156. Action Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Inspecting Israel’s Nuclear Reactor

Secretary Rusk has approved instructing Ambassador Barbour to ask Prime Minister Eshkol for another visit by US experts to the Israeli [Page 309] nuclear reactor at Dimona. Our last visit was in April 1967. Eshkol has acquiesced in periodic visits every 12-13 months, although he has never been enthusiastic.

The visit this year is more important than ever. Up through last spring, we were reasonably confident that the Dimona reactor was being used only for research and that the Israelis were making no attempt to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The reactor used fuel elements from France which had to be returned to France when used. Late last year, however, there were indications that Israel was processing ore obtained without safeguards from Argentina. This could be to make their own fuel elements so they wouldn’t have to depend either on France or on safeguarded material.

We have no evidence that Israel has facilities for separating significant amounts of plutonium from irradiated fuel—the next step toward weapons production. But our experts say that last winter’s activity could portend a decision to build such a plant. They estimate it would be only two years from that decision to Israel’s first weapons test. Eshkol’s response to our request could be an important clue to his intentions (though his political difficulties with the visit will also play a role).

Secretary Rusk has already sent the message we showed you urging Israel to support the NPT.2 Eban’s staff says Israel won’t make up its mind till toward the end of the year. This visit to Dimona will provide another avenue for reminding them that we’re serious about opposing their going nuclear. Since Barbour will be making this request without reference to you, I should think this would carry minimum risk for the time being.3

Walt
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. IX, Cables and Memos, 3/68-5/68. Secret; Exdis. A notation indicates that the memorandum was received at 6:45 p.m.
  2. See Document 155.
  3. President Johnson approved Rostow’s recommendation.