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Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

The Discovery of Dimona

In September 1960, the US ambassador to Israel embarked on an official tour, visiting a fertilizer plant in Sodom, located just off the Dead Sea Coast. After the tour, the Israeli Air Force provided a helicopter for his return journey to Tel Aviv. As they were flying over the Negev desert, the ambassador spotted an industrial facility in the middle of nowhere.

Curious, he asked the accompanying Israeli official, Addy Cohen, then working at Israel’s finance ministry, about the sprawling facility. Cohen, caught off guard, went off script and referred to the facility as a textile factory. In reality, what the US ambassador had spotted was the Dimona nuclear facility, the site of Israel’s nuclear program.

The Genesis of Israel’s Nuclear Program

The story of Israel’s nuclear program begins in 1948, immediately after the creation of the state of Israel. The newly formed nation came under attack from Arab countries. Although Israel managed to defeat them, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion foresaw that this was just the first round. He predicted that the Arab countries would regroup and launch another attack. When that happened, he wanted Israel to be ready.

Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

Ben-Gurion was well aware of the power of nuclear weapons. In 1948, he wrote to new recruits of the Israeli Army, stating, “We are living in an era that discloses the atom, its miraculous composition, and the tremendous power hidden in it.” He wanted to harness that power.

To realize his vision, Ben-Gurion needed scientists. He found a willing candidate in Ernst David Bergmann, an organic chemistry expert from Germany who had fled the Nazis and settled in Palestine. Bergmann was appointed head of the IDF’s scientific division in 1948, became the Scientific Advisor to the Defense Ministry in 1951, and was given charge of the newly formed Israel Atomic Energy Commission in 1952.

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The Acquisition of a Reactor

With political will from Ben-Gurion and scientific knowledge from Bergmann, Israel needed a Reactor. Shimon Peres, a non-traditional military man who wielded immense power in the 1950s and 60s, found a willing partner in France. In 1957, France agreed to provide Israel with a plutonium reactor.

Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

Hundreds of French workers came to Dimona to build the reactor and a reprocessing plant. The plant was crucial as it would recycle nuclear fuel, removing the unusable waste and leaving only the usable plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons. Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

The American Discovery and Subsequent Inspections

Despite the secrecy surrounding the project, the Americans discovered the reactor in 1960 through photographic evidence.

Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

US President Eisenhower sought answers from Israel. Ben-Gurion insisted that the reactor was for peaceful purposes and that Israel needed nuclear power for electricity.

Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

However, the Americans were not convinced. They knew about the reactor and wanted an official Israeli reaction. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, tried a different approach. He made Israel agree to regular inspections by the United States. American teams visited in 1961, 1962, and 1964, and each time they gave a clean chit.

The Completion of the Bomb

Behind the scenes, Israel was busy sourcing key components from abroad. One agency, LAKAM (the Science Liaison Bureau), played a key role in this. In 1965, Shimon Peres recruited Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan as a spy for LAKAM. Milchan used his connections to photograph blueprints that helped Israel’s program and even got a US nuclear scientist to join his company board.Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

By the late 1960s, the bomb was ready. The only question that remained was how and when they would test it. During the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel came close to testing a bomb in the Sinai desert as a contingency plan, but it was not needed.

The Open Secret

By 1968, the Americans had the full picture. They knew Israel had a bomb, but they couldn’t do anything about it because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was being discussed at that time. The US wanted to limit nuclear bombs to 5 countries: the US, the UK, France, the Soviet Union, and China.Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

The Arab Nations and the NPT

If the Arab nations knew about Israel’s nuclear weapons, they would not have signed the NPT. In the end, the Arab countries did sign the NPT, but Israel did not. As a result, America was forced to keep Israel’s nuclear capabilities a secret.

The Nuclear Test

The question of testing the bomb remained. In 1979, a US satellite picked up a double flash near South Africa, usually indicative of Nuclear testing. Leonard Weiss, a US Senate adviser, concluded that someone had tested a nuclear bomb. Israeli sources later confirmed that the double flash was Israel’s Nuclear test.

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The Role of South Africa

In 1979, the Apartheid regime was in power in South Africa, and Israel was a key supporter of that regime. They even shared nuclear know-how with the South Africans, who in exchange helped with the test.

The Open Secret

Decades have passed since these events, and Israel is believed to have developed nuclear weapons. However, to this day, it remains unofficial. Israel maintains a policy called Nuclear Ambiguity – they won’t confirm they have nuclear weapons, and they won’t deny it either. Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

The Whistleblower

The world came to realize that Israel has nuclear weapons in 1986, thanks to Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli technician who worked in Dimona from 1977 to 1985. Before he quit his job, he photographed the entire place and leaked the information to British media. After 1986, Israel’s nuclear capabilities became an open secret. Vanunu was later abducted by Mossad in Rome, convicted, and imprisoned for 18 years, 10 of which he spent in solitary confinement.

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The Status Today

Occasionally, Israeli politicians let slip about their nuclear capabilities. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2020, referred to Israel as a nuclear power. However, the official policy remains unchanged. Reports suggest they have around 90 nuclear warheads. To give some context, India has around 164, Britain has 220, and the Americans and Russians have over 5,000 each.

Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

The Effectiveness of Nuclear Deterrence

The last major Arab-Israel war was in 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Since the whistle was blown in 1986, there has not been another pan-Arab attempt to wage war on Israel. This raises the question of whether nuclear deterrence has worked. However, Israel’s response remains ambiguous, much like its nuclear policy.Israel’s Secret Nuclear Weapons

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