A Short Review of Israel’s Nuclear Program

By |2019-10-01T11:46:44-08:00October 1, 2019|

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The State of Israel is considered to be the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons. It has never confirmed or denied this assertion, on the base of his policy of ambiguity – amimut – according to which Israel “de-emphasizes” the existence of its nuclear capacity.[1]

Israel was given birth by the end of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948. Inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the development of a nuclear program, that crystallized both Ben-Gurion’s commitment to Zionism, and a defensive tool toward anything that could resemble the atrocity of the Holocaust that was so still vivid in the mind of people.  In 1949, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Science Corps conducted a geographical survey of the Negev desert, where some uranium was found, and in 1952 the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) was secretly established. Immediately, Israel established even stronger relationships of collaboration with France, and was allowed to observe the development of the nuclear program at French facilities. In the meanwhile, the United States granted Israel with the construction of a small nuclear research reactor in Nachal Soreq, and placed Israel under the auspices of the U.S. Atoms for Peace framework in 1955 on the promise that its intents were peaceful. However, the check mechanisms made available by the program weren’t adequate, and the relationship of privilege that (always) run between the United States and Israel never created the political will within U.S. administrations to inspect Israel thoroughly and stop its ambition to build the atomic bomb.

The relationship with France facilitated the construction of a clandestine nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert near Dimona, which was established in 1957. The relationship with the French came to a close in 1966 forcing Israel to seek help and collaboration with Great Britain, Norway and South Africa. Through these newly established relationships Israel could accumulate large quantities of heavy water and uranium, and in 1979 proceeded to a nuclear test off the coast with South Africa. The U.S. Vela satellite detected a double flash of light in the Indian Ocean, off the cost of South Africa, and even though double flashes are associated with nuclear detonations, both Israel and South Africa had always denied any connection to it. However, the secrecy adopted by Israel in the development of its nuclear program has always placed a thick veil of doubt on the veracity of its declaration.

Despite the existence of murky signs, and despite the fact that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons was at the core of U.S. strategy, no U.S. President has ever factually prevented Israel to develop its nuclear weapons program. Not even when Israel refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 thus adding ambiguity to its conduct. Through historical recollections, it became clear that allowing Israel to develop its nuclear weapons program served the United States in various ways. First, it created a counterbalance against the Soviet Union and could, indirectly, help the United States to limit the threat of communism. During the Cold War years, Israel was in fact considered as an element that could ensure the victory of the U.S. over the Soviet Union. Secondly, as long as Israel maintained secrecy on its nuclear achievements, the possibility that this could induce alliance to the Arabs was reduced, and the danger of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation further decreased. Finally, the legacy of the Holocaust induced many American élites to legitimize Israel’s nuclear ambitions, and granted them with the right to pursue its nuclear weapons program wile avoiding public scrutiny.

This mode of thinking takes the United States to the brink of hypocrisy, as it implies that Israel, unlike Iran for example, has the special “privilege” to base its sense of security on the manufacturing of the nuclear bomb without being questioned. With the compliance of the United States, Israel adopted an aggressive policy toward Iraq on June 7, 1981, by carrying out a preemptive strike on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor, arguing that it had been designed for the construction of nuclear weapons. Israel could do so in compliance with its unilaterally-established Begin Doctrine, a term referred to Israel’s preventive strikes against potential enemies as a counter-proliferation policy toward their capability to possess weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. For Israel the strike was legitimate as it served to preempt future threats to its very existence and would be repeated against Syria in 2007 (Operation Orchard) with total complacency of the Bush administration. Israel’s action contributed to Iran’s desire to pursue its nuclear ambition during the 1990s, which, in turn, propelled Israel’s decision to develop a sea-based second-strike capability. Israel’s aggressiveness in relying on ambiguity around its nuclear program was also evident with regard to the proposal – advanced on the occasion of the 1995 NPT Review Conference – to establish a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ), occasion that Israel exploited to establish its predominance against the Arab World, the Palestinians in particular.

The lack of access to Israeli nuclear facilities made the work of historians very difficult. To quantify Israel’s nuclear armaments and capacity, they could rely only on U.S. declassified documents and the testimonies of those that had inside knowledge of Israel’s nuclear program. In its last report, issued in June 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) claims that Israel is likely to possess nearly one hundred nuclear weapons,[2] comprising 30 gravity bombs capable of being delivered by fighter jets; an additional 50 warheads that can be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles; and an unknown number of nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missiles that would grant Israel a sea-based second-strike capability.

What seems to be clear is that Israel, supported by the U.S. in its ambiguity, does possess nuclear weapons. On the occasion of a visit to the Dimona nuclear reactor in August 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “Those who threaten to wipe us out put themselves in a similar danger, and in any event will not achieve their goal.”[3] In addition to the danger posed by the retention of nuclear weapons, there have been revelations that the Dimona nuclear facility has leaked radioactive waste. Considering its ambiguous position Israel can only rely on the clandestine market to acquire outdated nuclear technology, making these revelations very plausible. The reactor is located only thirty miles from Tel Aviv. But the most serious concern is for the city of Dimona, only eight miles from the nuclear site. These warnings haven’t prompted the Israeli government to fix the leaks, allegedly because Dimona is predominantly populated by North African Jews – a marginalized community – and is surrounded by the Negev Desert, home to many Palestinian Bedouin villages,[4] which Israel considers illegal and subjects to cultural and physical annihilation.

The choice to adopt amimut – as Israel does – is only possible because of the protection the Israeli government receives from a structure of power that privileges some at the expense of others, as the intermittent opposition Israel received, particularly from Washington, since its inception demonstrates. The case of Israel is emblematic and revealing at the same time. In fact, at its very core, amimut demonstrates symmetry between Israel’s nuclear thinking and its internal policies. Both are nothing but racist and genocidal.

Footnotes

[1] Israeli, Ofer (2015) “Israel’s nuclear amimut policy and its consequences,” Israel Affairs, Vol 21, no 4, pp. 541-558.

[2] SIPRI Yearbook 2019. Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. (Retrievable at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-06/yb19_summary_eng_1.pdf Accessed on September 12, 2019).

[3] Williams, Dan, “At Dimona reactor, Netanyahu warns Israel’s foes they risk ruin,” Reuters, August 29, 2018. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-nuclear/at-dimona-reactor-netanyahu-warns-israels-foes-they-risk-ruin-idUSKCN1LE270). See also: Webb, Whitney, “Speaking in front of Israel’s nukes Netanyahu says IDF will hit Iranian forces in Syria with “all its might,” MPN News, August 30, 2018 (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.mintpressnews.com/speaking-in-front-of-israels-nukes-netanyahu-says-idf-will-hit-iranian-forces-in-syria-with-all-its-might/248498/).

[4] Webb, Whitney, “Israel’s secretive nuclear facility leaking as watchdog finds Israel has nearly 100 nukes,” MPN News, June 17, 2019. (Accessed on September 12, 2019 https://www.mintpressnews.com/international-watchdog-finds-israel-has-nearly-100-nuclear-weapons/259274/).