What do we know about Israel’s nuclear weapons?
Israel is believed to have between 80 to 400 nuclear warheads, with the first completed around late 1966 or early 1967.
This estimate would position Israel as the sixth nation globally to develop nuclear weapons. Delivery methods for these weapons are believed to include aircraft, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and the Jericho series ballistic missiles.
Israel consistently reiterates the cryptic refrain that it will "not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East". The nation has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) despite international calls to join.
Recently, the issue gained renewed attention when Israel's Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, suggested that using nuclear weapons against Gaza would be an option. He was suspended soon afterwards.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also recently said that the issue of Israel's nuclear arsenal should remain a focus on the global agenda.
He accused Western nations of aiding and overlooking alleged crimes against humanity by Israel in Gaza, where over 14,000 people have been killed in indiscriminate bombardment.
History and implications
Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, justifying this by saying it was to prevent a recurrence of the Nazi Holocaust.
In 1949, a unit of the Israeli army's science corps, HEMED GIMMEL, started a geological survey in the Naqab (Negev) desert, initially searching for petroleum but also for uranium sources, crucial for nuclear development.
In the same year, Israel started funding nuclear physics students to study abroad, including looking at the study of nuclear chain reactions.
By 1952, Israel Atomic Energy Commission chief Ernst David Bergmann sought nuclear collaboration with France, and laid the foundation for future French-Israeli cooperation. This partnership included Israeli scientists' involvement in France's nuclear facilities and knowledge sharing, particularly with those with experience on the Manhattan Project.
The relationship culminated in 1957, with France agreeing to build a nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant in Israel, a decision influenced by geopolitical factors and mutual scientific benefits.
This partnership was solidified through secret agreements, ostensibly concentrating on peaceful use of atomic technology but with implications for weapons development.
However, the partnership faced challenges when Charles de Gaulle became president of France and French assistance to Israel concluded by 1966.
❝Irresponsible remarks, completely unacceptable❞— Anadolu English (@anadoluagency) November 23, 2023
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency reiterated the call on all countries in the Middle East, including Israel, to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons https://t.co/jUiMXtl3Rr pic.twitter.com/sL8H3cUYOz
Tensions with the US escalated, particularly under President John F. Kennedy, over Israel's nuclear ambitions, leading to diplomatic confrontations and demands for reactor inspections. Despite these pressures, Israel managed to navigate these challenges, maintaining its nuclear programme's secrecy.
Simultaneously, Britain and Norway also covertly aided Israel's nuclear ambitions, including shipments of restricted materials and heavy water, critical for reactor operations.
The Dimona reactor achieved criticality in 1962, and by 1966 Israel had reportedly developed its first operational nuclear weapon, marking the beginning of its full-scale nuclear weapons production.
The exact costs of Israel's nuclear program are unknown, but substantial foreign aid and Mossad's covert operations played crucial roles.
Israeli defector Mordechai Vanunu dramatically revealed the extent of the nuclear programme in 1986, and he was kidnapped by Mossad agents and brought back to Israel, serving long years in prison.
By the mid-2000s, estimates of Israel's nuclear arsenal varied widely, with speculation about uranium enrichment capabilities adding to these uncertainties.
Despite occasional statements by other countries expressing concern about Israel's nuclear capabilities, there has been little pressure on Israel to declare its nuclear activities or open up its facilities for inspection, let alone to destroy its weapons.
The international community's approach to nuclear proliferation exhibits notable disparities, especially when comparing the cases of Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.
Israel, despite widespread belief in its possession of nuclear weapons, has never publicly confirmed this and enjoys a unique position of strategic ambiguity. It does not face the same level of scrutiny or sanctions imposed on other nations.
In contrast, Iran, whose nuclear program has raised global concerns about potential weaponisation, has been subject to rigorous inspections, strict sanctions, and intense diplomatic negotiations under frameworks like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Pakistan, having openly conducted nuclear tests in 1998, is often viewed through the lens of regional security dynamics, particularly its rivalry with India, and faces a distinct set of international concerns and regulatory measures.