WASHINGTON — The Nixon administration was tormented by Israel's apparent early steps toward development of the Middle East's first nuclear weapons program but powerless to stop it, according to declassified national security documents released Wednesday by the former president's library.
Documents show that Henry A. Kissinger, then national security advisor, wanted the White House to prevent Israel from obtaining the bomb and reordering the region's balance of power. But the administration lacked leverage because one action he suggested, canceling a sale of fighter jets, would have been politically disastrous at home.
The documents were among more than 100,000 pages of historical material released by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. Many of the papers reveal an administration plunged unexpectedly into a turbulent Middle East plagued by terrorism, armed conflict and the threat of nuclear confrontation -- issues the U.S. still faces in the region.
"These documents obviously will have significance for researchers of the Nixon administration," said Timothy Naftali, director of the library, who traveled to Washington for the release of the material. "But I like to underscore the importance of understanding that era as background to the issues and realities we face today."
A 1973 State Department telegram described efforts to "manipulate our relations [with] Saudi Arabia to bring about some abatement of [the] terrorist threat" in the Middle East. Diplomats hoped to persuade Saudi Arabia to deny the use of its territory by Black September, a Palestinian extremist group.
Ultimately, the telegram said, the United States should work to undermine terrorism "by establishing another, more stable and respectable Palestinian political entity and political personality."
The Nixon administration faced considerably more difficulty achieving consensus on the specter of a nuclear-armed Israel. Israel has never confirmed it built nuclear weapons, but is widely believed to have them.
In a July 1969 memorandum to the president, Kissinger said public knowledge of an Israeli nuclear weapons program could spark the Soviet Union to supply stockpiles for Arab nations.
"Ideally," he said, the United States would like to "halt actual Israeli possession."
Kissinger said the U.S. could withhold its planned delivery of F-4 Phantom jets to the Israelis as leverage. But doing so, he warned, would unleash "enormous political pressure" in the U.S. and force the White House to disclose what it hoped to hide -- that Israel was believed to be building a bomb.
"What we really want at a minimum may be to just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact," Kissinger said.
An expert on the history of Israeli nuclear technology said the records shed new light on the period.
"The documents give us a new insight into the serious and difficult deliberations that the administration had to confront about the reality of a nuclear Israel," said Avner Cohen of the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan group created and funded by Congress.
Naftali said the documents showed how this dilemma forced Nixon to accept the likelihood of an Israeli bomb as a fact of life.
"It just gives you a sense of the limits on American power," Naftali said. "Even though it's a superpower . . . there are limits to what it can do, particularly when it faces a state determined to acquire nuclear weapons."
Files released Wednesday also had a domestic component.
They showed that Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, wrote frequently to the Nixon White House, often in the name of environmental causes.
The papers also revealed an effort by friends of W. Mark Felt -- the FBI official who became the Watergate informant known as "Deep Throat" and whose disclosures ultimately forced Nixon to resign -- that called for his promotion to FBI director from the No. 2 slot, describing his "outstanding loyalty."
Felt wrote the White House seeking the top job, receiving a letter in which the administration thanked him for his concern.
The material will be moved to Yorba Linda after the facility there is expanded, Naftali said.
Times staff writer Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.