Country Profiles: Israel

Israel flagNPT: not signed
CTBT: 1996 (signed but not ratified)

Current number of nuclear warheads:
Strategic: 0
Tactical: ~200
Total: ~200

Last Updated: 4/5/11

Israel has never formally admitted that it possesses nuclear weapons. When asked, government officials invoke what they call a policy of opacity, repeating the formula that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

However, many experts believe that Israel’s nuclear research program began with the founding of the country in 1948. Weapons research accelerated under Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1955 when the Israeli government concluded a security agreement with France. Israel, France, and Britain jointly invaded Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. After the failure of that effort, France decided to embark on a nuclear weapons program and to aid Israel in its program as well. In 1958, Israel began construction on the Dimona reactor in the Negev desert. Despite decreased French support under President Charles de Gaulle, Israel completed the reactor and probably had a basic nuclear capability, if not an actual weapon, by 1967. In 1969, senior Nixon administration officials considered confronting Israel over the issue of nuclear weapons but President Nixon declined, deciding Washington could live with an undeclared Israeli bomb.  The U.S. began to tacitly accept Israel as a nuclear country and stopped pressuring Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (To this day, Israel has not signed the NPT.) By most accounts, Israel has continued to develop its nuclear arsenal by greatly increasing its stockpile, pursuing missile technology, developing miniature nuclear weapons, and possibly by building thermonuclear weapons. Israel may have conducted a nuclear test jointly with South Africa in the Indian Ocean in 1979, and it has obtained materials through numerous covert channels.

It has acted several times to prevent other Middle Eastern nations from developing nuclear capability, most notably when it bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and Syria in 2007, after evidence surfaced that North Korean personnel were at a suspected Syrian nuclear site. In 2010, reports in The New York Times claimed that Israel had obtained centrifuges in its Dimona reactor identical to those used in the Iran enrichment facilities at Natanz and tested the “Stuxnet” virus on them. The Stuxnet virus is a computer worm intended to ultimately destroy nuclear centrifuges while simultaneously allowing the centrifuges to maintain the appearance that nothing is wrong with their production capabilities.

Israel’s stance of denial was weakened in 1986, when Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, leaked classified information and photographs to a London newspaper. He was arrested in Rome and sentenced to eighteen years in prison, eventually being released in 2004. Using the information he released, experts concluded that Israel had a large arsenal at that time, comprising perhaps 100 to 200 warheads.

Although Israel has not used its nuclear weapons, it has been on nuclear alert several times. During the Yom Kippur War, which began on October 6, 1973, Israeli officials put their weapons on alert and allegedly considered using them, at least until they realized that the Egyptians and Syrians had limited objectives in attacking. When Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the Gulf War, Israel put its weapons on alert again and allegedly was prepared to use them if Hussein put chemical warheads on his missiles.

Israel’s delivery arsenal is broad and well developed. It has Jericho I and Jericho II missiles with ranges of 400 km and 1,500 km, respectively, and may have a Jericho III missile with a range of up to 6,500 km, as well as Lance missiles. Israel has purchased U.S.-origin Harpoon cruise missiles with a range of 120 kilometers, and reports suggest that Israel has modified the Harpoon system to deliver nuclear payload. Israel also has numerous varieties of bombers, including the F-15, the F-16, the F-4E, and the Phantom 2000. Estimates for Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile range from 75 to 400. These include both strategic and tactical weapons, including nuclear landmines probably based on a neutron bomb and nuclear artillery shells.
In recent years, Israel’s leaders, under regional as well as domestic pressure, have been somewhat more open about their nuclear capacity. The topic of nuclear capability was openly discussed for the first time in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in 2000. More recently, in an interview broadcasted on German television in 2006, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert included Israel in a list among other nuclear weapon nations which some perceived as a confirmation of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, in what was dubbed a “nuclear slip” by spectators who thought it seemed inadvertent. However, no major change in Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity seems to be imminent.

In response to the perceived threat of a potential Iranian nuclear bomb, reports surfaced in 2009 that Israel was beginning to strengthen its offshore second-strike capabilities, increasing its number of “Dolphin-class” attack submarines to six, a submarine developed and constructed for the Israeli navy by the German manufacturer Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG. The submarines have the capacity to carry up to 16 surface-to-surface missiles or torpedoes, have ten bow torpedo tubes, and are believed to have been outfitted to carry nuclear weapons.
While Israel remains outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, and is a participant country of both the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the Proliferation Security Initiative. It also consistently votes in favor of an annual General Assembly resolution calling for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East. In an October 2010 explanation of vote on the resolution, Israel stated that “[Israel] remains committed to the vision of the Middle East evolving into a zone free of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapons as well as Ballistic Missiles, and we believe that, instead of highlighting different positions, there is a fundamental need for building confidence and creating a common vision for all the states of the Middle East . . . Israel has always maintained that these issues, as well as regional security-related issues, could only be realistically addressed within the regional context.”

Aviva Kushner


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