Why does Israel have nuclear weapons

Israel's atomic bombs, the open secret

Israel has a veritable nuclear force. To this day, Jerusalem refuses to admit possession of atomic bombs and has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

David Ben Gurion, Israel's first head of government, Shimon Peres, today's president, and Ernst David Bergmann, a nuclear researcher and chemist from Germany, are the three men who made Israel a nuclear state. Just a few years after the founding of the state, they set their sights on the ambitious, expensive project. During the persuasion, Bergmann argued in favor of nuclear power for peaceful use.

Ben Gurion called the then 30-year-old Peres to the Ministry of Defense and charged him with overseeing the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. Secretly, the two of them aimed straight at the bomb: “We know from Ben Gurion's closest advisers that he suffered from the nightmare of a second Holocaust during these years, this time by the Arabs,” writes US journalist Seymour M. Hersh in “Atomic Power Israel ". "Many Israelis who survived the Holocaust were convinced that there was no alternative to the bomb."


To have or not to have

In the rhetoric of politicians, whether or not to have the bomb decided the fate of the Jewish state. Not for the last time should an arc be struck between nuclear programs and the Holocaust: Ex-Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified Israel's attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 with the fact that there would have been "a second Holocaust in the history of the Jewish people" had it not been for the reactor been destroyed.

Today, Israel is “master of its own fate,” said Netanyahu, signaling that a preventive strike against the Iranian nuclear research facilities is conceivable without the blessing of the White House, if necessary.

Israel has always pursued a policy of fogging in order to keep the construction of a nuclear facility secret from the world, including the USA, which has been successful for decades. “The secret was by no means closely guarded,” says the Israeli writer Amos Elon. "Numerous Israeli scientists knew about the project," and wealthy Jews at home and abroad were asked to contribute to the funding.

Elon also has an anecdote up his sleeve: at the end of the 1950s, an acquaintance asked the then Israeli finance minister and later Prime Minister Levy Eschkol straight out whether Israel had the bomb. Eshkol replied that he couldn't say anything about it - but then fell into Yiddish (Eshkol came from the Ukraine) and said: "Oh, we're very pregnant."

Some of the know-how and equipment came from France. Both countries shared common interests, and, writes Hersh, many French nuclear researchers fought in the Resistance during the war and had sympathy for Israel. Israel's reactor in Dimona in the Negev desert was built on the model of the now decommissioned French Marcoule nuclear power plant.


75 to 400 atomic bombs

According to the Israeli-French agreement, the thermal output of the plant was supposed to be 24 megawatts - in fact, it was much more efficient and capable of throwing off 22 kg of plutonium annually. "That would be enough for four atomic bombs with the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs," writes Hersh. Speculations about Israel's current nuclear potential range between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads, with at least 100 warheads, perhaps even 200, mentioned as early as 1986 after the revelations by the nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu. A report by the BBC states that Israel also has around 35 tactical and strategic hydrogen bombs and corresponding delivery systems for short and long-range missiles.

In order to cover up the real intent of the construction project in Dimona, there was talk of a manganese processing plant or an agricultural research plant in the first few years. The French and Israelis agreed on secrecy. A reactor tank that Israel imported from Paris was allegedly declared to customs as a seawater desalination plant. The illegal delivery of four tons of heavy water was handled by the French Air Force itself. According to a report by the CIA, Israel began producing nuclear weapons in 1968.

Since the Vanunu affair at the latest, it has been an open secret that Israel has atomic bombs. Vanunu worked in Dimona until his dismissal in 1985. His revelations about the nuclear research program were published in the London Sunday Times in October next year. A week earlier, Mossad agents had lured the nuclear spy into a trap. Vanunu was later sentenced to 18 years in solitary confinement without parole.

Notwithstanding the "publicity" that was unfortunate for Israel, Jerusalem continued to adhere to the strategy of opacity. "The fog that surrounds this question," said Shimon Peres, "strengthens our deterrence." It was said in Jerusalem that they did not want to be the first country in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons. Israel also never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Observers rated it as a “slip-up” when ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert told journalists in December that Israel was one of the nuclear states. The government in Tehran is publicly threatening Israel with annihilation, said Olmert, and asked: "Can you see that on the same level if you are looking for nuclear weapons like America, France, Israel and Russia?"

At a glance

Israel's nuclear arsenal. Speculations about Israel's nuclear potential today range between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads. As early as 1986, the nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu spoke of at least 100 or even 200 warheads. A report by the BBC states that Israel also has around 35 tactical and strategic hydrogen bombs and corresponding delivery systems for short and long-range missiles. Israel has a policy of obfuscation with regard to its nuclear forces - the government does not admit possession of nuclear weapons, this policy is intended to increase the deterrent effect. Countries like Saudi Arabia have long called for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. With this step, Iran is to be urged to move away from its nuclear program, at the same time Saudi Arabia's proposal is a signal to Israel.

("Die Presse", print edition, April 14, 2012)