahanoff Chair Professor of Israel Studies, University of Calgary

This solidly researched work is based on an impressive range of documents. Shalom provides a broad, fascinating picture that reflects innovative research findings on the major changes in the administration's thinking on Israel’s 'nuclear option' and on Eshkol's ability to navigate Israel's nuclear policy wisely, cautiously and cleverly.

Shalom focuses on the reciprocal relations between
Jerusalem and Washington with regard to Israel’s nuclear program. Building on Shalom’s and others’ research into this topic, Israel’s Nuclear Option is the product of an archival search in Israel and elsewhere and is based on original documents, most of which have never been hitherto publicly revealed.
Middle East Quarterly

This book, an English version of the Hebrew original, focuses on disclosing a mine of information on the secret American–Israeli discussions on the Israeli nuclear project at Dimona. As such, the English version is true to the book’s title and should be acknowledged as an important contribution, not only to the growing research on Israel’s nuclear history that was missing from conventional histories for decades but also as a key to understanding the connection between American domestic and foreign policies in regard to Israel. The central thesis of the book is that Israel was able to procure and develop its nuclear ‘option’ between 1957 and the Six Day War ten years later despite both public and secret efforts by American administrations at the time to stop nuclear proliferation worldwide, particularly in regard to Israel’s nuclear option.
... The main merit of the book is the large and detailed discussion of many heretofore closed primary diplomatic sources, mainly American but also British, French, and Canadian ones.
International Journal of Middle East Studies

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