Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israel’s Nuclear Program

Nuclear reactor in Dimona, Israel

The nuclearization of the Middle East was initiated by Israel‘s nuclear efforts. Israel’s nuclear program dates back to the early years of the state. Apart from scientific research, the program is almost entirely military in nature. On the basis of a conversation with the current President Shimon Peres, the American journalist Seymour Hersh mentions 1952 as a critical year.

At that time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appears to have told a select group of ministers and officials that, in the long run, the only way to bridge the vast demographic, economic, and military gap between Israel and its Arab neighbours was to build nuclear weapons. Ben-Gurion susequently steered Israel’s nuclear project and in 1952 established the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC).

In 1955, under the American Atoms for Peace initiative, Israel sought nuclear assistance and signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, which provided Israel with a small research reactor.

Prospecting for uranium in the Negev desert had started even earlier. During the 1950s Israeli scientists actively looked for new methods to enrich uranium. In 1956, as part of the Sèvres protocol that led to the Suez Campaign, France agreed to provide a reactor as well as a plutonium separation plant. Just why it did so, and whether the British were let in on the secret, is unclear, but the answer to the second question is almost certainly negative. The French-Israeli deal produced the Dimona nuclear facility, which received critical assistance from Norway in the form of heavy water necessary for moderating the Dimona reactor.

The reactor seems to have gone critical in 1964. Judging by the memoirs of Shimon Peres, the country probably had its first primitive nuclear device ready a that time. Peres recommended demonstrating some special weapons already in Israel’s possession during the tense weeks just before the June War of 1967.

In 1964, at a meeting between Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and American President Lyndon B. Johnson, it was agreed that Israel would not test the bomb or officially admit its existence. In return, the United States would turn a blind eye. This policy, known as ‘the bomb in the basement’, remains in force. The introduction of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and the Nixon-Meir (President Richard Nixon-Prime Minister Golda Meir) secret deal of September 1969 made this policy possible. The NPT’s objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology.

Israel has not entered into the NPT, as Israel pre-conditioned its signing on the US provision that it would guarantee Israel’s security at any time, linking regional peace to the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The government of Israel at the time saw nuclear weapons as essential to providing for Israel’s security – giving them up would be more detrimental than losing a measure of support from the United States.

In 2009, Rose Gottemoeller, an assistant Secretary of State and Washington’s chief nuclear arms negotiator, asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Gottemoeller broke with the US tradition of discretion over Israel’s nuclear arsenal by including it on a list of countries known to have nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Israel refused to sign the treaty. The present Israëli government holds the same view as of 1968, which is forwarded by the fact that Israel is now less dependent on US support for its security.

Throughout the 1970s Israel improved its operational nuclear arsenal, mainly with the help of South Africa. According to Nuclear Threat Initiave (NTI), under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Israel ‘received 10 tons of uranium yellowcake subject to yearly inspections by the South African Atomic Energy Board. In 1976, the two countries removed the bilateral safeguards and freed an additional 500 tons of uranium for use in Israel’s plutonium production reactor at Dimona and South Africa sold an additional 100 tons of uranium to Israel in exchange of 30 grams of tritium.’

On 5 October 1986, Mordachai Vanunu blew the whistle and provided photographs showing Israel’s illegal nuclear weapons factory under the Dimona reactor. His revelations confirmed the existence of a reprocessing plant, as well as a full-scale model of a hydrogen bomb and gloveboxes where plutonium discs were fashioned into pits.

According to the American expert Anthony Cordesman, Israel’s nuclear arsenal now probably numbers just over a hundred nuclear devices ranging from tactical devices to ones capable of developing as much as one megaton of TNT. The latter include ballistic missiles, fighter-bombers, submarines, and possibly cruise missiles.

Jane’s Defence Magazine claims that, in terms of the size of its arsenal, Israel is now the world’s fifth nuclear power. Its forces are capable of turning much of the Middle East, including cities as far away as Tripoli (Libya) and Tehran, into radioactive heaps of rubble within less than an hour after the order has been given.

Despite the fact that Israel denies having a nuclear bomb, the country carries out preemptive strikes on other countries’ facilities. On 7 June 1981, Israel carried out Operation Opera on Iraq’s Osiraq reactor, arguing that the nearly completed 70 MWt Osiraq reactor had been designed for building weapons. Israel thus intimated that the strike was necessary to safeguard its existence.

On 6 September 2007, Israel carried out Operation Orchard against a facility suspected to be a Syrian nuclear reactor near al-Kibar. An IAEA-investigation confirmed, in April 2011, the presence of uranium and other materials consistent with a nuclear reactor.

International treaties

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), through which member states agree to ban all nuclear explosions on Earth for military or peaceful purposes, was signed by Israel on 25 September 1996, yet it has failed to ratify the treaty to date. Two auxiliary seismic stations for CTBT nuclear test-monitoring are operating at Eilath and Mount Meron, along with a planned radionuclide facility at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center to detect nuclear tests.

Israel decided not join the consensus at the Conference on Disarmament in August 1998 to begin negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), a proposed international treaty to prohibit the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.

On 18 September 2009, the UN Resolution ‘Israeli nuclear capabilities’ that was adopted by the 53rd General Conference, expressed ‘concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities’, and called upon ‘Israel to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards’. However, Israel refused to abide. The UN General Assembly passed a similar resolution in 2012 (UNGA Resolution 67/73) calling for inspections but, again, Israel refused to admit the inspectors.

During the 1990s there was increasing discussion of the establishment of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ). Subsequently, during the 1995 NPT Review Conference, states parties adopted a Resolution on the Middle East calling upon all states in the region to accede to the NPT and place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.

The resolution ‘endorses the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognizes that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to, inter alia, a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction.’ To Tel-Aviv, a Middle East WMD-Free Zone is preconditioned to regional peace, while the Arab states assert that peace can only occur after Israel renounces the right to possess nuclear weapons. Israel, with the support of the United States, has resisted accepting full-scope IAEA safeguards prior to a comprehensive peace settlement.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference’s consensus final document singled out ‘the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty’ and ‘the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East’, and as such stated: ‘The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, will convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon States.’

In a maneuver under international pressure, Israel allowed an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Nuclear Safety Assessment of Research Reactors (INSARR) mission from 7-11 July 2013. The purpose of the mission was to conduct a peer-review of the safety of the IRR-1 Reactor, located in the Soreq Nuclear Research Center (SNRC). But the visit excluded Israel’s wide nuclear weapons’ arsenal, such as the nuclear center in Dimona, which is not under international supervision.