Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program: A Review
By Val Reynoso
The origins of Israel’s nuclear weapons program was initiated by the founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who stated that Israel could only survive as a newly-formed, fiscally poor nation following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war if it possessed nuclear weapons in order to deter militaries, such as those from then-enemies Egypt and Jordan.
Israel made an agreement with France in 1957 in order for France to assist Israel in installing a plutonium-based facility in the Israeli city of Dimona; seeing that at the time, the US a close political ally to Israel but was not prepared to provide Israel with nuclear weapons. Despite this, however, peaceful nuclear technologies were discussed and many US nuclear scientists did work with their Israeli counterparts.
In 1956, Israel partnered with France in leading the Suez Crisis, a catastrophic invasion of Egypt, which was in part why France was more inclined to assist Israel in return the following year. The nuclear facility was built under extreme secrecy in the Israeli Negev desert near Dimona in 1958. The construction occurred a year after former Israeli director-general of the Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres, established a technical cooperation and political agreement with France on the reactor and reprocessing plant and that Israel would only use plutonium for what they defined as peaceful purposes.
Around 1960, US intelligence discovered Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona, which obligated Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to publicly continue the nuclear program. Israel also obtained resources from Norway, which gave them heavy water to moderate the Dimona reactor; additionally, in 1960, Norway repurchased 20 tons of heavy water from the UK and exported it to Israel from there. Heavy water reactors speed the acceleration of uranium to create fuel, it also produces an enormous amount of electricity which then forms nuclear waste. The nuclear waste is then pumped into a reprocessing plant to produce highly toxic plutonium. Furthermore, despite the promise Israel made to Norway and the US that the heavy water would only be used peacefully, declassified intelligence documents show that the UK suspected that Israel was going to use the heavy water for plutonium production.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel likely installed its first ballistic missile that had nuclear capacity which challenged its discretion with nuclear activities. News reports from 1975 demonstrate that US intelligence analysts thought that Israel had produced more than 10 nuclear weapons along with aircraft and missiles to deliver them. Moreover, Israel attained 10 tons of uranium yellowcake from the South African apartheid government in 1965 under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In 1976, Israel and South Africa agreed to eliminate the bilateral safeguards, which gave Israel access to another 500 tons of uranium—adding onto the 100 tons South Africa sold to Israel in exchange for 30 grams of tritium—to use for the Dimona plutonium production reactor, which also emits an immense amount of radiation.
Recently declassified British and US documents shed light on a previously undisclosed Israeli purchase of approximately 100 tons of Argentinian yellowcake in 1963-1964 without usage of IAEA safeguards. Furthermore, Israel initiated Operation Opera, a preemptive strike, on the Osiraq reactor of Iraq on June 7th, 1981 with the justification that the reactor was created for weapons purposes and served as a threat to Israel.
Despite the refusal to deny nor explicitly confirm the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons program, the Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu exposed this information in 1986. Moreover, present-day Israel is suspected to continue trading on the nuclear black market at a lower rate; in addition to this, US sting operations and legal cases demonstrate that Israel also likely still makes unlawful obtainments of nuclear assets.
Tensions surrounding the current nuclear status quo have risen in the Middle East and countries such as Egypt have threatened to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unless further progress is made towards the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. A stage conference among all regional powers was planned to take place in 2012, but did not occur mostly due to the US yearning to decrease external pressure on Israel to officially disclose their nuclear arsenal.
In regards to international WMD non-proliferation conventions, Israel has either not become a signatory of these conventions or has signed the treaties of the conventions but has yet to ratify them. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is an international treaty that was signed on July 1st, 1968 by the US, USSR, UK, France and China with the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and military nuclear technology from participating countries to non-nuclear nations that aspired to build or obtain weapons.
The NPT entered into force in 1970 and since then, 187 parties have joined including the P5 (US, Russia, UK, France, China). The significance of the NPT is evident given the fact that it is the most ratified treaty, by country, of all arms limitation and disarmament agreements. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is accountable for the safeguards system established by the NPT; said safeguards are used to confirm assent with the NPT through inspections administrated by the IAEA. Safeguards also help prevent the deviation of usage of fissile material for weapons utilization. The NPT was ratified in the capitals of the P5 powers including Moscow, Russia; Washington DC, US; and London, UK.
Israel is among the countries that did not sign the NPT in 1968 and has resisted pressure from Arab states to become an NPT signatory and accept all IAEA safeguards. On September 25th, 1996, Israel signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the UN headquarters in NYC, but has not ratified it yet. Israel refused to participate at the Conference on Disarmament in August 1998 at the UN headquarters in NYC to negotiate on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even stated that Israel will never sign the FMCT regardless of any pressures placed on the country to do so.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control treaty that makes it illegal to produce, stockpile and use chemical weapons. The Convention was enforced on April 29th, 1997 and now has 192 state-parties with the exception of Israel, which has signed it but not ratified. The signings of the Convention took place in Paris, France and NYC.
Since Israel has not ratified the NPT, CTBT, FMCT nor CWC, it is not legally in violation of these treaties and conventions despite Israel being in possession of nuclear weapons. Post-1955, Israel’s was allied with the P5 powers the US, UK and France. Despite initial US opposition to the Israeli nuclear weaponization program even though the US assisted Israel in the construction of a nuclear energy program, on September 1969, US President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir held a meeting at the White House where they established the unofficial policy for Israel that is still intact to this day. The policy elaborates that Israel would not publicly acknowledge or display its nuclear weapons program and the US would accept this as well as not take any measures to stop the program. In addition to this, the Atoms for Peace Initiative was a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1955 between the US and Israel, through which the US gave Israel a small research reactor under bilateral safeguards and peace provisions; this was the first time Israel sought nuclear help from the US.
Israel proceeded to ask the US for a reactor that would produce plutonium, under the comprehension that said technology would not satisfy Israel’s needs for a nuclear arsenal. Along with France agreeing to help Israel in constructing a plutonium-based facility in Dimona in 1957, Israel also strengthened ties with France through typical arms purchases, allocation of intelligence and partnership in nuclear research. The UK has also demonstrated support for the Israeli nuclear program, since documents in the British National Archives reveal that the UK exported 20 tons of heavy water to Israel for £1.5m in 1958—which was crucial to Israeli plutonium production at the Dimona nuclear reactor.
Among Israel’s enemies are regional powers such as Syria, Iran, and non-state proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel launched Operation Orchard on September 6th, 2007, which was an air strike against what was suspected to be a Syrian nuclear arsenal near Al-Kibar, Syria with the purpose of averting Syria from developing a nuclear weapons capability. As of late, the importance of Iran’s nuclear program has been of concern to the Israeli government and national security under Prime Minister Netanyahu. Due to this, Israel has supported the US and EU in placing of economic sanctions on Iran, seek diplomatic solutions, as well as initiate secret operations with the purpose of delaying the Iranian nuclear program.
These secret operations consist of actions such as murdering vital Iranian scientists, disrupting Iranian equipment supply networks, and development of computer viruses like the Stuxnet and Flame viruses—which were allegedly created by the US and Israel in order to infect Iran’s Natanz Enrichment Complex. Despite efforts made through these operations to sabotage Iranian nuclear development, Iran still installs centrifuges and produces significantly more low-enriched uranium. Due to this, some senior Israeli officials have suggested taking military action against Iranian nuclear facilities; this would be a high-risk move, considering that doing so would make it more possible for Iran to react with missile attacks geared towards Israel either directly or through alignment with non-state proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Hamas is a political organization founded in 1987 following the first intifada—Palestinian uprising—that represents the militant wing of contemporary Palestinian resistance with, what they consider, the goal of ending the illegal occupation Israel has over all of Palestinian territory, enacting an armed struggle against Israel, managing social welfare programs, and to replace Israel with a reestablished Palestinian state. Hamas also has some governance over Gaza Strip independent of the Palestinian Authority. Israel, the US, EU, UK and other powers designate Hamas a terrorist group.
Israel has initiated three main military campaigns in Gaza Strip with the justification of attempting to defeat Hamas—Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in 2008 in Dimona, where the Israeli nuclear facility is located. Moreover, Hezbollah is a predominately Shia Muslim militia formed in southern Lebanon with the help of Iran after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Its members believed that because the predominately Maronite-Christian Lebanese government failed to protect Lebanese Shias from Israeli occupation and other oppressions, they took matters to their own hands to drive out Israeli invaders from Lebanon and also provided social services to the southern Lebanese community.
Hezbollah is also classified a terrorist organization by Western powers, Israel and the Arab League. On February 2017, Hezbollah’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel’s nuclear reactor in a statement he made claiming his rockets have the capacity to reach the nuclear facility in Dimona. In response to this, a senior Israeli minister threatened Lebanese infrastructure. Hamas and Hezbollah have also held elections in their regions in 2006 and 2009 respectively and won majority of votes.
Some Russian officials have even voiced opposition to the Israeli nuclear weaponization program. On February 2017, Russian Deputy Foreign Prime Minister Gennady Gatilov stated that if Israel indeed possesses nuclear weapons, it would have a negative impact on the Middle East and the rest of the world. He further explicated that Russia is against proliferation of WMD and that Israel is also constructing illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Ultimately, Israel indeed possesses nuclear weapons as revealed by Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu and has been able to construct their nuclear arsenal in Dimona with the help of their predominately Western allies. Israel has also participated in efforts to destabilize their regional enemy Iran’s nuclear capacity and invade Lebanon through means such as computer viruses and tensions with Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel should work towards eliminating its nuclear weapons and eventually ratifying the NPT, given that it has not ratified any nuclear proliferation pact nor agreement as of yet; doing so would be a crucial step in ensuring a WMD-free Middle East.
Val Reynoso is a Politics and Human Rights undergrad, journalist and Marxist-Leninist activist.