This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
What do these four nations have in common; North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel? All four nations are not signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which entered into force on March 5, 1970 (note that North Korea acceded to the treaty in 1985 but has not ratified it). A total of 191 states have joined the treaty included the five recognized nuclear states; the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China who just happen to be the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Even Iran and Iraq ratified the NPT back in 1970 and 1969 respectively. Here are some of the key clauses of the NPT:
“Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.
Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
Each State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to provide: (a) source or special fissionable material, or (b) equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material, to any non-nuclear-weapon State for peaceful purposes, unless the source or special fissionable material shall be subject to the safeguards required by this Article.”
To ensure that states remain compliant with the terms of the Treaty, each signatory must submit to inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ensuring that nuclear technology is used for peaceful purposes and that fissile material is not diverted to weapons use.
With this background In this two-part posting, I want to look at one of the non-signatories of the NPT; Israel. Given Washington’s recent kerfuffle over Iran’s supposed movement toward nuclear weapons development, it is interesting to see that one of America’s staunchest partners in the Middle East has a highly secret nuclear weapons capability, a long history of prevaricating about its nuclear program and has not signed the NPT. In the first part of this two part posting, we’ll start looking back in history and see how Israel developed its nuclear weapons program followed by an assessment of its nuclear capability from various sources that are believed to be reliable.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Israeli chronology of nuclear weapons technology is as follows:
1948 – Israeli scientists began to explore the Negev Desert for uranium deposits on the orders of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, discovering low grade despotic near both Sidon and Beersheba.
1949 – the newly created Weizmann Institute of Science actively supported nuclear research by funding the postgraduate educations of Israeli scientists who were to become the foundation of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. This is followed by a joint project between Israel and France led by Francis Perrin, a nuclear physicist from the French Atomic Energy Commission.
Late 1940s and early 1950s – the United States Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health provided financial support to the Weizmann Institute of Science for defence-related projects.
1952 – Israel secretly funds the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) under the control of the Israeli Defense Ministry.
1953 – Israeli scientists develop a uranium extraction process and develop a new process for manufacturing heavy water. A formal agreement on co-operation between France and Israel in nuclear research is signed. President Dwight Eisenhower announces the “Atoms for Peace” program which leads to the construction of the Nachal Soreq light water research reactor.
1955 to 1960 – 56 Israelis receive training at the United States Atomic Energy Commission research centres under the Atoms for Peace program.
1956 – France agrees to provide Israel with a 24 thermal megawatt natural uranium reactor. This is later upgraded to a large plutonium processing reactor.
1957 – The Eisenhower Administration questions the establishment of a security zone and heavy construction occurring at Dimona in the Negev Desert. The United States is told that the project is a textile mill. Here is the story behind the “textile mill”:
“Part of the puzzle about the textile plant cover story is how it came about. While we know that Addy Cohen, the director of the Foreign Aid Office at the Treasury Ministry, used that description when guiding U.S. Ambassador Ogden Reid and some of his staff on a helicopter tour of the Negev in September 1960, the documentary trail has it limits. Cohen, who has just turned 87, and is living outside Tel Aviv, recalls the episode vividly. In a series of written and oral exchanges with the editors of this e-book in recent weeks, he has clarified further what happened.
As a senior official, Cohen was aware of the Dimona project and of its utmost secrecy. The issue of Dimona “was discussed in one of the Treasury Ministry executive meetings under [Minister Levi] Eshkol,” he wrote us. The helicopter tour covered various development projects that the U.S. supported, and they were on their way from the Dead Sea. “I was not prepared to Ambassador Reid’s question [about the Dimona site] as we flew far north of the structure. I ad libbed by referring to Trostler, the Jerusalemite architect [a relative of Cohen’s wife], who actually designed a textile plants” at Dimona.
Surprised by Reid’s query, Cohen improvised an answer that was not completely false. In retrospect, as he wrote on March 5, 2015, “It may have transpired that I was the first one who referred to the project as a ‘textile plant’ but I can assure you that it was not planned.””
Here is the interview with Addy Cohen, the gentleman who accompanied the U.S. Ambassador on his tour of Israel:
In late 1957, Israel signs a formal agreement with France for construction of the Dimona nuclear facility which will only be used for “scientific research”. Construction of the Dimona complex begins in early 1958.
1959 – Norway sells 20 tons of heavy water to Israel, retaining the rights to inspect the heavy water for 30 years to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes. The drums containing the heavy water are only inspected once, in April 1961. Here is the original document where the United States discovers the transaction:
1960 – France terminates nuclear assistance to Israel before the Dimona complex construction is completed. After negotiations, France agrees to proceed with construction as long as the complex is not used to pursue a nuclear weapons project and that Israel announces the existence of the facility to the world.
1960 to 1965 – Construction of the Dimona reactor proceeds. France may have helped Israel design and detonate its own nuclear device at its proving grounds in Algeria. The United States provides Israel with 50 kilograms of 90 percent U-235, a quantity sufficient to manufacture several bombs. On February 13, 1960, France tests its first nuclear weapon, allowing Israeli scientists unrestricted access to data from the test explosion. During mid-1960, the Central Intelligence Agency warns President Eisenhower that the Dimona complex has the potential to produce 1.2 nuclear weapons per year. On December 2, 1960, the United States Department of State announces Israel’s secret nuclear installation. On December 21, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion informs the Knesset that no bombs are being built and that the Dimona complex is “designed exclusively for peaceful purposes”.
Here are the first two pages of the original classified memorandum from 1961 regarding Israel’s secret reactor project, questioning how the American intelligence community did not recognize this development as the first steps in Israel’s development of a nuclear weapon:
Between 1962 and 1969, an agreement struck between Israel and the United States allows American inspection teams access to the Dimona complex twice annually, however, the inspection teams see little of the facility and none of the underground portions which are hidden by Israeli agents.
Let’s close this portion of the posting with this excerpt from a 20 minute meeting between Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres and President John F. Kennedy in a visit to the White House on April 2, 1963:
“The President, Feldman (the President’s Deputy Special Counsel and advisor on Jewish affairs) said, took the opportunity to say that the United States is very very concerned about any proliferation of nuclear weapons and that he, the President, would strongly hope that Israel would not develop or obtain this kind of weaponry. In reply Feldman said that Peres had given an unequivocal assurance that Israel would not do anything in this field unless it finds that other countries in the area are involved in it.
Here’s a quote from Peres’ comments to Kennedy:
“I can tell you clearly that we shall not be the ones to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. We will not be the first to do so.”
This was the beginning of Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity which left a lack of certainty among its enemies and the rest of the world, particularly the United States, regarding Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
Let’s now look at two final aspects of Israel’s nuclear program starting with a formerly secret assessment of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability from a National Intelligence Estimate entitled “Nuclear Weapons and Delivery Capabilities of Free World Countries Other than the US and UK” dated September 21, 1961. Here is a table showing a ranking of nations that were most and least likely to produce nuclear weapons:
It was estimated that Israel would have its first nuclear devices by 1965 – 1967 with the first crude aircraft-deliverable weapon being produced about one year after the first test device. It was also believed that the United Arab Republic (a short-lived state formed by the union of Egypt and Syria in 1958) would be the most likely to develop a nuclear device to offset Israel’s program. Here are the pages showing the assessment of Israel’s nuclear capabilities very early on in the process:
Lastly, as discussed earlier in this posting, here is a 1960s-vintage satellite photo of the Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona in the Negev Desert:
…and here is an archival declassified photo of the Dimona complex:
In closing, it is interesting to note that in Mr. Netanyahu’s recent disclosure about Iran’s nuclear program, he used this slide:
From what we can see from the early history of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, it appears that it takes a liar to know a liar.
In part 2 of this posting, I will take a look at more recent developments in Israel’s quest for nuclear weapons and examine various assessments of its current capabilities.
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