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Israel's Nuclear Weapons Program

Last changed 10 December 1997

Israel's involvement with nuclear technology literally extends back to the founding of the country in 1948. A host of talented scientists emigrated to Palestine during the thirties and forties, particularly one Ernst David Bergmann - later the director of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and the founder of Israel's efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The Weizmann Institute of Science actively supported nuclear research by 1949, with Bergmann heading its chemistry division. Also in 1949, Francis Perrin - French nuclear physicist, atomic energy commissioner, and personal friend of Bergmann's - visited the Weizmann Institute, after which Israeli scientists were invited to the newly established French nuclear research facility at Saclay. A joint research effort was subsequently set up between the two nations.

At this time France's nuclear research capability was quite limited. France had been a leading research center in nuclear physics before the war, but had fallen far behind developments in the US, the USSR, Britain, and even Canada. Israel and France were thus at a similar levels of expertise at the time, and it was possible for Israeli scientists to make valuable contributions. Consequently the development of nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked in the early fifties, for example Israeli scientists were involved in the construction of the G-1 plutonium production reactor and UP1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, France and Israel had very close relations. France was Israel's principal arms supplier, and as instability spread in France's colonies in North Africa, Israel provided valuable intelligence obtained from its contacts with sephardic Jews in those countries. The two nations even collaborated (along with Britain) in planning and staging the joint Suez-Sinai operation against Egypt in October 1956. The Suez Crisis, as it became known, proved to be the genesis of Israel's nuclear weapons production program.

Six weeks before the operation Israel felt the time was right to approach France for assistance in building a nuclear reactor. Canada had set a precedent a year earlier when it had agreed to build the 40 MW CIRUS reactor in India. Shimon Peres, a key aide to Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) David Ben Gurion, and Bergmann met with members of the CEA (France's Atomic Energy Commission). An initial understanding to provide a research reactor appears to have been reached during September.

On the whole the Suez operation, launched on 29 October was a disaster. Although Israel's part of the operation was a stunning success, allowing it to occupy the entire Sinai peninsula by 4 November, the French and British invasion on 6 November was a failure. The attempt to advance along the Suez canal bogged down and then collapsed under fierce US and Soviet pressure. Both European nations pulled out, leaving Israel to face the pressure from the two superpowers alone. Soviet premier Bulganin issued an implicit threat of nuclear attack if Israel did not withdraw from the Sinai.

On 7 November 1956, a secret meeting was held between foreign minister Golda Meir, Peres, and French foreign and defense ministers Mssrs. Christian Pineau and Maurice Bourges-Manoury. The French officials were deeply chagrined by France's failure to support its ally in the operation, and the Israelis were very concerned about the Soviet threat. In this meeting the initial understanding about a research reactor may have been substantially modified, and Peres seems to have secured an agreement to assist Israel in developing a nuclear deterrent.

After some further months of negotiation, the initial agreement for assistance took the form of an 18 MW (thermal) research reactor of the EL-3 type, along with plutonium separation technology. At some point this was officially upgraded to 24 MW, but the actual specifications issued to engineers provided for core cooling ducts sufficient for up to three times this power level, along with a plutonium plant of similar capacity. How this upgrade came about remains unknown.

The reactor was secretly built underground at Dimona, in the Negev desert of southern Israel near Beersheba. Hundreds of French engineers and technicians filled Beersheba which, although it was the biggest town in the Negev, was still a small town. Many of the same contractors who built Marcoule were involved, for example the plutonium separation plants in both France and Israel were built by SGN. The Ground was broken for the EL-102 reactor (as it was known to France) in early 1958. The heavy water for the reactor was purchased from Norway, which sold 20 tons to Israel in 1959 allegedly for use in an experimental power reactor Norway insisted on the right to inspect the heavy water for peaceful use for 32 years, but was permitted to do so only once, in April 1961, prior to it being loaded into the Dimona reactor tank.

Israel used a variety of subterfuges to explain away the activity at Dimona - calling it a "manganese plant" among other things (although apparently not a "textile plant" as most accounts claim). US intelligence became aware of the project before the end of 1958, took picture of the project from U-2 spy planes, and identified the site as a probable reactor complex. The concentration of Frenchmen was certainly impossible to hide.

In 1960, before the reactor was operating, France, now under the leadership of de Gaulle, reconsidered the deal and decided to suspend the project. After several months of negotiation, an agreement was reached in November that allowed the reactor to proceed if Israel promised not the make weapons and announced the project to the world, work on the plutonium plant halted.

On 2 December 1960, before Israel could make the announcement, the US State Department issued a determination that Israel had a secret nuclear installation. By 16 December this became public knowledge with its appearance in the New York Times. On 21 December Ben Gurion announced that Israel was building a 24 MW reactor "for peaceful purposes".

Over the next year the relationship between the US and Israel was strained over the issue. The US accepted Israel's claims at face value in public, but exerted pressure privately. Although Israel did allow a cursory inspection by physicists Eugene Wigner and I.I. Rabi, PM Ben Gurion consistently refused to allow international inspections. The final resolution was a commitment from Israel to use the facility for peaceful purposes, and an agreement to admit a US inspection team once a year. These inspections, begun in 1962 and continued until 1969, were only shown the above-ground part of the buildings, which continued down many levels underground. The above ground areas had simulated control rooms, and access to the underground areas was kept bricked up while the inspectors where present. The most favorable interpretation that can be given to adherence to the pledge is that it has apparently been interpreted by Israel to mean that nuclear weapon development is not excluded if the are used strictly for defensive, and not aggressive purposes. It should be remembered though that Israel's security position in the late fifties and early sixties when the nuclear program was taking shape was far more precarious than it subsequently became after the Six Day War, the establishment of a robust domestic arms industry, and a reliable defense supply line from the US. During the fifties and early sixties a number of attempts by Israel to obtain security guarantees from the US, thus effectively placing Israel under the US nuclear umbrella in a manner similar to NATO or Japan, were rebuffed. If an active policy to restrain Israel's proliferation had been undertaken, along with a secure defense agreement, the development of a nuclear arsenal might have been preventable.

In 1962 the Dimona reactor went critical, and the French resumed work on the plutonium plant, believed to have been completed in 1964 or 1965. The acquisition of this reactor and related technologies was clearly intended for military purposes from the outset (not "dual use") as the reactor has no other function. The security at Dimona (officially the Negev Nuclear Research Center) is stringent, an IAF Mirage was actually shot down in 1967 for straying into Dimona's airspace. There is little doubt then, that some time in the late sixties Israel became the sixth nation to manufacture nuclear weapons.

According to Seymour Hersh, PM Levi Eshkol delayed starting nuclear weapons production even after the Dimona facility was finished. The reactor remained in operation so the plutonium continued to collect, whether it was separated or not. It is generally believed that the first extraction of plutonium occurred in 1965, and that enough plutonium was on hand for one weapon during the Six Day War in 1967 although whether a prototype weapon actually existed or not is unknown. Hersh relates that Moshe Dayan gave the go ahead for starting weapon production in early 1968, which is when the plutonium separation plant presumably went into full operation. After this Israel began producing three to five bombs a year. William Burroms and Robert Windrem, on the other hand, assert in Critical Mass that Israel actually had two bombs available for use in 1967, and that Eshkol actually ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during the Six Day War.

Israel began purchasing Krytrons in 1971. These are ultra high speed electronic switching tubes that are "dual use", having both industrial and nuclear weapons applications.

At 2 p.m. (local) on 6 October 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in a coordinated surprise attack, starting the Yom Kippur War. Caught with only their standing forces on duty, and these at a low level of readiness, the Israeli front lines were overrun. By early afternoon on 7 October no defensive forces were left in the southern Golan Heights and Syrian forces had reached the edge of the plateau, within sight of the Jordan River. It has been widely reported that this crisis brought Israel to its first nuclear alert. Hersh reports that the decision was made by PM Golda Meir and her "kitchen cabinet" on the night of 8 October. This resulted in the Jericho missiles at Hirbat Zachariah and the nuclear strike F-4s at Tel Nof being armed and prepared for action against Syrian and Egyptian targets. US Sec. of State Henry Kissinger was apparently notified of this alert several hours later on the morning of 9 October, which helped motivate a US decision to promptly open a resupply pipeline to Israel (Israeli aircraft began picking up supplies that day, the first US flights arrived on 14 October).

Though stockpile depletion remained a concern, the military situation stabilized on October 8 and 9 as Israeli reserves poured into the battle and disaster was averted. Well before significant resupply had reached Israeli forces, the Israelis counterattacked and turned the tide on both fronts. On 11 October a counterattack on the Golan broke the back of Syria's offensive, and on October 15 and 16 Israel launched a surprise crossing of the Suez Canal. Soon the Egyptian Third Army was faced with encirclement and annihilation, with no protective forces remaining between the Israeli Army and Cairo. This prompted Leonid Brezhnev to threaten, on 24 October, to airlift Soviet troops to reinforce the Egyptians. Pres. Nixon's response was to bring the US to world-wide nuclear alert the next day, whereupon Israel went to nuclear alert a second time (according to Hersh, Burrows and Windrem do not recognize this alert). This sudden crisis quickly faded as PM Meir agreed to a ceasefire, relieving the pressure on the Egyptians.

Considerable nuclear collaboration between Israel and South Africa seems to have developed around 1967 and continued through the 70s and 80s. During this period SA was Israel's primary supplier of uranium for Dimona. An open question remains regarding what role Israel had (if any) in the 22 September 1979 nuclear explosion in the south Indian Ocean which is widely believed to be a SA-Israel joint test. This relationship is discussed more fully in the section on South Africa.

Hersh relates extensive (and highly successful) efforts by Israel to obtain targeting data from US intelligence. Much satellite imaging data of the Soviet Union was obtained through the American spy Jonathan Pollard, apparently indicating Israel's intention to use its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, political lever, or retaliatory capability against the Soviet Union itself.

Satellite imagery from a US KH-11 satellite for example was used to plan the 7 June 1981 attack on the Tammuz-1 reactor at Osiraq, Iraq. This attack, carried out by 8 F-16s accompanied by 6 F-15s punched a hole in the concrete reactor dome before the reactor began operation (and just days before an Israeli election) and delivered 15 delay-fuzed 2000 lb bombs deep into the reactor structure (the 16th bomb hit a nearby hall). The blasts shredded the reactor and blew out the dome foundations, causing it to collapse on the rubble. This was the world's first attack on a nuclear reactor.

Since 19 September 1988 Israel has had its own satellite reconnaissance system and thus no longer needs to rely on US sources. On that day the Offeq-1 satellite was launched on the Shavit booster, a system closely related to the Jericho-2 missile. Offeq-2 went up on 3 April 1990. The launch of the Offeq-3 failed on its first attempton 15 September 1994, but was retried successfully 05 April 1995.

Both Hersh and Burrows and Windrem agree that Israel went on full scale nuclear alert again on the first day of Desert Storm, 18 January 1991, when 7 Scud missiles were fired against the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa by Iraq (only 2 actually hit Tel Aviv and 1 hit Haifa). This alert apparently lasted for the duration of the war (43 days). Threats of retaliation by the Shamir government if the Iraqis used chemical warheads are interpreted to mean that Israel intended to launch a nuclear strike if gas attacks occurred.