Israel and the Atomic Bomb
View of the Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Dest outside Dimona (Reuters)
- Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons, with an arsenal estimated at 60-400 warheads, although most experts put the actual number in the range of 80-200.
- In addition to other delivery methods, Israel has nuclear-armed submarines that allow for first and second-strike capabilities. The Dolphin-class submarines were sold to Israel by Germany, which was aware that they would be armed with nuclear missiles. In 2010, the Sunday Times newspaper reported that Israel was in the process of deploying three nuclear-armed submarines off the coast of Iran in the Persian Gulf as part of a plan to maintain a permanent nuclear presence there.
- Israel developed the bomb secretly at its nuclear facilities in the town of Dimona in the 1950s and 1960s. While a number of countries helped Israel acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, France in particular played a key role, assisting in the construction of a reactor and reprocessing plant, and providing engineers and technical assistance. Israel is also believed to have stolen intelligence and materials necessary for making atomic weapons, including from the United States.
- Israel has maintained a policy of neither acknowledging nor denying having the bomb, and is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). This policy of ambiguity is the result of a secret agreement reached between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1969. According to the deal, Israel agreed not to test nuclear weapons or publicly acknowledge having them and in return the U.S. stopped pressuring Israel to allow inspections of its secret nuclear facilities and to sign the NPT. Among other concerns, the Nixon administration feared that Israel’s possession of the bomb would start a nuclear arms race in the region. Since 1969, the U.S. has worked to prevent Israel’s nuclear program from being discussed publicly or scrutinized by bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
- Israel's nuclear weapons program was revealed to the world in 1986 by whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona who approached the Sunday Times with proof of its existence. Before the Times’ exposé was published, Israeli agents lured Vanunu to Rome where he was kidnapped and taken back to Israel to stand trial. After being convicted of espionage and treason, Vanunu served 18 years in prison, including 11 in solitary confinement. Since his release in 2004, the Israeli government has continued to impose severe restrictions on Vanunu, including preventing him from talking to journalists or foreigners or traveling abroad. In a 2014 statement, an Amnesty International spokesperson declared: “The authorities’ continued punishment of Mordechai Vanunu appears to be purely vindictive. The government’s arguments that these severe restrictions are necessary for national security are ludicrous.”
- In 1975, Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa at a time when the two countries were developing a close alliance. The offer was made by then-Defense Minister and future Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who played a central role in Israel’s nuclear program. Although the apartheid regime declined, Israel subsequently helped South Africa develop the bomb, while South Africa provided Israel with the yellowcake it needed to make nuclear weapons. The two countries also collaborated on the testing of a nuclear bomb off the coast of South Africa in 1979, in violation of the secret agreement made between Israel and the U.S. in 1969.
- In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released previously classified documents revealing that an investigation begun during the 1980s concluded that Benjamin Netanyahu was part of an Israeli smuggling ring that illegally purchased nuclear triggers from the U.S. without export licenses from the State Department, using a front company called Heli Trading, which Netanyahu worked for.