Israel maintains a policy of opacity regarding its nuclear program, which started with French assistance in the late 1950s. The Israeli government neither confirms nor denies the possession of nuclear weapons, but it is believed that Israel possesses some 100-200 nuclear weapons, making it the fifth and possibly fourth largest nuclear power, ahead of Britain, and possibly ahead of France. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is not a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is generally regarded as the first and only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons.
When US intelligence first discovered Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor in 1960, the US government failed to put a halt to Israeli nuclear activities. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion established a nuclear weapons program in the mid to late 1950s under the belief that a nuclear weapons capability would be Israel’s ultimate insurance policy in terms of its Arab adversaries. It is estimated that Israel had produced its first nuclear weapons by 1967, and started a missile program around the same time. Today, Israel also maintains a functioning missile defense system, the Arrow theater missile defense system.
Regional players, especially Egypt and Iran, have repeatedly pressured Israel to disarm its nuclear arsenal. Since the 1980s, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has passed annual resolutions calling upon Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. Israel’s status as a de facto nuclear state is also a common theme of debate at NPT meetings. It is generally believed that a peaceful resolution to Middle Eastern affairs cannot be achieved without ending the Israeli nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has initiated a security dialogue with the Israeli government, seeking Israeli support for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. This would require Israel, which is a member of the IAEA, to give up its nuclear weapons.
From 2010-2014, Israel conducted a series of tests, code-named “Green Field,” mostly in the Negev Desert, where 20 detonations with explosives laced with radioactive substance tested how such explosions would affect the country if it were to be attacked by crude radioactive weapons. While another experiment, called “Red House,” tested the consequences of a radiological substance left in a crowded area without being detonated.
In 2015, the United States declassified a 1987 Department of Defense document detailing Israel’s nuclear program in great depth. The report states that research laboratories in Israel “are equivalent to our Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratories,” key labs in developing the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
On April 24, 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit against Israel at the International Court of Justice for violation of customary international law regarding the obligation to negotiate for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament. The case is expected to last into at least 2016.
- RMI v. The State of Israel
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- Israel crosses the threshold. Avner Cohen and William Burr. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2006.
- Israel’s Nuclear Program and Middle East Peace. Lionel Beehner. Council on Foreign Relations, February 10, 2006.
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- Department of Defense Document on Israel's Nuclear Program, 1987
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- The 22 September 1979 Event. Interagency Intelligence Memorandum, National Security Archive, December 1979, pp. 5,9 (paragraphs 4,26), MORI.
- Memorandum of conversation between representative of the Atomic Energy Commission and the State Department regarding the last American visit in Dimona in July 1969 and the future of those visits. United States National Archives, 13 August 1969.
- Subject: Israeli Nuclear Program. Memo from Henry Kissinger to Richard M. Nixon. Nixon Archives, 16 July 1969.
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- Memorandum for the President on the subject of Dimona Reactor by the State Department. United States National Archives, Central Foreign Policy Files, 30 March 1961.
- Document submitted on the last day of the Eisenhower Administration to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, January 19, 1961.
- Memorandum of conversation between President Eisenhower and his senior aides concerning the discovery of the Dimona project. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, December 19, 1961.
- CIA Information Report. Dr. Henry Gomberg's debriefing as to his findings in Israel. United States National Archives, February 1961.
- Memorandum of conversation with the Israeli science attaché in Washington, Dr. Ephraim Lahav concerning Israel's nuclear program. United States National Archives, December 4, 1956.