The Beginnings Of Israel’s Nuclear Program And Why It Matters Today

More questions are being asked about the way Israel began their nuclear weapons program and the way these questions are being answered could shape international nuclear policy in the future.
By @FrederickReese |
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    While Israel has never publicly admitted to having nuclear weapons, it is generally assumed that the Middle Eastern nation currently commands a stockpile between 80 and 400 warheads with a maximum range of 11,500 kilometers with a 1,000 kilogram warhead.

    As the only Middle Eastern nation thought to be nuclear-armed, Israel’s “saber-rattling” about Iran’s potential nuclear proliferation raises both a degree of hypocrisy and heightened alarm to the discussion of the Middle East, as many experts believe that Israel would use its nuclear weapons if it felt threatened.

    “Israel has, what, 300 or more, nobody knows exactly how many,” said former President Jimmy Carter in April in response to the “threat” of a nuclear-armed Iran. “And I know that every Iranian realizes that if they should try to use a nuclear weapon, Iran would be wiped off the face of the earth, which I think is so ridiculous, a self-destructive decision, that they would not do it.”

    A growing number of researchers and journalists are asking how exactly did Israel — which, besides its connection to the United States, is a relatively minor world power — manage to get ahold of nuclear-weapon material in the first place?

    Increasingly, more people are asking what does a nuclear-armed Israel mean for the Middle East, the United States and overall world security. In an analysis printed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, physicist Victor Gilinsky and mechanical engineer Roger Mattson attempted to address these questions.

    Arming Israel

    Israel has sought nuclear weapons as a shield from a second Holocaust as early as 1949. Considering that Israel is the only non-Muslim nation in the Middle East, and with many of Israel’s neighbors having or currently denouncing Israel’s right to exist, Israel has grown to embrace its nuclear capacity as a barrier against its enemies — with major development of the armament happening after the Six Day War.

    David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had a near-fanatical obsession about nuclear weapons.

    “What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel, for their own people,” declared Ben-Gurion.

    In 1949, Israel started a multi-front offensive toward starting a nuclear program, including launching geological teams into the Negev desert in search of sources of uranium, funding graduate students to study overseas, including one to study under Enrico Fermi — who is commonly referred as “the father of the atomic bomb” — and working with both the Americans and the French to set up reactors in Israel.

    When Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, France proposed a trade with Israel: invade Egypt, which would allow France and the United Kingdom to act as “peacekeepers” with the unspoken intent of seizing the Suez Canal in exchange for a nuclear reactor to base Israel’s nuclear weapons program on. The reactor — the Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona — became the basis of the Israeli nuclear program. The election of Charles de Gaulle as president of France, however, ended Israel’s access to French uranium. Secret documentsleaked in 2005 showed that the U.K. made hundreds of shipments to Israel of fissile material and heavy water — including lithium-6, a fission- and hydrogen-bomb booster — after France dropped out.

    Thefts, cover-ups and unexpected consequences

    However, the British materials were not enough for Israel to start full scale warhead production. According to Gilinsky and Mattson, Israel took at least part of the 337 kilograms of radioactive material stolen from the Apollo, Penn. plant of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), per previously-classified documents released by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

    The documents are troubling because they show an active effort by the Atomic Energy Commission to downplay the theft and show that the White House suspected that members of the leadership of NUMEC of being involved in the theft.

    That theft has consequences that are still relevant today.

    First, the notion that the United States knew about nuclear material theft that allegedly benefited Israel without doing anything about it or sanctioning Israel severely undermines the United States’ hand in nonproliferation talks and presents the country as being openly hypocritical and favoring “friendly” nations to Iran and North Korea.

    “We’ve lost a great deal of respect around the world on the subject of nonproliferation,” said Gilinsky to Global Security Newswire (GSN) in an e-mail interview. “The president doesn’t even acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons, which means no one in the government can…Leveling on [this] affair, painful as it might be in the short run, would be a step toward what you might call a reality-based policy in this area.”

    Second, NUMEC handling of its toxic waste — which facilitated the theft in the first place — is now an environmental disaster the federal government is charged to clean-up at a cost of half a billion dollars. The clean-up, which will not start until 2015, will take up to a decade to complete.

    Third, the discussion of the release of Jonathan Pollard — who stole and leaked classified files to Israel while serving as an analyst for the Naval Intelligence Command — questions about the United States’ de facto acceptance of Israel’s violations of American sovereignty become apparent.

    Despite the fact that there is a large pro-Israeli lobby in the United States — which would make it politically dangerous to talk about condemnation of Israel, particularly in states with a large evangelical Christian base — pushing aside allegations of theft and espionage would further weaken the United States’ international credibility, according to many.

    “[If] President Obama releases Pollard, it should be preceded by the belated return of the massive trove of classified documents he stole for Israel as well as all purloined nuclear materials and technologies,” said Grant Smith, the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy.

    Finally, realizations that this theft has been covered up and denied by the federal government for fifty years belies any allusions to transparency in the federal government.

    “Nearly 50 years have passed since the events in question,” contend Gilinsky and Mattson in their analysis. “It is time to level with the public. At this point it is up to the president himself to decide whether to declassify completely the NUMEC documents, all of which are over 30 years old. He should do so.

    “[None] of his political concerns outweigh his responsibility to tell the US public the historical truth it deserves to know.”

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    • RCCA

      We definitely shouldn’t favor our friends over our enemies, according to this writer. (That would be hypocritical.) The State of Israel has never threatened the US, while Iran regularly holds Mullah mandated public demonstrations of thousands of people demanding “death to America, death to Israel” and promotes a death cult calling for the destruction of the West and the imposition of Islamic law worldwide. But there are people on this site and others at The Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, for instance, who are convinced there is no difference and we should be more sympathetic to Iran, and less friendly towards Israel.

      Why are some people so anxious for Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons? BTW, aren’t we all in agreement that this is about nuclear weapons, not civilian nuclear power? How does arming Iran make the world a better place?

    • Matt McLaughlin


      As Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird wrote in March 1969, these “developments were not in the United States’ interests and should, if at all possible, be stopped.”

      8th paragraph ‘last wire’>same as Iran accusation