How Israel Became a Nuclear Power

BYEMMA CLAIRE FOLEY

Israel’s nuclear program is its worst-kept secret. It was made possible through the support of Western nations like France and has thrived due to a cynical attitude toward nonproliferation that has made the world more dangerous.

An Israeli soldier rides in a tank near the border with Gaza on October 14, 2023, near Sderot, Israel. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Israel’s nuclear weapons program has been an open secret for over fifty years. Declassified documents and the wider availability of satellite imagery has largely been responsible for revealing the extent of the nation’s nuclear program. So too has the courage of whistleblowers such as Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician who exposed his country’s covert program and was subsequently drugged and kidnapped by Mossad agents in Italy before being secretly tried and sentenced to eighteen years in prison in 1986.

Yet the United States and other nuclear-armed states, as well as a broad range of bodies responsible for monitoring arms proliferation, continue to maintain a policy of not publicly acknowledging the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

These norms of institutional secrecy are surprisingly powerful and far-reaching. US government employees have been fired for referring to Israeli nuclear weapons. Even Wikipedia’s page on the subject uses circuitous language to refer to their existence. (The page is locked to edits from almost all contributors.) This approach is effective: a 2021 poll suggested that more Americans believed that Iran has nuclear weapons than that Israel does, when the reality is the opposite.

This wall of silence has proven remarkably porous. During the early days of Israel’s war on Gaza, government officials openly entertained the possibility of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and figures within the US military think tank circuit have wondered whether Israel’s secrecy is doing it more harm than good.

Conventional wisdom about the strategic importance of possessing nuclear weapons is that there’s no reason to have one if you don’t tell anyone. Intimidation is as much a part of deterrence as use. If no one suspects you can respond to an attack with the overwhelming force of a nuclear counterattack, what’s to make them think twice?

But Hezbollah’s continued assault on northern Israel, which has thus far led to the evacuation of over ninety thousand people, gives lie to the notion that possession of nuclear weapons offers complete protection. In a recent speech, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, made it clear that if Israel were to cross what it considers to be red lines, there would be no target within the country safe from a retaliatory response. It is therefore not clear that Israel’s nuclear weapons are on their own preventing it from being attacked in a way that threatens its existence. Israel’s relationship with the United States has, however, afforded it a range of impressive offensive and defensive nonnuclear capabilities, backed up by the even larger looming threat of US military involvement, which it is actively using.

Were the US to enforce its own policies consistently, Israel’s status as a state in possession of nuclear weapons would directly threaten its access to aid. The Glenn Amendment to the US Arms Export Control Act explicitly prohibits arms assistance to and mandates sanctions on countries that have, as Israel did in 1979, tested a nuclear weapon after 1977. But the fact that its nuclear weapons program continues to command this kind of bizarre deference illuminates the forces driving nuclear proliferation around the world.

The Forces Behind Proliferation

Scrupulous nonacknowledgment of Israeli nuclear weapons in the present day is part of the United States’ general position of aiding Israeli military endeavors, regardless of the financial or strategic cost. But the reason Israel has nuclear weapons in the first place has less to do with its relationship with the United States and more to do with the geopolitical forces that have driven proliferation since America first dropped the bomb on Japan.

The program that produced Israel’s nuclear weapons is as old as the state itself. As Avner Cohen details in Israel and the Bomb, a nuclear program was discussed by Israel’s leaders practically from the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, took an intense personal interest in nuclear technologies in particular and science and technology as foundations of modern state power in general.Hezbollah’s continued assault on northern Israel gives lie to the notion that possession of nuclear weapons offers complete protection.

Already in 1949, Israel was conducting exploratory research for potential uranium deposits in the Negev, a desert region in the country’s south. When these proved inadequate, it developed techniques for producing usable nuclear material from the relatively poor resources at its disposal, before turning to the United States as the potential source of the raw materials necessary to jump-start a nuclear program.

But in the immediate postwar years, the United States was unwilling to provide the necessary material without guarantees from Israel that the country’s leaders saw as undesirably inhibiting. Israel instead turned to other small countries with nuclear programs at different stages of development: France and Norway, two of only three European countries in the early 1950s operating nuclear reactors.

Israel and France shared a set of geopolitical interests. Both opposed the government of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The French, motivated by neocolonial idealism, took issue with Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal, and Israel of course felt threatened by Nasser’s Arab nationalism.

Skepticism about the possibility that the US nuclear umbrella could actually offer security guarantees also motivated nations like France to advance a Gaullist policy of strategic autonomy. This meant encouraging nuclear proliferation where doing so would secure the broader geopolitical interests of declining powers.

Nonproliferation Amid Great-Power Rivalry

In the present, the United States actively works to shield the Israeli nuclear weapons program from criticism as well as public knowledge. As with France’s hostility to a Nasser-led anti-Western order, the Israeli-US alliance is strongly motivated by fear of Iran, or any other anti-American state, developing its own nuclear program. Yet Israel’s nuclear weapons, along with the substantial, long-term support among a certain segment of the US political class for war with Iran, are two very powerful factors driving Iran to develop its own nuclear weapon.

At present, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, though experts believe that it currently maintains the capability to quickly develop them. President Barack Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal limited Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon and imposed a regime of inspections and oversight which provided assurance to other countries that it was not developing nuclear weapons. But Israel opposed the deal on the grounds that it did not go far enough to preclude the possibility that Iran might one day develop a nuclear weapon — a similar kind of all-or-nothing approach to the one that informed the Donald Trump administration’s decision to exit the agreement in 2018.

As Israel’s war on Gaza continues and expands outward into the broader region, it seems it may only be a matter of time before Iran finally does develop a nuclear weapon. After its recent large-scale rocket attacks against Israel, Iran announced that it might reverse its current voluntary commitment to not developing nuclear weapons should Israel retaliate by hitting its nuclear facilities. It goes without saying that this would make the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran much more dangerous, giving even low-level incidents the potential to escalate to dramatic and destructive new heights.The United States actively works to shield the Israeli nuclear weapons program from criticism as well as public knowledge.

In effect, unwillingness to commit to nuclear nonproliferation has led to nuclear proliferation. This explains why Saudi Arabia has in recent years betrayed nuclear ambitions. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stated in US press outlets that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear weapon if Iran did so. Yet rather than treating this open disregard for stated US policy as a serious limit on US-Saudi relations, the United States has been pushing for a so-called “normalization” deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel — including a stipulation of a “credible path to a Palestinian state.” Saudi Arabia, in turn, wants the United States to provide it with nuclear technology — ostensibly, of course, for a power program.

The dilemma for America is that whatever interest it does have in nuclear nonproliferation must be balanced against its broader commitment to global hegemony. The latter would be undermined if China, which it now sees as its key competitor, stepped in to provide technical support to fledgling nuclear programs, as it has done with Saudi Arabia. Last year, China sent one of its engineering companies to conduct surveys of the Gulf monarchy’s uranium deposits, although it seems unlikely that these deposits could support a nuclear program of any size.

Nuclear weapons experts have called for safeguards that could prevent the development of a Saudi nuclear weapons program. Yet unlike in the case of Israel’s search for nuclear material, the threat of safeguards doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to the kingdom’s openly stated nuclear ambitions. It sometimes seems that U.S. nuclear weapons policy in 2024 is based on a tacit acceptance of its powerlessness over global nuclear weapons politics. Rather than trying to prevent proliferation, America has been forced to settle for the role of being the primary nuclear patron where it can.

Existential Threats

Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons has been largely irrelevant to the ongoing war in Gaza. The country’s overwhelming conventional capabilities have granted it superiority on the battlefield, at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. But possession of nuclear weapons reinforces the worldview that underlies Israel’s political calculations (and to some extent, those of every nuclear-armed country): that its existence is constantly threatened, and it is only rational for it to possess the means of responding to such threats with unlimited force.

It is the states with the most nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States, that most assiduously cling to the logic that weapons of mass destruction are the only safeguard against existential threats. Both have consistently bypassed opportunities to deescalate the very real, immediate risks to human safety and civilization that the continued existence of nuclear weapons poses. In doing so, they’ve set a powerful precedent for every other country in the world to uphold nuclear weapons as the only real guarantor of security.

Without a real commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in global politics by the states that can certainly afford it, this de facto policy encourages nuclear proliferation. Israel’s well-defended status as a nuclear power that need not even announce itself is not an exception, but an example to other states thinking of going nuclear.