If reports are accurate, Israel is one of the largest nuclear powers in the world, possessing somewhere between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. But unlike the other states that have nuclear weapons, Israel has never confirmed it even has the technology to build a single bomb.
What is known about the Israeli program comes, primarily, from two sources: a nuclear technician who leaked the existence of the program to the London Times in 1986 (which landed the 31-year-old in prison for 18 years) and the 1998 book "Israel and the Bomb" by Israeli scholar Avner Cohen. These two sources, coupled with piecemeal intelligence and reporting, outline a massive nuclear program that has developed some of the most sophisticated nuclear weapons, on par with France, Britain and China.
Cohen, citing American, Israeli and French documents and officials, outlines the birth of the Israeli program, which began within years of the country's 1948 founding. By 1949, a special military unit was scouring the country seeking a natural source for uranium.
In 1952, Israel formalized its nuclear effort by creating the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.
"Its chairman, Ernst David Bergmann, had long advocated an Israeli bomb as the best way to ensure 'that we shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter,'" reports globalsecurity.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan defense and security research organization.
Led by young Israeli politician and future Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Israel entered into negotiations with France to begin developing its nuclear capacity. A small research reactor was built in the early 1950s, but military crises in the region delayed any larger effort for much of the decade.
in 1958, according to Cohen, Israel, with French cooperation,
began building a large reactor near the desert town of Dimona.
The reactor was originally supposed to generate approximately
26 megawatts of energy, but later estimates say the facility has
been boosted to create either a 75 or 150 megawatt output. The
construction took place in absolute secrecy. The United States
did not confirm the existence of the reactor until late 1960.
At that time, American diplomats pressed the Israelis to acknowledge the reactor's existence and allow inspections of the facility. But American officials also decided to deal with Israel's efforts out of the public eye.
"We do not believe ... that extended public speculation regarding Israeli atomic energy program will advance the interests of the United States, and we have taken and will continue to take any feasible measures to damp down speculation on this matter and in particular to avoid giving occasion for renewed suspicions and possible undesirable reactions in the Arab world," Assistant Secretary of State William Macomber wrote in January 1961.
Thus started the American policy of diplomatic pressure, but public silence on the issue of Israel's nuclear development. It also marked the beginning of the Israeli strategy that Cohen calls "nuclear opacity," the knowledge that Israel is a nuclear state, but the size and extent of its effort is shrouded in a diplomatically helpful fog.
U.S. inspectors visited the Dimona site beginning in 1961, but never discovered a military installation at the reactor. The technician, Mordechai Vanunu, would tell the world 25 years later that the facility was there, but buried deep in bunkers beneath the facilities American scientists inspected. The Dimona reactor went operational in 1964.
Under the guidance of Bergmann and Peres the weapons program continued throughout the early 1960s. As Israel braced for the 1967 Six Days War, Cohen writes that Israeli forces "improvised" two nuclear weapons.
A 1996 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council seems to confirm Cohen's finding.
"A 1968 U.S. CIA National Intelligence Estimate said that Israel had nuclear weapons. This assessment was based on evidence provided by the U.S. National Security Council that the Israeli Air Force had practiced bombing runs that could have only been for delivery of nuclear weapons," Thomas Cochran wrote in the NRDC report.
Israel reportedly agreed to give nuclear technology and support to South Africa in the 1970s in exchange for a large supply of uranium. The two countries are also thought to have combined for a nuclear weapons-related test off the South African coast in 1979.
Throughout the late 1960s and into the mid 1980s, intelligence reports indicated that Israelis had "gone nuclear" developing, by some estimates, up to 20 nuclear bombs.
those estimates and the world's view of the Israeli nuclear program
changed dramatically on Oct. 5, 1986. That Sunday, the Times of
London published the account of a laid-off Israeli nuclear technician.
Vanunu outlined a nuclear program far more advanced than any previously
According to Vanunu, Israel did not possess 20 nuclear bombs, but instead boasted an arsenal of at least 100, but perhaps as many as 200 warheads. Additionally, he said that Israel had the designs and ability to build thermo-nuclear weapons -- bombs 10 times stronger than basic atomic bombs.
The report, which included photos Vanunu had taken, ran more than 5,000 words long, and detailed the operation at Dimona and the scope of Israel's long-suspected nuclear program.
"Mordechai Vanunu's testimony, which has been checked with leading nuclear experts on both sides of the Atlantic, shows that one of the world's worst kept secrets is, in fact, one of the best kept confidences of the century," The Times wrote. "Far from being a nuclear pigmy, the evidence is that Israel must now be regarded a major nuclear power, ranking sixth in the atomic league table, with a stockpile of at least 100 nuclear weapons and with the components and ability to build atomic, neutron and hydrogen bombs."
Within weeks Vanunu was arrested and charged with reveling state secrets. Widely viewed by Israelis as a traitor, Vanunu would spend 18 years in prison, but the world's assessment of Israel's military capability was forever changed.
In April 2004, Vanunu was released from prison after serving 18 years for his leak to the British paper.
Although he said he was happy to be free, he explained to public radio's Democracy Now! program why he had decided to make public the country's long-held secret effort.
"The main points were: one, the amount of Israel's nuclear weapons, how many Israel had, that no one could predict or know, including the CIA. They were thinking about a number like 10 or 15. But I came out with a number between 150 to 200," Vanunu told Amy Goodman in his first interview with an American broadcaster in August 2004. "Second point is no one here could predict or know that Israel was involved or started producing the hydrogen bomb -- the most advanced and powerful atomic bomb that can kill millions of people. And that has no justification -- no need for Israel's existence. They don't need hydrogen bomb."
Vanunu, who converted to Christianity, has been rearrested once, but continues to live under house arrest at St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem.
Despite Vanunu's testimony and Cohen's book, international efforts to control or at least monitor the Israeli program have achieved little success. Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not agreed to any oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei visited Israel in the summer of 2004, but found Israel would only address its nuclear policy in the context of an overall political peace process.
"During the director general's recent visit to Israel, the Israeli officials stated that they would consider the application of agency safeguards only in the context of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region which they would consider favorably in the context of the peace process and as part of phase II of the 'road map to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,' developed by the Quartet Group (of the European Union, the Russian Federation, the United Nations and the United States of America), which foresees a 'revival of multilateral engagement on issues including ... arms control'," read an August 2004 IAEA report on the Middle East.