The Helen Thomas question


At a White House press conference on 22 April 2010, Helen Thomas, a veteran White House reporter, posed the following question to President Obama:


Mr President, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?”


Obama’s answer was as follows:


With respect to nuclear weapons, I don’t want to speculate.  What I know is this: if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger and one of my goals is to prevent proliferation generally.  I think it’s important for the United States in concert with Russia to lead the way on this.”


There, Obama engaged in the absurd pretence that he didn’t know that Israel possessed nuclear weapons.  He engaged in the absurd pretence because it is official US policy, and has been for more than 50 years, never to comment on Israel’s nuclear programme and, in particular, never to mention the fact that Israel possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons.


The US took this vow of silence in 1969: to be precise, on 26 September 1969, when US President Nixon made a secret, unwritten, agreement with Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, in a one-to-one meeting in the Oval Office in the White House.  



How did this extraordinary agreement come about?


Avner Cohen and William Burr tell the fascinating story of how this came about in Israel crosses the threshold  published in the May/June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.


The story begins in the early 1950s when Israel started a programme to develop nuclear weapons.  For many years, it went to great lengths to keep the existence of this programme secret from the US, because it feared that the US would put pressure on it to halt the programme.


After the US became aware of the existence of the nuclear facility at Dimona in 1960, the Kennedy administration insisted on inspecting it to confirm Israel’s assertion that it was for civil purposes only.  US inspectors visited the facility seven times in the 1960s, but never found direct evidence of weapons-related activities – because Israel went to extraordinary lengths to hide it from them.  So, although inspectors suspected the wool was being pulled over their eyes, they were unable to prove it.


When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) became available for signing in 1968, the Johnson administration pressed Israel to sign and declare its nuclear programme, which by then the US was certain existed.  Israel assured the US that it would not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but refused to confirm to the US that “non-introduction” meant “non-possession” – and it refused to sign the NPT, because that would have meant giving its nuclear weapons programme.


The issue was finally resolved by the deal between Nixon and Meir in September 1969, at which point the US ceased sending inspection teams to Dimona and stopped pressing Israel to sign the NPT.


Under this Nixon/Meir deal, the US agreed not to acknowledge publicly that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, while knowing full well that it did.  In return, Israel undertook to maintain a low profile about its nuclear weapons: there was to be no acknowledgment of their existence, and no testing which would reveal their existence.   That way, the US would not be forced to take a public position for or against Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. 


The US has maintained this vow of silence ever since.  I am not aware of any instance in which an official US spokesperson has admitted that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, nor of any official US document that has done so, nor of any UN or other resolution for which the US has voted that has done so.



Netanyahu lies about Israel's nuclear weapons


Equally, Israel has kept its side of the bargain – and never admitted that it possessed nuclear weapons.  Its standard answer when asked if it has nuclear weapons is to say “we won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East” and to repeat that ad nauseam if questioned further.


Here’s an example from a CNN interview on 17 March 2011 by Piers Morgan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:


MORGAN: Do you have nuclear weapons?

PM NETANYAHU: Well, we have a long-standing policy that we won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East and that hasn't changed.

MORGAN: You don't have any?

PM NETANYAHU: That's our policy. Not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.


That’s a lie, of course – Israel was the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.  It did so over 50 years ago in the late 1960s.


If, at any time, Israel had admitted publicly that it had nuclear weapons, it would have been very difficult for the US to avoid taking a position against Israel’s possession of them.  The Nixon/Meir deal has been very successful in preventing public disagreement been the US and Israel on this issue.




I recalled the Helen Thomas question when I was watching President Biden’s press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on 14 July 2022.  Wouldn’t it have been delightful, I thought, if President Biden was faced with the Helen Thomas question, as he stood there beside the Prime Minister of the one Middle East country that has an arsenal of nuclear weapons?  God knows what gobbledygook would have come out of Biden’s mouth in response, but it would have been interesting to watch Lapid’s face as Biden spoke.


David Morrison

27 July 2022